Mothers Living and Learning -- and Earning a Degree

OMAHA, Neb. — A stroll down one of the corridors of the College of St. Mary's Walsh Hall quickly reveals living quarters that are far from a typical university residence hall.

Elaborately decorated boxes with tiny slots for valentines adorn the entrance to each room. Crayons and play structures replace the pool tables and pop machines found in most dormitory lounges. A bright yellow rubber ducky or two might even be found in the community shower areas.

As part of Mothers Living and Learning — a program designed to enable single mothers to pursue a college degree — Walsh Hall is home to 28 women and their young children. The program provides year-round campus housing for women and their children under age 10.

It also includes community-building activities and educational demonstrations on parenting, car maintenance, nutrition, money management and the like.

According to Tara Mieras, director of resident life at the Omaha, Neb., women's college, many people question the existence of such a program at a Catholic institution.

But to Jared Goulding, assistant director of admissions at St. Mary of the Woods College near Terre Haute, Ind., such a program naturally flows from a faith-based school.

“An institution that has a religious background sees the world a little bit differently,” Goulding said. “It sees the importance of family and the growth of the human being in general.”

St. Mary of the Woods — the nation's oldest Catholic liberal arts college for women — opened a Student Mothers program in 1990.

Mieras said a common question is, “This is a Catholic college. Why are we supporting this?” In response, Mieras emphasizes that “what we're supporting is that these women are choosing life.”

Programs for single mothers in higher education prevent women from feeling forced to choose between the baby and the books, Mieras said. They also provide a better future for their children.

According to the National Center for Single Mothers and Higher Education at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa., female-headed households constitute only about 10% of all households, but at the same time they also account for nearly one-third of the poverty population, according to the book In Defense of Single Mothers by Nancy Dowd.

For most single mothers, the way to avoid joining these statistics lies in a college degree, Mieras said.

“In any way we can help women succeed, we want them to excel and gain leadership,” she said. “Studies have shown that with a degree these women can get better-paying jobs to support their children.”

Patty Richards-Eckleberry, a 35-year-old mother of two enrolled in the Omaha program, agreed. Although she left a high-paying job in office management to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a nurse practitioner, most of her classmates aren't so fortunate.

“A lot of us are underemployed,” Richards-Eckleberry said. “They're at that stage where they'll be making $7 to $8 an hour if they don't go back to school. It's a matter of providing for our children, and this is an opportunity for us to be able to do that.

“Without this program I couldn't have gone back to school.”

Mieras and Goulding said time is probably a single mother's biggest obstacle to reaching her goals.

“It's just all a matter of time,” Goulding said. “Once the child comes, the time just seems to disappear. The time to study, go to class, the alone time that we all need to keep the balance in life.”

For Richards-Eckleberry, the day begins at 5:20 a.m. She dresses her two sons, drives them to school and eats breakfast all before 7:30 a.m.

“There goes my day … class after class,” she said. “We get into our routine of dinner, baths and stories, and then the boys have to go to bed so I can study. There's no way I could've done this keeping up a home, a full-time job and school.”

The mothers also benefit from the support system created by living in a campus residence hall.

“If you ever have a problem there's always someone who's going through the same thing you are,” Richards-Eckleberry said. “If someone needs to study a little more, someone else will take the kids for a little while.”

The children benefit as well, she said.

“My 6-year-old now says he wants to live here forever,” she said. “There's always kids available for him to play with.”

“You form a kinship with these people,” she said. “They become an extension of your own family. I never had a sister before, but now I have a bunch. I've met some friends up here that I will probably have forever.”

In addition to the support of her fellow classmates, Richards-Eckleberry said the support of professors and school administrators has been crucial to her success.

“This is probably the hardest thing I've ever done,” she said. “I don't know if we could make it if they weren't there rooting us on and seeing in us things we didn't see in ourselves before we came here.”

Goulding said benefits continue long after the mothers receive their degrees.

“It's a legacy they can pass on to their children,” he said. “The kids can see the sacrifice Mom made, and it can inspire them when it's time for them to go to college.”

Kimberly Jansen writes from Lincoln, Nebraska.