Mothers on Campus: University of Mary Creates Community to Empower Young Women to Choose Life While Pursuing Degrees

One Catholic school in North Dakota is stepping up to offer childcare, housing and community to young single moms who are students.

The University of Mary aids single moms who are students. Above, mom Katie eats with her baby, Lucia, on her lap in the company of fellow students. Below, another young mother, Angelina Hanft, holds baby Lucia alongside Katie; and both moms smile with their babies, Lucia and Auggie.
The University of Mary aids single moms who are students. Above, mom Katie eats with her baby, Lucia, on her lap in the company of fellow students. Below, another young mother, Angelina Hanft, holds baby Lucia alongside Katie; and both moms smile with their babies, Lucia and Auggie. (photo: Courtesy photos / Fabrizio Alberdi/EWTN News In Depth )

Editor's Note: This article is part of a special series celebrating Catholic universities and colleges and their outreach to students in a post-Roe world. Find more stories here. 

BISMARCK, N.D. — Amid the crowd of college students and faculty on campus at the University of Mary, two babies are a common sight. The students wave to them in the halls, volunteer to babysit them while their moms are in class, and share meals with them in a campus restaurant. 

One professor at the Bismarck, North Dakota, university calls baby Lucia, with her dark pigtails and feisty personality, his favorite student, and another professor’s wife loves to watch baby Augustine during review sessions. 

“The students here, they all love babies,” Katie, Lucia’s mother, told the Register, adding that it’s “comforting” that when babysitting plans fall through and she brings Lucia to class, “everyone in the room is just happy to have her.” She credits the community with giving her the confidence to return to school and work on finishing her degree after her unplanned pregnancy. 

She and Angelina Hanft are the first two participants in the St. Teresa of Calcutta Community for Mothers, a program that the Benedictine school launched in January. It provides childcare, room and board, and other assistance to women facing unexpected pregnancies as they pursue their degrees. 

Jerome Richter, the executive vice president and chief of staff at the University of Mary, told the Register that the idea for the program began in 2019, when a Catholic couple who offered financial support to the school asked if “something more” could be done to offer “assistance to a young mother who finds herself in this situation to receive a college degree.” 

Richter said that initial conversation caused the university to research and prepare a program for these moms. The planned launch was delayed due to the pandemic in 2020, but he pointed out the program’s providential timing, as it started shortly after the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade in June. 

He noted that other Catholic colleges have also developed programs to assist young women in these situations. One example of this is Belmont Abbey College’s MiraVia maternity home and outreach center, which offers free housing and assistance to pregnant and new mothers among the student body and surrounding community. Ave Maria University’s Campus Care initiative offers babysitting and other resources to pregnant and parenting students. The Catholic University of America recently expanded supports like babysitting and lactation rooms for pregnant and parenting students as part of its Guadalupe Project. 

University of Mary’s program offers free room and board along with free childcare. 

“They are still responsible for tuition,” Richter said. “We can help them to find the necessary programs. There’s federal aid; there’s federal loans. They’re not walking away from this with a free education; they’re walking away with an education that they’ve earned by working hard, but at the same time greatly supported by those that are around.”

Another feature of the program is that the “young moms and little ones are living right on campus within the residence halls.” He said that through this arrangement, “there’s so much that can be learned not only by the young moms, but others also on campus if they’re open to it.”

The women are a part of the school’s year-round campus program, which allows students to get their bachelor’s degree in 2.6 years by providing summer semesters. Richter said this is particularly helpful because they don’t lose resources over the summer months and obtain their degree more quickly as their baby gets older so they “have that support to be able to help to raise them.” 

According to Richter, the school is prepared to have as many as 20 young mothers, either pregnant or with their children, join the community with hopes to expand that in the future.


Building Confidence and Faith

Katie, who asked that her last name be withheld, was originally a freshman at University of Mary in 2020. During the fall of 2021, she discovered she was pregnant with Lucia while she was studying abroad with the school in Rome. 

“I was pretty sick and it just shot my confidence down that I could go back to school,” she told the Register. “If I couldn’t even handle being pregnant and going to school, how could I do it with a baby? I was just so nervous.”

She said that her fellow students and professors in her social-work program gave her confidence, telling her that “they would do whatever they could to help me go back to school.” She already planned to return to school knowing she could make at least one more semester work, but while living with a family in town, she “knew it wasn’t going to feel like I was still having the college experience” to attend “school during the day and then go back and be without that whole community.” 

Katie continued the fall 2022 semester and then started with the St. Teresa of Calcutta Community of Mothers in the spring. When she was able to move back to campus as part of the program, it made a huge difference. Lucia was born last May.

“The commuting was such a big deal for me, and I didn’t realize it until I moved here and I could walk up the stairs to my class and the babysitter could show up five minutes before class,” she said, adding that, “any time of the night, I can walk upstairs and go to the chapel and go to adoration. I just love it.”

Regina Suprenant, a sophomore in social work and Catholic studies, is among the volunteer babysitters in the program. She told the Register that the experience has been “really rewarding,” adding it has been great “to be able to practically do something for the pro-life movement.” She said she finds Katie inspiring, saying she loves to see her dedication in the social-work program.

The babysitters are not only available for classes, but also for campus activities so Katie has a social life within the campus community. 

“One of my professors says that Lucia is his favorite student,” she said, “so whenever we bring her to class, he’s very happy — and that goes for most of the professors.” 

When nursing students babysit, they’ll sometimes provide her with updates about Lucia’s developmental milestones, which she appreciates as an additional perk.

James Link, an associate professor of psychology and the Catholic studies endowed chair, teaches one of Katie’s classes. He called the program a “win-win” that helps her to “get her education and to take part in not just classes, but in a lot of the activities in the community, to grow in her faith and to be with her daughter.” It also provides “the community an opportunity to grow in their servant leadership.” He said the experience is “a wonderful gift to the university.” 

Link, who has seven children himself, told Katie early on that she should feel comfortable bringing Lucia to class. He said Katie has “done a great job of being able to respond to the situation”; and in her social-work major, “that’s going to bear great fruit in her future career and how she interacts with other people” facing difficult circumstances.

When she first came to the University of Mary, Katie said she “did not have a super strict faith life,” but over time on campus, she grew in friendship with other students who would invite her to adoration and daily Mass. 

She said the school “has a way of giving people a kind of life in their faith and making it very meaningful.” 

She and Hanft have become close over the semester. They have also spent time with couples working in Residence Life on campus who have two babies who are the same age as Lucia. Katie said they talk about “the new things that the kids are doing and tell each other about struggles or ‘mom guilt,’” and it’s nice to have others who relate to these struggles. 

She encouraged young mothers who “don’t know what the next step could be” to consider the program, saying it “has just been such a blessing in so many people’s lives, but mine especially.” 


Strength in Friendship

Angelina Hanft came across the program after hearing the university’s president, Msgr. James Shea, talking about it on the radio. She was working on her nursing degree in Texas and strategizing about her next steps after discovering she was pregnant. Her mother, who was also caring for her grandparents, would have been her sole resource for childcare.

Joining the program “was definitely a light at the end of the tunnel for me,” she told the Register. Her son, Augustine, was born last December, and she flew out to North Dakota just three weeks later. She said the adjustment to a new state and the school’s challenging nursing program was difficult three weeks postpartum, but the professors and the student babysitters were very helpful in the process. 

One concern she had going in was that it might be hard to make friends coming in as a transfer student, but she found the community very supportive, and Auggie has also helped her develop friendships because everybody loves him being his “little cute self” around campus. 

Katie also welcomed her into her circle of friends and was her “rock especially in the beginning” who “would always go out of her way to help me.” One friend told Hanft, “I never thought that this would be a part of my college experience, but I just love it. I love being able to see my friends grow into mothers and take care of a baby while also going to school.”

James Peliska, a professor of biochemistry and chemistry and a fellow in Catholic studies at the university, is among Hanft’s professors. He told the Register that while the program does offer opportunities for the young mothers, he also sees them “giving back to us in so many ways,” as their presence with the babies “creates a really beautiful environment that is such a strong witness of humility, of strength, of courage.”

Early in the semester, he recalled that Hanft introduced him to Auggie and “brought him over to me during lunch.” He credited her comfort in becoming a part of the community to “the culture we have here, this Catholic-Christian, Benedictine culture that we’ve worked so hard to develop.” His wife loves to watch Auggie during the review sessions ahead of exams.

He said Hanft is “very focused and appreciative of this opportunity, and it shows in how seriously she takes her studies.”

 He is “proud of her and what she has been able to do already in this short period of time.”

Hanft has a mental picture in her head of her in a graduation robe with Auggie, who will be 2 years old at commencement. 

“It’s definitely doable,” she said, adding, “Katie and I hope that our testimonies really bring more moms in, motivate them to just realize that it is possible. This university definitely builds you up and just carries you through the hard times with friendship.”


A ‘Mother Teresa Witness’

Msgr. Shea, a priest of the Diocese of Bismarck and president of the university since 2009, told the Register that, particularly after the Dobbs decision, pro-lifers should give a “Mother Teresa witness,” as she “would go into the direct care of the poorest of the poor,” and “that witness was irresistible, even to a secularizing world.” 

The pro-life movement needs that “strong and beautiful” witness, he contended, recognizing that “if I’m going to advocate for the protection of unborn lives, that means that I’m going to do everything that I can to support those lives once they’re born and the women who are generous enough to bring those lives into the fullness of light.” 

He said he is pleased with how the program has gone so far and said that even if it “strains our capacity in some way, that’s a good thing” because the pro-life cause “is high-stakes enough that it should bring us past the thresholds of our comfort and should cause us to have a kind of heroic generosity.” 

Maggie Popp, Mission for Life coordinator at the University of Mary, told the Register that seeing the young mothers in the community has “been really beautiful.” She coordinates volunteer babysitters for the program and has been serving as their residence director this semester. Her own son is close in age to Lucia, so she feels that she and the young women are “growing as mothers together.” 

There are plans to take a picture of Katie and Angelina at graduation with their babies and hang it in the hall to “show this legacy of women that, when they had a hiccup in their life, chose to persevere and chose to support not only themselves in their education, but then their baby, by seeking to pursue a degree and find a career.”

Lauretta Brown reported

from Bismarck, North Dakota.