Students with children

How single parents juggle coursework and kids.

click to enlarge "JUST START": Tomeka Oliver with her sons Rashawn (left) and Jalan Douglas at the student union at USF St. Pete. - Eric Snider
Eric Snider
"JUST START": Tomeka Oliver with her sons Rashawn (left) and Jalan Douglas at the student union at USF St. Pete.

Tomeka Olive has a lot more to worry about than just the coursework for her technical writing degree at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She's got two children to raise — all by herself.

"It's hard," said Tomeka Olive, 36. "I wish I would have got my education before having children."

To share what she has learned juggling college and single parenthood, Olive launched a website — singleparentsgroup.org — to share tips with single parents working their way through school. She also started the Saint Petersburg Single Parents Meetup as "a support system where we can learn from and help each other," Olive said. The Meetup group currently has 17 members, although not surprisingly, they rarely have time for face-to-face meetings.

An estimated 13 percent of college undergraduates are unmarried with one or more dependents, according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Educational Statistics' 2003-2004 report, the most recent data available. It is unknown what percentage attain their degree or how long it takes them to finish. Since bachelor's degree holders have more earning power than those with only a high-school diploma, however, even chipping away at a college degree is worth it in the long run.

"I didn't take college seriously until I had my son," said Christina Holloway, 31, who recently graduated with a visual communications degree from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Prior to becoming a mother, she dropped or failed many of her classes. Her desire to provide a better life for 7-year-old Hunter "was definitely a motivator" to get serious about her degree.

To make it to graduation, single-parent students have to be resourceful and tenacious, finding creative ways to support a small family and get through school. A work schedule restricted by classes and childcare can affect earning potential — an important consideration when you have extra mouths to feed. For single parents, already cash-strapped, the shaky economy threatens their ability to continue their education, said Sharon Coil, coordinator of Women on the Way. A program partly sponsored by St. Petersburg College's Clearwater campus, WOW offers support and resources to female students. Coil said 75 percent of the group's members are single mothers.

"The students I work with are always on the edge," Coil said. If a student's income is small enough she is more likely to qualify for need-based aid, but the smaller the income the more challenging it is to pay tuition and support a family. Most financial aid offered through school is need-based and must be available to all students. There are, however, some awards offered by groups such as Women in Leadership and Philanthropy, that give a preference to single mothers, according to Barbara Perkins, news coordinator at USF's Tampa campus. It couldn't hurt for students to mention their status as a single parent on any award application. Numerous websites offer guides for single parents seeking government grants, such as get-grants.org. But most of these guides charge shipping and handling fees not required for scholarships and grants available to the general student population.

Students can always seek help at their campus' financial aid office. But as any student knows, admissions and financial aid is only the first step. Once classes start, many single-parent students need a support structure. WOW's weekly meetings, called the Lunch Bunch series, focus on managing money, time and stress, maintaining healthy relationships and parenting tips. Members are able to pool child-care resources and help each other study. The Male Outreach Initiative, another SPC program that counts single father students among its members, offers support through workshops on financial aid and careers as well as a program to help single dads get started.

"A lot of times it is just having someone [to help]," Rod Davis, MOI's lead coordinator, said. "It's hard enough going to school as it is, but to have kids too (is even harder)."

Finding affordable childcare — necessary to do anything away from the kids — can also be an issue. The USF Family Center, located on the school's Tampa campus, offers part-time daycare to registered students for less than $10 per hour — with a $30 registration fee and if space is available — so they can attend classes without having to bear the expense of a full-time daycare bill. Unfortunately, not all campuses offer such a service. Holloway said she went to school part-time until Hunter started kindergarten and she was able to attend full time. Her mother, Paula Marston, watched Hunter when needed so she could study and work.

Over the years, Olive said she has had to drop out of college a few times in order to support herself and her sons, Rashawn, 10, and Jalan, 7. Through her experience she has "found creative ways to do things" to keep the rent paid and the lights on. When necessary, she gets financial assistance from community non-profit organizations like the Pinellas County Urban League, the Salvation Army and the Pinellas Opportunity Council. Each semester she takes as many classes as she can afford from working part-time at the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library on the USF St. Petersburg campus.

Despite the challenges, Olive has two words for single parents who want to better their lives by getting a college degree: "Just start." Take general education classes at first until they figure out what they want to do and how to balance college and parenthood.

As for single parents already struggling through college? "Stick to it," Holloway said. "The hard times will pay off. I'm glad I did it."

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