Single parents balance family life and school


Kent State senior business management major DJ Smith assists her son with his homework during the university’s Literacy and Independence for Family Education (LIFE) Program study hours on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. 

Adriona Murphy

Cherrie Chavarria’s day starts at 5 a.m.: She wakes up, makes a cup of coffee and looks over her class assignments in order to prepare and plan for the long day ahead.

Then, she wakes up her children, makes them breakfast and gets her 13-year-old son on the bus at 7 a.m. before sitting down with her 15-year-old daughter — whom she homeschools — to go over her studies and give her guidance on what she will be doing that day.

Because Chavarria’s classes are in the evening, preventing her from being home in time for dinner with her children, she puts food together in a Crock-Pot before leaving the house for 1.5 hour-commute to Kent State’s main campus.

Chavarria, 44, is currently a junior special education major. She started her journey to higher education 20 years ago and graduated with her associate’s degree from Terra State Community College in Fremont, Ohio, last spring. She said earning her degree was one of her proudest moments.

“My kids were all there,” Chavarria said. “I think my oldest daughter cried more than I did though because she knew what I put on hold.”

Her path to education has been filled with its fair share of challenges: trying to fit work into her schedule, feeling discouraged when a professor didn’t think she’d stick with it, ensuring her children’s needs are met and balancing everyday life.

The challenges Chavarria faces are not uncommon among students who are raising families.

In 2014, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research reported that 4.8 million college students are raising children. Of this number, 71 percent are women and 43 percent of those women are single mothers.

In Portage County, 8.4 percent of men and women householders are single parents with children under the age of 18, the U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2010. Meanwhile, in Summit County, 9.7 percent of men and women householders are single parents with children under the age of 18.

These statistics have context: the people behind them.

“I’ve been non-traditional from the start,” said Jennifer Cline, a graduate student at Kent State.

Cline is a single mother of three and said she’s been a parent for as long as she’s been a college student.

“I come from a background of poverty and I had to move around a little bit to try to find the right kind of support from family that I needed,” she said.

Cline eventually settled in Kent, where she was able to earn her GED and bachelor’s degree in Pan-African Studies with a minor in sociology. She is currently working toward her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing.

Although some single parents are able to find support within their families or community, others need to move around in order to find it.

Chavarria experienced a similar situation after telling her parents she was pregnant with her first child: She was kicked out of the house in order to “figure it out.” In search of a fresh start, Chavarria and her daughter moved to North Carolina to stay with her brother, whom she was close to while growing up.

Although a lack of support is a common issue among non-traditional students with children, Cassie Pegg-Kirby, the assistant director of Kent State’s Women’s Center, believes it might run a little deeper than that.

“I think the biggest challenge (non-traditional students) run into is the lack of understanding,” Pegg-Kirby said. “When people understand, there is a lot of support.”

On campus, the Literacy and Independence for Family Education (LIFE) Program works with single-parent students to provide resources and a sense of community for those who may otherwise feel lost.

The program offers programming and workshops centered around mentorship, financial literacy, healthy relationships, effective parenting and nutrition. In addition to the educational programming, various parties are hosted throughout the year for student parents and their children.

“We try to provide a well-balanced program for the girls so that they get a little bit of fun and a little bit of informational stuff as well,” said Kelsey Kunce, graduate student of higher education and student personnel.

Kunce also works as an adult student advisor and graduate assistant in the Center for Adult and Veteran Services.

“We try to kind of fluctuate them so there’s a little bit of social things and a little bit of informational ones as well,” she said.

The LIFE Program is currently working in collaboration with the Women’s Center to provide a space for women to study and strengthen their community with each other.

On Thursday nights, the Women’s Center provides dinner for families of adult students. During these dinners, the families sit with some of the staff from the center, as well as volunteers from the Diversity Office in the College of Education, Health and Human Services.

This type of interaction allows for the barrier between single-parent students and faculty to be broken down and allows for more understanding and clearer communication.

Pegg-Kirby said that during the dinners for single-parent students and their families, she is not just the assistant director of the Women’s Center eating with students from the LIFE Program.

Instead, ““We’re all sitting down eating dinner together and you start to talk about things a different way,” she said. “I think that dinner piece is really important.”

The center is also looking into having any staff member or office on campus provide dinner once a month and, according to Pegg-Kirby, the deal is that they have to say for dinner so they can better understand what the parents and families are going through.

“I think those students — those families — need that because it’s different than (any other) support,” she said. “They need to know that there are (other) people out there that are parents who are navigating this, too, (and) who can look out for each other.”

After dinner, the parents go upstairs to do homework while the children stay downstairs and participate in activities such as crafts and kid’s yoga.

“It’s not just about entertaining (them),” Pegg-Kirby said. “It’s about developing community with those kids and using that opportunity to talk about things, empower them, challenge them and encourage them.”

Marisa Goeble, a senior communication studies major and  intern with the Women’s Center, helps with the children’s activities downstairs. Although she’s worked a summer camp counselor for two years, she said she sometimes still feels unequipped to handle all of the children’s energy — especially as the ages range from about 3 to 14.

“It’s one of those things where you plan everything out, but you can’t plan on how the kids are going to react to it,” Goeble said about organizing and playing activities.

Although the time with the children can be hectic at times, Goeble said she enjoys working with them and developing a connection with them.

“I like that they respond well to me … they’re excited to see me,” Goeble said. “It’s nice that I am making an impact on them and not just being someone they have to go to every week.”

Through the LIFE Program, participating single mothers have largely been able to create a strong community and support system.

DJ Smith, a senior business management major, said the program gave her the motivation she needed to continue going to school — despite it being 20 years since she originally started.

“When I started here, I was very alone and different … and the additional challenges of having a kid and a house and no job … was a mess,” Smith said. ““Honestly, without the LIFE group, I probably wouldn’t still be in school.”

Contact Adriona Murphy at [email protected].