Juggling Act

Katherine Moore

Imagine being late for class in the morning: you’ve misplaced your notebook, your coffee is cold, you stayed up all night typing a paper and your keys have pulled a disappearing act. Now imagine your child following you around the house that same morning as you frantically try to pack a diaper bag, comb sticky hair, find a favorite lost toy and retie tiny shoes for what seems like the hundredth time. Seems downright impossible
to pull off successfully, right? Yet this scene and others are painfully similar are just some of the many challenges faced by single parents who are trying to raise a family while pursuing a higher education.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, roughly 13 percent of all college students are single parents.

So, how do they do it? Perhaps more importantly, why do they do it? Teri is the divorced mother of two sons: 5-year-old Timber and 8-year-old Ali. When asked why she chose to go back to school her answer is simple: “To take care of my kids.” Teri is not alone. The most often cited reason for single parents returning to school is divorce. Like Teri, many newly divorced parents suddenly find themselves the sole breadwinner of their family and come to realize that a better education will eventually lead to a better way of life for their children.


There probably are never enough hours in the day for any college student. But single parents often don’t even start their homework until after the dishes are clean, the laundry is done and the kids have gone to bed. So what is a busy single parent to do? Teri, a biology major at Pierce College, currently works part-time as a computer technician at her sons’ elementary school, hoping to someday teach high school. When they get home late in the afternoon, Teri and the boys take a short break where they all sit on her bed and do homework together. When the pressures of college require extra study time, Teri gets creative. She invites her friends’ children over for movie night. Why would a busy single mom invite MORE kids over? Her friends get an evening to themselves, the kids get to hang out together and watch movies, and Teri gets to do some studying while the kids are occupied. “Everybody wins,” she says.

Valerie, mother of 4-year-old Jayden, attends California State University, Northridge and is also employed at Sunny Brae Elementary School. She is a teacher’s assistant and currently works with a fourth grade autistic boy. Valerie says “people who aren’t in this situation, or one like it, really don’t get it,” of her time constraints.


Once upon a time, kids came home from school to find their mom waiting with a snack, ready to help with their homework. No parent relishes the idea of raising latch-key kids, but for some single parents the fears associated with their kids being home alone go far beyond just milk and cookies. Sheri is currently in her third semester at Pierce and is a single mother to four daughters, age 12 to 17. She does not worry about the girls not doing their homework while she is gone. “They’re good about doing their school work. They even help me with mine” she says. Sheri’s biggest fear is another mother -Mother Nature. Sheri and her daughters live in Kern County, in the Los Padres National Forest, and with winter coming, she expects some rough weather soon. “We’re sure to see snow and I worry about the girls being home alone. I worry about the electricity going out and if the house will have heat when I’m not there,” she explains.


As if day care, term papers, jobs, and unpredictable weather weren’t enough, many single parents face the inevitable financial difficulties associated with college. Recently, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators reported that roughly 70 percent of all single parents attending college have annual incomes under $15,000.

Luckily, Pierce has programs in place that have proven to ease the financial burden for its single parents on campus. The CalWorks/GAIN office helps low-income students pay for their textbooks, school supplies, and almost anything else they need for their classes.

Single mother Teri says, “GAIN is a godsend and the Board of Governors’ fee waiver has been really helpful.” Pierce also has a campus day care center, complete with classrooms and a playground, for the children of Pierce students. According to the Child Development Center, of the 105 students who bring their children to the center, 43 are single parents. Those numbers “are definitely on the rise from last year,” says enrollment specialist Patty Rivas, proving just how valuable the center has become for single parents at Pierce.

A June graduate of Pierce, Valerie found the PACE program to be a huge help in getting through college as quickly as possible. Once her education is complete she hopes to become a special education teacher. Valerie also credits her family and friends as a source of constant support. “If it wasn’t for them I never would have made it this far,” she says.

And what could Pierce do to help its single parent students even more? Sheri would like to see priority enrollment for single parents. “Giving single parents priority enrollment would help them schedule their classes so they coincide with those of their school-aged children. Then maybe they could be home when their kids get home from school and cut down on the number of latch-key kids,” she says. With four kids of her own Sheri adds, “The hardest part of being a single parent student for me is just keeping up with my kids.”


For Teri, the hardest part of being a single parent student has nothing to do with money problems, work, or being in a constant time crunch. Her main goal is to remain positive about school so that her boys will know the value of higher education. “I don’t want them to look back, see how hard college was for me and decide they don’t want to go,” she says. And while she receives no financial support from her ex-husband or her family, Teri remains optimistic. “It could always be worse.”

Valerie says the best parts of her day are waking up with her son Jayden and putting him to bed at night. “We sit together and read a story and it’s just me and him,” she says.

As for the time Valerie spends at school, Jayden explains that his mommy isn’t finished learning yet and she has to go to school just like him. Valerie adds “When I leave for class Jayden tells me to be good in school, listen to the teacher and have fun. He gets it.”

Single parents who decide to pursue a higher education have a daunting task as they juggle the needs of their family with the pressures of college.

And while finances, time and lack of a decent night’s sleep may sometime seem like too much to handle, one thing seems clear: The single parents who attend classes at Pierce College are going to great lengths to secure a better future for their children.

When asked how she deals with the pressures of her current situation, Teri’s answer is as simple as it is true.

“You have to trust yourself. You have to be strong to make good choices for your kids.”


Single Parents Network

W.I.F.E. Women’s Institute for Financial Education

Single Parent Center

Single Spouse

Garay instructs Jayden to collect his bowl of chicken soup after eating in the living room. (Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez)

Garay shares an intimate moment with her son in the kitchen of her apartment in Canoga Park, November 2007. (Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez)

Jayden, 4, draws while Garay, background, talks to him from her computer desk in her apartment. (Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez)