Making Your Way: The Knocked Up, Single Girl’s Guide To Finishing College
By: Lisa Donovan
This is an article that is way past its time. One of my greatest frustrations in life was being six months pregnant, twenty one years old and two years away from graduating with an undergraduate degree. You would think that my "situation" was what frustrated me. You'd be wrong. Yes, it was a great struggle. Yes, I had to keep focused and stay the course. Yes, I cried a lot and felt completely screwed up and confused. But, no, it wasn't the greatest frustration I felt at the time. I had decided to keep my baby and make my way. I knew what I was getting into and, with my family beside me, I felt strong and capable. What saddened me beyond words was meeting other women at clinics and prenatal classes who were in my exact position and had no hope, at all, for their future.
You might argue that success or fortitude is founded inn one's mental health and one's own upbringing and family — and things like that are what makes a situation like this either do-able or not. Agreed. But not entirely. What I came to the conclusion was this: there aren't a lot of people out there actively seeking out these girls and educating them to be empowered and informed about what their options are for their future. I am specifically speaking about staying in school and getting a degree. What I basically came in contact with were overworked, underpaid government workers who, bless their hearts, were more concerned with taking their lunch break than the future outcome of their appointed clients OR a society full of people telling them that it was basically all over for them now that they were knocked up. It is sad what we do to people when they come to a fork in the road. We haven't grown to a culture, yet, where we provide strength and courage to a girl who has found herself unexpectedly with child. Sure, we don't respond in the treacherous ways of the fifties and, yes, there are some out there that are forging ahead with positive counseling. But not so much in the south. It is still something people whisper about. And, unfortunately, it is still something people force the girl to believe has ended her academic/professional life entirely. When I was in the WIC office (basically food stamps for young mothers) and would strike up conversation with another girl she would be slack jawed by the fact that I was staying in college. "How will you work and take care of the baby and go to school all at the same time?" was always the response. "Oh, I could never be that strong — I figure this is what I am doing for awhile" — "this" being having a kid and stashing away your potential for a productive future for both you and your unborn child. Every girl that I spoke to in these health offices or mandatory prenatal classes expressed great desire to keep building a sustainable future by starting or finishing college but they just didn't know how and they surely weren't receiving any positive feedback or options from family or friends. I am proud to say that because of my overzealous prodding, two of the mothers I met took my advice and finished school. One even went on to go to graduate school. Perhaps they would have found their way anyway, and I'm sure they would have, but I like to think I helped a wee bit.
So, here's what I know. And, more importantly, here's what I did to get through school as a single mother who barely knew how to balance a checkbook, much less decode the very generous financial aide program that most college kids (pregnant or not) either never bother to take advantage of or never even know exists.
Don't be intimidated by the administration at whatever college you are in/looking to apply to. Get to know these people. More importantly, let them get to know you and your situation. They can not help if you don't ask. The people you want to talk to (in this order): Administrative Counselor (they will explain to you the process to get started and talk to you about your ideas for careers/interests), Financial Aide Officer (they have every bit of information regarding school scholarships to federal assistance), Department Chair (if you are interested in art, go speak to the chair of the art department OR if they are hard to reach, wander down to the department to take a look and talk to the first idle person you see and say you are a potential student and want to know more about the department — they can either direct you to someone in the know or give you an off the record opinion about what they know).
Assuming you are already enrolled in a program — don't drop out! I gave myself the semester of my last trimester off and the semester of my first six months with my son off. Any college has a statute of limitations for the amount of time you can take leave. Discuss this with your closest counselor or academic advisor. Just to keep yourself in the records, take a distance learning course or an independent study with one of your better professors.
If you have a lame financial aide officer here is the golden ticket: fill out a Fafsa (free application for student assistance). If I am not mistaken, I believe you can do this online. This got me through college, my bills paid and I only had to work two nights a week. My schedule (because of my federal aid) allowed me to breastfeed full-time and spend a large part of my days being a parent and not a slave to work/school. I can tell you, you will be surprised what is available to a young, unwed mother who only makes $19,000/year. If you are willing to take out student loans, which are reasonably rated and worth the debt, you will have a comfortable (but, by no means, luxurious) living for you and your child during your remaining college days.
Also, investigate private scholarships. Though I was not so successful in this area, don't be discouraged. I applied for over two dozens and didn't get any. But, check it out anyway. Everything from religious organizations to Daughters of the Revolution to ethnic background to large companies like Kraft typically have a scholarship that they provide. Also, if you are studying a particular field, chances are private organizations offer scholarships to those studying their work (i.e. if you are studying American History, check the Smithsonian for scholarship opportunities — get creative!). Your financial aide officer should have a website to check out with entire lists and search agents for these private scholarships.
If you don't have family close by who can care for your infant during class times, investigate the University daycare. These daycares are typically A-class because they are actual learning environments for the Child Development and Education students attending the university. This option allows you to be on campus with your infant and within walking distance — a plus for breastfeeding mothers who get full toward the end of each seminar.
Start an organization. Pin a little poster up on the student center bulletin board and bond with other mothers who attend school there. This is good for mental health, support system AND a very great way to build a babysitting co-op for study times and class times. It does take a village, it's true — so put yourself out there and make your own if you find yourself feeling village-less.
There is so much more I could say, but these five tips are the basic gist of it. It is possible. However much you feel it is impossible — trust me, I have been there and I have felt that impossibility sitting on my chest like a ton of bricks. Just start. Just begin. Beginning is more than half the battle. Once you start to make your own way and empowering yourself through the slightest bit of initiative, you will realize that, forever more, you will have it no other way — and you know what, chances are, neither will your child.