Jeremiah Moms Achieve Their Dream and Graduate College
Despite the Pandemic, 20 Jeremiah Program Mothers Complete Degrees this Spring
Adrienne van der Valk
There are few areas of life that haven’t been affected by COVID-19. For the women of Jeremiah Program (JP), the pandemic has turned everything upside down. With daycare centers closed, layoffs at an all-time high, and schools going remote, the mothers and staff of JP have had to restructure their lives, working together to remain safe while still moving their goals forward.
“I was in the middle of empowerment when COVID-19 hit. The classes really, really helped me improve my positivity and taught me to focus on things that I could change and then make the best out of what I couldn't change.” – Shannen Nicholas
For 20 JP mothers, one of those goals for spring 2020 was persevering to graduate from their higher education programs. And, despite the many challenges the pandemic put in their pathways, that’s exactly what they did.
“There's always going to be barriers, but I always maintained optimism,” says Jazmin Amos of JP’s St. Paul campus, who recently graduated from St. Mary’s University with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. “I'm an optimist at heart, so knowing that I'm going to make it through, that's all I needed to know to just get me to where I needed to go as far as graduation.”
Higher education has been a core pillar since Jeremiah Program’s founding in 1998. All JP moms enroll in a post-secondary program; the emphasis on career-track education is one of the things that motivates many women to join Jeremiah Program—and with good reason. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “College credentials are associated with a host of positive outcomes, including increased earnings, higher rates of employment, improved health, increased civic engagement, and improved outcomes among the children of college graduates.”
As an organization committed to disrupting the cycle of poverty two generations at a time, Jeremiah Program knows that improving outcomes for single mothers improves outcomes for kids—and not just financially. As Jazmin commented about her life as a busy student and mom, “My daughter sees I’m a very proactive individual. She sees that motivation in me and she's channeling that in herself as well.”
Managing the Present, Focusing on the Future
Shannen Nicholas, who lives on the Austin campus, is another spring graduate. Mother to a one-year-old son and expecting a second child later this year, Shannen enrolled in a nursing program to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a labor and delivery nurse. She loved going to school but, before finding JP, found it difficult to meet her family’s financial needs while keeping up with the program.
“My apartment was going up in rent, and I didn't know how I was going afford it and finish school taking care of [my son] primarily on my own,” Shannen says about why she joined Jeremiah. “It was meant to be because I moved here in February, and then mid-March is whenever [COVID-19] hit Austin. If I would have been on my own, still, at my old apartment, there was no way I would have been able to afford that rent. With childcare here on site, from February to March, I was able to continue going to school on campus.”
In March, life became more complicated for all JP moms when childcare centers shut down. For the women who were in the final phases of their degree programs, the stakes felt especially high. Deila Barros, who is part of JP’s Boston campus, completed her degree in business management this spring. Going to school as a single mother had always been a challenge, she says, but this semester tested her as a mother and a student.
“My daughter is going to Boston Public School, so I had to help her [when school went online]. I had a bunch of my homework, and then I also had the little ones asking for things. It became overwhelm, fear, stress,” she recalls. “I still worked. I had to figure out a lot of things.”
Shannen, too, found herself parenting alone full-time during the toughest months of her academic career.
“We did have to switch to online school, so it was pretty hard having my son at home because of the daycare being closed,” she says. “Doing nursing school online, and then trying to finish up with exams and everything like that—it was really, really hard.”
Working With Jeremiah to Get to the Finish Line
Despite the loss of daycare and other face-to-face services, the mothers who participated in this story pointed to many forms of virtual support they received from Jeremiah Program as part of their successes. JP moved their coaching and empowerment programs online, as well as providing early childhood resources for moms who were quickly transitioning themselves and their children to learning at home. Staff also checked in with mothers frequently to assess their basic needs as well as their mental health.
“In the beginning, I was panicking,” says Deila. “I am thankful for Jeremiah because [my coach] helped me. We were able to create a schedule for the kids. Coaching supported me, motivated me. [It was] a resource for my kids, a resource for many other things. It was really helpful.”
Jazmin, too, found herself relying on her coach in the final months of her accounting program.
“My coach, Sierra, was great. Anything that I needed that I talked about, she provided a resource—and I mean anything,” she says. “Just knowing that I have someone to turn to, to talk to, that is going to pull out resources for me and try to accommodate and make my life a little easier was what helped me through this final term.”
All three women also spoke about how they drew on their experience with Empowerment and Life Skills to maintain their focus on their hard-earned diplomas.
“Good planning is what helped me maintain and stay on track for graduation,” says Jazmin, who also began classes for her master’s program while she was still completing bachelor’s degree. “I always made sure that I set goals and I thoroughly mapped out the goal. It's very disheartening to look at a goal in its whole entirety and completing it instead of breaking it down into different steps and taking it one day at a time. Steps help me say motivated and keep me ambitious. I know that I'm doing my part and I'm meeting my goals in a timely manner. It's very difficult to actually just get there without a goal.”
For Shannen, the empowerment course was exactly the boost she needed to stay committed to her program when times got tough.
“I was in the middle of empowerment when COVID-19 hit. The classes really, really helped me improve my positivity and taught me to focus on things that I could change and then make the best out of what I couldn't change,” she says. “It really kind of retrained my brain, in a way, to just apply it to not only school and parenting but just everyday life. It was like almost preparing us for all this craziness going on now.”
Although the graduating moms were not able to attend traditional ceremonies, Jeremiah Program made sure they felt celebrated. The campuses hosted powerful, personalized events that acknowledged the past, present, and future of each graduate and their children. Other mothers joined in, as well as community board members, volunteers, partners, friends, families, and former and current JP staff members.
“It was different because this year we had a virtual graduation [via Zoom],” Deila says of her experience with Boston’s graduation. “All the moms told their stories. It was awesome.”
“Jeremiah Program had a photographer come out and take pictures of us,” Shannen recalls about her Austin experience. “They got us like a cap and gown and everything, because we didn't have one for the community college here because there was no such ceremony. That was really sweet.”
Building on Success
Now that graduation is behind them, Shannen, Deila, and Jazmin are all looking to the future with optimism. All three have persevered in the face of academic challenges, health risks, parenting roadblocks, and prolonged uncertainty. Now, they are taking a breath to reflect on their accomplishments and making the next steps toward the future they’ve created for themselves and their children.
For Jazmin, that means continuing her education. “With a master's degree and attaining a CPA, this will give me the chance to actually open up a side business, besides having just a career,” she explains. “I want to be able to do taxes for small corporations and LLC partnerships, things of that nature. Having a master's degree, getting a CPA, is definitely going to change my life and my daughter's life for the better.”
Shannen is also gearing up for the next phase of her plan. “I do see myself becoming a full-time registered nurse within the next few months after I get my license. I've got to pass an exam and then I'll officially be a nurse,” she says. “I'm hoping to get a job in labor and delivery or with pediatrics at the children's hospital here in Austin, get into my career, and be able to afford a place on my own.”
Although the last few months have been trying, Shannen, Deila, and Jazmin are confident that if they can achieve their graduation dreams during a pandemic, they can tackle anything that may lay ahead. To the moms still on their graduation journeys, Jazmin has this message.
“Stay focused. Don't be discouraged,” she advises. “You're going to have to make some very difficult decisions and they might hurt in some other areas of your life. You want to make sure that you're consistent with your education and you want to finish on a strong term. Stay motivated. Reach out for help if you need something. You're not alone.”