Wilson makes academia accessible to single moms

September 28, 1997


Staff Writer, Chambersburg

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - A divorced mother of three in her mid-30s, Marcy Poet, a high school dropout, found herself with no job, few skills and little trust in the future.

Though she secured a full-time and part-time job, Poet knew that education was the only way she could get ahead.

But going back to school at her age was intimidating and she didn't think she could juggle studies with children to raise and bills to pay.

With the support of a counselor, Poet, a York County, Pa., native, decided to enroll in one class at a local community college.


"I fell in love with it. Once I got a taste of college and the freedom it gave me, the power it gave me, I felt in control of my life and I became determined to get my education. My determination kept me going," she said.

After three years of taking classes part time, Poet graduated. But she had her sights set on getting her bachelor's degree, a pursuit still weighed down by financial obligations and family ties.

That's when she heard about Wilson College's Residential Women With Children Program, about to begin as a pilot program, which provides on-campus residential housing year-round to single mothers and their children so the mothers can pursue a bachelor's degree full time.

Poet was accepted and with her youngest daughter Rebecca in tow, the two took up residence in an apartment at the private liberal arts college for women in Chambersburg on June 1, 1996. Poet began classes full time that fall.

"It's been everything - difficult, a struggle, wonderful ... Being a mother and being a full-time student is a challenge," said Poet, who will graduate in May with a degree in psychology and sociology.

This semester, Poet is one of six single mothers with children enrolled in the program. Three others are joining in January when a new dorm built especially for the program will open.

"Obviously there's a need," said Gwendolyn Evans Jensen, president of Wilson College who came up with the idea. "It is consistent with the college's mission to do this and we're in a unique position to be able to do this."

Without the program, junior Amy Christie, 23, said she would probably be working a dead-end job, barely making ends meet, and leaving the care of her 4-year-old son, Selby, in the hands of a babysitter.

"I decided if I wanted to get anywhere, I needed to go to college," Christie said, who's working on a double major in environmental studies and political science.

But enrollment in the program doesn't mean a free ride for the single mothers. To be considered, women must go through an application process and meet all of the academic requirements like any other college student, said Sandra Slifko, program director.

Once accepted, the mothers still have to make arrangements for child care, though some professors allow students to bring their children to class, and most still hold down jobs to pay cost-of-living expenses while attending school.

"It's still a struggle because I have car payments and car insurance ... My main bill is day care," Christie said. "But it's worth it."

Living on campus gives the single mothers and their children a safe environment and support that they likely wouldn't get living on their own, Slifko said.

The children, in turn, benefit by having their mothers nearby and growing up in an educational atmosphere with access to all of the college's recreational programs, she said.

"I don't have to worry about traveling or having her far away. It's less stress, I guess," said Tanja Wray, 20, the mother of a 6-month-old daughter, Sage.

Wray, who wants to be a teacher, said most women in her situation would probably quit school.

"When I found out I was pregnant I didn't know what I was going to do and how I was going to have her and stay in school. But I wasn't going to give up," Wray said. "It's no reason to quit school. It's hard, but it's manageable. In the long run it's going to be very, very helpful."

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