Walsh Hall is the center of activity at the College of Saint Mary, a Roman Catholic women’s institution in Omaha, Neb. Among its many uses, the building houses faculty and administration offices, computer labs, a chapel and an art gallery. Its upstairs residents, however, are what makes Walsh Hall unusual: it is home to 31 single mothers and their children.
The Mothers Living and Learning program, now in its ninth year, is an on-campus residential option for single mothers who wish to pursue their bachelor’s degree while raising their children. The top two floors of Walsh Hall are open to women who have up to two children who will be no older than ten by the year of their mother’s graduation. In addition to providing living space for mothers and their children almost year-round, the program offers communal kitchens and playrooms for its residents. Though mothers are responsible for locating and paying for childcare for their children, the program’s cooperative living style has produced a supportive community of single mothers who often help each other with the difficulties of an academic life with children.
“It’s not any different than any other dorm,” said Susan Williams, one of three program resident assistants and a junior studying occupational therapy. “Actually, it’s probably better than most dorms. The best thing is that you always have support. Everyone does try to help out by watching each other’s kids or by having meals together or traveling together -- because not everyone has a car. Everyone understands we’re all single mothers trying the best we can.”
Williams, 32, moved from her home in Saint Louis, Mo. to attend Saint Mary -- an institution founded by the Sisters of Mercy -- after hearing about the program for single mothers. Years earlier, when her first child was born, she abandoned her studies in occupational therapy at the University of Missouri at Columbia, not knowing if she would ever return to college full time. More recently, she enrolled in online business courses through the University of Phoenix.
Almost two years ago, Williams’ mother read about the program and sent her daughter an e-mail about it, suggesting that she send to anyone she thought might be interested. Williams, unsatisfied with her foray into online education, took the advice herself. After being accepted and discovering she had earned a full scholarship, Williams enrolled at Saint Mary to again work toward a degree in occupational therapy.
“I wouldn’t have been able to pursue a degree full-time without this program,” said Williams, whose three-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter live with her at Saint Mary. “Nebraska is the last place I thought I’d end up. But this isn’t like family housing at [other colleges] where they say, ‘Good luck and I hope you make it.’ This is like an extended family. You’re never isolated and not penalized because you have children.”
Sister Karen Egri, assistant resident director for the Mothers Living and Learning program, said the college tries to help these students build their resource network to better meet their family needs. In addition to having community meetings every month, mothers in the program participate in programming catered to their needs. For example, Sister Karen said, the college works with local agencies to provide seminars on low-cost meal planning and honing parenting skills, among other topics.
Still, as with any college living community, Sister Karen acknowledges there are often difficulties, especially considering the range of maturity levels among the mothers. This year’s youngest mother is 18; the oldest is 35. (The average age of the mothers is around 21.)
“There are times to consider when you should feed drama and when you should consider it a barrier,” Sister Karen said. “There’s really a wonderful opportunity to learn from one another. You learn what your parenting style is in comparison to others. Also, the younger mothers can provide perspective to the older mothers.”
This housing option for single mothers began in fall 2000, when it attracted nine mothers and their ten children. Tara Knudson Carl, Saint Mary senior vice president, said the idea of the program arose in administrative conversations as way to serve this traditionally underserved population. She added that the program was started on a trial basis. Participation reached its peak in fall 2007, when 39 women with 46 children lived in Walsh Hall.
This year’s cohort living in the Mothers Living and Learning program is more racially diverse than the overall Saint Mary student population – which is 78 percent white. Fifty-six percent of the mothers are white, 38 percent are black and 6 percent are Hispanic. Additionally, students enrolled in the single mothers’ program have a higher graduation rate than the overall student population. The recent six-year graduation rate for mothers in the program was 53 percent, compared to 51 percent for the entire student body. Citing the relative youth of the program, Carl said she expects this graduation rate to increase significantly.
Saint Mary is one of eight private liberal arts colleges in the United States to offer an alternative living opportunity for single mothers on campus. Almost all of these institutions have some sort of religious affiliation. The Higher Education Alliance for Residential Single Parent Programs is a network of these institutions that provides a mutual referral system for their applicants.
Sister Karen said this network ensures that students who are not best fit for one institution -- either because of geographic location or other logistical reasons -- are recommended to another college in the group for consideration. Though she said there is not a large movement in support of these alternative housing options, she said Saint Mary has attracted outside attention from other institutions interested in the concept. Sister Karen said the idea has the potential to catch on elsewhere, as such a living option is often no more expensive than regular housing for a college to fund.
As for Walsh Hall at Saint Mary and its upstairs residents, some administrators with offices downstairs say the new residents have been a welcome and encouraging presence in the building.
“People imagined children would be running through the administration building here,” Carl said of response to the program when it was pitched. “But, it works better than you might imagine. When I used to have my office in a different part of the building, children used to walk by to go to the dining hall with their mothers for dinner. At the end of the day, it was a pleasant sight to see these little children in the office."