A typical image for a college graduation ceremony involves proud parents taking pictures of their kids in cap and gown. Of course, many graduates are also parents themselves, like Amanda Ruiz. She says a scholarship program geared to mothers helped her graduate within three years.
With a backpack slung over her shoulders, her hair pinned up in a scrunchie and wearing a t-shirt, stretch pants and sandals, Ruiz looks like any other UNC Charlotte student. But she's 30 years old and a single mom, in college for the fourth time to get her bachelor's degree.
Both of Ruiz’s parents became disabled from brain illnesses her senior year of high school. The family lost everything. She worked two jobs to put herself through school. Then she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease
“I was terrified,” Ruiz said.
Crohn’s usually involves digestive problems, but Ruiz’s illness was more debilitating. She was in and out of the hospital often and susceptible to infections.
Her Crohn’s worsened and she developed rheumatoid arthritis. In between hospital stays, Ruiz tried to go back to school. She was working odd jobs to make ends meet to complete her degree but said it was just too difficult.
“Every time I tried to finish what I started there were two steps forward and three steps back."
Four years ago during a hospital stay, Ruiz says she applied to UNC Charlotte from a hospital bed. She got in and learned of the Answer Scholarship Program for moms. She applied for and received a $5,000 award.
“It took a huge burden off," she said, "just knowing I had that help, the financial support was just a relief. It literally felt like something was lifted from me."
Ruiz is one of nine moms graduating this month who received assistance from the Answer Scholarship program. Susan Andersen, a Mary Kay cosmetics executive in Charlotte, started it in 2005 with $200,000 of her own money. She says she did it partly because she was in a situation similar to Ruiz’s after her parents divorced her senior year of high school.
“My mom was basically a housewife and sold real estate for a while,” Andersen says. “My brother was disabled my junior year and she had to give up her real estate to be with him and help with his care, and my dad just kind of skipped out.”
Andersen says a four-year scholarship from a local organization paid for much of her tuition at UNC Charlotte.
“I was so incredibly grateful for this gift because it was money I didn’t have to borrow or pay back, and I made a vow as a young college graduate that one day I wanted to be able to help somebody else along the way," Andersen said.
Andersen’s Answer Scholarship program is open to mothers 25 and older with school-age children who live in Mecklenburg and its surrounding counties. Only students seeking their first two-year or four-year degree are eligible. They also must attend a Charlotte-area college.
Andersen says the graduation rate for program scholars is 87 percent. She attributes that partly to each recipient having a mentor they must contact at least twice a month.
“Oftentimes the easiest thing for a scholar to do is to quit, so the mentor’s job is to make sure, if at all possible, that the scholar stays in school when life gets tough,” Andersen said.
That mentorship was a big help for 37-year-old Keyatta Smalls.
“[My mentor] always gave me feedback,” Smalls said. “(There were) times when the work was hard and I called her and talked to her about it. She gave me input and told me to keep on pushing.”
Smalls graduates this week from Johnson C. Smith University with a degree in business administration. She became a single mother of three after her children’s father was fatally shot, just as her classes started at J.C. Smith four years ago.
Smalls always wanted to go to college but had to take care of an ailing mother. She became a certified nurse assistant and worked part-time while at Johnson C. Smith. This past year, Smalls received $3,500 from the Answer program.
“It was my last semester. I would have had to apply for more funding that I would have to pay back."
Smalls said it wasn’t just the financial support of the program that she appreciated, but the comradery the scholars developed during the six times a year they met for half-day sessions.
Amanda Ruiz agrees and says knowing she was not alone in being a nontraditional student kept her motivated.
Ruiz has accepted a job with Bank of America in its global risk analysis program. Smalls is working part-time, doing interviews and always carrying her Dean’s List and degree completion certification letter with her.
“That’s my reminder to keep pushing forward every day and try to teach my children to never give up on anything you’re going through, just keep pushing for it,” Smalls said.
Knowing that her scholarship program has not only helped educate moms but also their children makes Susan Anderson feel an overwhelming sense of pride. She says it’s gratifying watching the moms she’s gotten to know and their stories graduate, all part of a promise she made to herself when she walked in their shoes.