Editor's note: This article has been changed to correct inaccuracies from the printed version. Francis-McWhite's daughter was four, not five, at the time of publication. One of Limon-Flegler's children is fifteen years old, not ten. Limon-Flegler did not drop out of Lansing Community College, as was previously reported, but transferred to MSU.
Pouting inside the Law College Building, four-year-old Zora tossed a blanket over her head, grabbed her tablet and began watching videos.
Students inside the classroom looked around as they heard a muffled version of “Let it Go” begin to play in the back of the room.
Tax law isn’t the most engaging subject for a toddler, but this isn’t Zora’s first time in class.
“There are very few classes I’ve had that she has not attended,” said her mother, third-year law student Karen Francis-McWhite.
Francis-McWhite had her fair share of struggles with Zora. She had a painful experience in the hospital because of Zora’s premature birth. She also had to manage relationship struggles with Zora’s father, whom she had broken up with and was trying to find a middle ground to co-parent on. Since moving to Michigan, their parenting relationship has improved.
Although it was a difficult decision to move Zora away from her father Francis-McWhite knew she needed to redefine home and continue to build a better life for her daughter.
“I think the catalyst for taking this risk was actually her — wanting to sure up my skill set in such a way to create a solid foundation for her,” Francis-McWhite said. “I call her my biggest inspiration — the best gift I’ve ever received.”
Mothers at MSU have taken different paths to parenthood. Some had children or established families before enrolling, while others became pregnant as students, an unplanned twist in their lives. Many have had to utilize the network offered by the student organization Student Parents on a Mission, or SPOM, in order to get by.
It’s not easy. But as they decide to re-enter academic life, juggling the roles of mother and student, MSU’s student mothers are united by a single motivation.
They’re not just here for themselves.
When asked what her daughter Brooklynn means to her, tears filled the eyes of graduate student Jamie Griggs.
Griggs said the passion and love she feels for her daughter is the reason she puts herself through this difficult journey, and she doesn’t want Brooklynn to ever miss out on anything because of her decision to be a single mother.
“There are all of these cliches that when you have a child people say — but she absolutely is my everything,” Griggs said. “She is the reason I do everything that I do. She is the reason I work so much and so hard and the reason I am in school.”
Griggs resumed her life in her hometown of Lansing by her family’s side after completing her undergraduate degree at Central Michigan University in 2007.
When Griggs found out she was pregnant, she had no expectations of becoming a parent.
“You can say she was unplanned,” she said. “I was kind of in the height of my career, I was moving forward, living the single life and having fun.”
Originally, her daughter was the reason she thought she should not go back to school.
“I know how important it is to parent your children, especially at this age and young years, so I didn’t want to hinder her growth process because of my choosing to go back to school,” Griggs said.
But Griggs decided to return to school close to home when Brooklynn turned 4 years old, cramming to apply for graduate school a week before the deadline.
As a case manager for Big Brothers, Big Sisters, she works about 50 hours a week, which gives her the weekends free to partake in MSU’S weekend social work program. Griggs said she doesn’t even know how she does it all.
Luckily, she said her parents are her biggest supporters, babysitting Brooklyn the four weekends a semester that she has class. Griggs’ parents pick Brooklynn up from school and fill in where Griggs cannot.
“They had parents come in to read (at Brooklynn’s school) and I was feeling kind of stretched that month and I really couldn’t get in there,” she said. “I looked at the calendar and my dad had signed up to be a reader in her class. Those types of things mean a lot to me because though I can’t do it all, they are a great replacement for me.”
Holding it all together
Between SPOM, the Human Resources Center, Student Life and the Office of Financial Aid, student parents have specific scholarships and grants that help them afford the extra expenses.
The reason these programs exist is to give these students the tools they need to succeed, Family Resource Center coordinator Lori Strom said.
“They’re not spending nights at the bars, (or) burning couches in the streets — they’re home with their children,” Strom said. “They want to be responsible on behalf of their children.”
Members of SPOM are welcomed to meetings where food and speakers are provided and receive free tickets to Wharton Center kid events and special events at cider mills and aquatic centers.
Strom said one of the main focuses of the group is to show how important time with their children is. She said she has seen how many members of the group have grown through their experiences.
“Some will admit they weren’t as serious of a student, but once they had their child, they realize that they have to raise this child,” Strom said. “(They want to) provide for them and want to be a good role model — that, sometimes, is their motivation to be successful.”
Social work senior Melissa Limon-Flegler said SPOM has helped her grow as a mother and a student.
“It’s a really delicate balance to manage both your school work and your family life,” Limon-Flegler said. “I didn’t realize that organizations like this exists. Had I had known, I think I would have been successful 10 years ago.”
On Limon-Flegler’s drives home from class and her internship at the Family Resource Center on campus, she attempts to leave behind her studious side and channel her inner mother.
Soon after Limon-Flegler steps through the front door, it’s back in the car to drive her 6, 8 and 15-year-olds to softball, soccer, Girl Scouts and youth group.
“It’s a really delicate balance to manage both your school work and your family life,” Limon-Flegler said.
Limon-Flegler transferred to MSU from Lansing Community College in 2010. She will graduate this May.
While Limon-Flegler made the conscious decision to be a non-traditional student and juggle parenting and school at the same time, Candice Holcomb didn’t arrive at MSU as a parent.
The history, philosophy and sociology of science junior found herself unexpectedly pregnant as a sophomore.
When her daughter Kamryn was 18 months old, she decided to move with her daughter into an apartment in Spartan Village Apartments in order to finish her degree. She works on campus in the dining halls and takes classes four days a week.
Because she does not have daycare, Kamryn’s father, Tyjuan Jackson, spends half of every week in East Lansing.
“I want to make sure everyone is successful in the end,” Jackson said.
Holcomb said she appreciates his efforts.
“It’s a breath of fresh air to have someone here watching her and them spending time,” she said.
Twenty-one years ago, Christine Carter’s parents kicked her out of their home after learning that she had become pregnant at 17 years old.
They said she would never become anything and was nothing but a disappointment — but Carter was determined to prove them wrong, enrolling in MSU and living in an apartment in Spartan Village Apartments.
Despite feeling alone because of her single mother status, she didn’t want to become a statistic. So Carter planned to channel her determination and get good grades, graduate and become a compassionate mother.
She knew it would be difficult, but not impossible.
While Carter was on campus 21 years ago, student parent LaRonda Brown started the organization Single Parents on a Mission.
Now the organization is called Student Parents on a Mission, which has evolved since its start to create a vast support group and network.
This past Saturday, Carter accepted the LaRonda Brown Award at the SPOM banquet.
“It was because of the support network that I became the person that I am today,” Carter said during her acceptance speech. “Without the support, I would not have had the strength to keep going.”
Because of the support provided by SPOM, Carter said she felt it was time to give back. Last year, she created the Christine Carter endowment, which will provide financial support to student parents once it takes off next fall.
Alumna Arielle Johnson is another example of a success story as a student parent.
Johnson, who was pregnant as a sophomore in high school, successfully completed a hospitality business degree and has consulted for a number of major events. But Johnson has refused to let her work get in the way of her time with her child.
“Regardless of what problems come your way, take the time to relax with your children,” Johnson said.