Mara Smith

Mara Smith with her child, AnsleyAfter Mara Smith graduated from Unioto High School in Chillicothe, Ohio, she knew her next step would be attending The Ohio State University to study respiratory therapy. That journey, however, took a slightly different path when two weeks after she began college, Mara found out that she was pregnant.

Always having understood the value of a college education and with a child on the way, Mara knew that completing her degree was more important than ever. The odds, however, were not in her favor. Data shows that of the 4.8 million undergraduate students raising children, only 33 percent will attain a degree or certificate within six years. Recognizing that she would need additional support as she continued her studies, Mara turned to faculty and advisors for guidance. Unfortunately, none knew of any programs that could support Mara as she completed her degree. By chance, a roommate told her about the ACCESS Collaborative. Housed in Ohio State’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, ACCESS, which stands for “A Comprehensive College Experience for Single-Parent Students,” is an academic and social support program that assists low-income, single-parent students at Ohio State.

Once Mara became involved in ACCESS, she immediately felt a sense of belonging and feeling of encouragement. One of the benefits ACCESS provided was priority scheduling. “My daycare is available from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and some classes could run past 6 p.m. Having priority scheduling helped me get into the classes I needed at a time that worked with my schedule.” Another benefit was meeting with student-parent mentors who understood all the challenges Mara was facing. Because of all the assistance she received from ACCESS, Mara wants to make sure that other Ohio State student-parents are aware of the program; she’s creating an outreach campaign to increase the ACCESS’s visibility. In addition, Mara also gives back as a member of the Mount Leadership Society, which focuses on students committed to leadership and community service; only 100 students are selected each year to be part of the program.

Even with what Mara acknowledges is a strong support system of family and friends, she still struggles to balance college with taking care of her little girl, Ansley, who turned 18 months old in October. For Mara, it comes down to time management of her two priorities: Ansley and academics. Conflicts can occur when school activities take place during time normally spent with her daughter, such as bath time. “I wish there were more hours in the day because I sometimes feel guilty about the amount of time I spend with Ansley versus the amount of time I spend at school.” If an event occurs outside of daycare hours, Mara has to make a decision concerning her schedule: “I ask myself, ‘Do I want to do it? Will it fit into our schedules? And most importantly, will it benefit us both?’”

Having Ansley has also shaped Mara’s career path. After Mara knew she was pregnant, there were many plans to be made because, as Mara acknowledged, “Having a child would be a huge change even with 100% preparation.” Turning to the Internet and her family and friends to find information, Mara found it difficult to learn about the options available to her, even with a strong support system in place: “If I couldn’t find links to all the wonderful things out there, how could someone without the same kind of access and support I had find them?” She’s now working on a degree in Social Work with a specialization in adoption, and Mara hopes that her own experiences will be of assistance to others who are raising a child while attending college. After graduation, Mara will continue her journey with a master’s in Social Work from Ohio State through the full-time Advanced Standing Alternative Plan (ASAP), which will allow her to obtain her degree in only three semesters.

If you would like to help others student-parents like Mara, please click here to give to the ACCESS Collaborative.