Imagine a resource that is designed to make life easier, one that allows you to maintain all your priorities without sacrificing any of them—and the only obligation is to want it badly enough. Now consider that probably no one knows more about how difficult it is to balance multiple priorities than college students who are parents, trying to juggle the challenging demands of family obligations, career and school.

Ten years ago, the College of St. Catherine, a Catholic college for women with campuses in Minneapolis and St.Paul, founded Access and Success, a program designed to address the needs of student parents who faced difficulties in completing their education. The primary goal was, and still is, simple enough: to raise the retention rate of student parents to that of the college’s general student population.

The school’s initial focus when developing the program was to find students who required assistance in balancing family, work and a college education, then make a collaborative effort with faculty to address the concerns and obstacles they faced. But the program developers soon discovered that simply identifying these student parents was quite a task. Joan Demeules, program coordinator and associate director of the Counseling and Student Development department, explains that many students who are single parents find it difficult to come forward and talk about their situations for fear of being stigmatized. Therefore, faculty referrals to Access and Success are essential.

Although the Access and Success program is available to all student parents, the staff work very closely with multicultural students. More than 40% of St. Catherine’s student parents are non-white. Many of these women are also first-generation college students, which adds another degree of difficulty because of the lack of personal and financial resources.

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Devoted Parent, Aspiring Nurse

Combined, the College of St. Catherine’s Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses have more than 1,100 currently enrolled student parents. More than one-third of these students are pursuing nursing degrees, which are offered in a choice of day or evening programs. There are 106 student parents enrolled in the St. Paul campus’ four-year BSN program and 274 in the associate degree program at the Minneapolis campus. The college overall produces more nurses than any other school in Minnesota, which program coordinators attribute to the unique variety of options it offers for those who wish to enter the field.

All Access and Success staff are social workers who strive to meet a significant strategic directive of the college: to increase disadvantaged students’ access to higher education. Because of this mission and direction, the college’s administrators have sought to be creative and innovative in order to provide students with the support systems and resources they need to help them stay in school and successfully complete their studies.

Access and Success is designed to assist a culturally diverse population of students with special needs—women who have children, who are determined to achieve their college degree while holding down a job, who face major obstacles such as lack of access to affordable child care services, and who haven’t previously had access to the guidance, concern and encouragement that makes this program so appealing.

A Multifacteted Approach

One of the Access and Success program’s key strengths is that it offers a broad spectrum of services to support and assist student parents in many different ways. Students are linked with community resources which aid them in managing day-to-day needs and challenges, such as affordable housing, child care and financial assistance. A mentor program, By Your Side, matches students who are single parents with a volunteer who provides emotional support. Opportunities for peer support are available through a club on the St. Paul campus and weekly meeting on the Minneapolis campus.

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Another program, Adopt-A-Family, helps financially needy families celebrate the December holidays by providing gifts for their children. Students can also borrow a laptop computer in order to complete assignments. A quarterly newsletter, Student Parent News, contains information about a variety of subjects, from news about Access and Success program services to parenting guidance and academic tips. Students can also find out about resources and options at the program’s Web site,

In addition, the college has formed partnerships with local community groups who also provide student parents with emotional and financial support. For example, the League of Catholic Women of Minneapolis offers scholarships and mentoring; there are public donors who provide help in numerous ways; and a collaborative relationship with low-income housing sources has enabled the college to build and run housing for students with families.

Support for minority nursing students also comes in the form of multicultural RN tutors, a nursing lab with several full-time faculty for support in practicing hands-on skills, and English language assistance for international students, whose home countries span the globe.

“It’s impressive what our [student parents] have overcome,” says Kathleen Bell, director of the associate degree nursing program. “They’ve been in a survival mode while trying to complete their education. We have helped to make these students successful by trying to understand [their needs] without making judgments. We instill hope that they could succeed and we help them to work through the issues.”

Mother Knows Best

Another innovative feature of Access and Success is the Mother to Mother speaker’s bureau program, which provides both a leadership opportunity for student single parents and a community outreach resource for local teenage mothers outside the campus. St. Catherine’s students who became moms at a young age give presentations at high schools and with teen mom groups, discussing issues related to managing their lives.

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Naomi Thompson, 23, is one such single mom; she has a seven-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son. An African-American nursing student who once believed that college could never be an option for her, she is heading toward a May graduation with her RN and plans to pursue a BSN degree. The Access and Success program, she says, not only allayed her fears but consistently helped her resolve personal issues so she could finish school. From the beginning, she was given the chance to speak with women who had similar backgrounds and she was also provided with daycare referrals.

“I never felt that I was a victim of bias [as a minority single parent],” Thompson adds. “I’ve always felt welcome and never felt stereotyped. I’ve been given opportunities to talk about issues at any time. Beth Hamer [the program’s assistant coordinator] is very approachable and everything you say is held in confidence. She listened and gave positive input. When I spoke to her about being anxious about graduation, she gave me a referral to a former student to help with the transition. When I had car trouble, she referred me to a local dealership for repairs.”

Another time Hamer was a source of help was when Thompson’s daycare provider was sick and couldn’t care for her children. She was given financial assistance to pay for an emergency provider. She says she also appreciated the availability of someone to talk to whenever she needed a release or debriefing after a particularly stressful, overwhelming week Thompson was delighted when she was approached by Access and Success to speak at high schools for the Mother to Mother program. “They read my mind,” she said. “I knew it was something I wanted to do. I had my first child at a young age and had given up hope. I want other teen moms to see how I came through. It also freed me from my fears of public speaking.”

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As long as the student is motivated, the Access and Success program is there to help. “Single minority moms are just as deserving of the opportunity to go to college as anyone else,” Thompson asserts. “It’s important to let them know that they can do it. It takes a lot of work but it’ll be worth it in the end. My kids are worth it.”

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