This guest blog post is authored by Jessica Vera, a 2020 alumni of Misericordia University and participant of the Ruth Matthews Bourger Women with Children Program. The article was written in collaboration with IWPR’s Student Parent Success Initiative.

This past year has drastically impacted my life as a college student and mother. During my last term in the winter of 2020, I was interning at a local news station when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. My university not only suspended in-person classes, but my internship was forced to stop half-way through. Fortunately, I had enough internship hours accumulated to graduate on time.

As a college student with a 7-year-old son in school, we were both learning remotely, and it was a challenge. Managing my competing project deadlines and helping my son with his schoolwork was not easy. During the day I would help my son with his schoolwork and when he went to bed, I would then do my work until the sun came back up. Overcoming so many barriers to get to college, I did what I needed to do because graduation was so close, and a global pandemic was not going to stop me.

Growing up poor with no family support, I knew college was the only way out of the vicious cycle of poverty. At 20 years old, I was in an abusive and manipulating relationship where my partner prevented me from going to college and was eager to get me pregnant. When I got pregnant, I considered giving up my dreams of going to school. Once I gave birth, my son’s father became increasingly abusive, both verbally and physically. Without a place to stay, no job, no money, or college degree, I knew I need to build a better life with my son, and I made the scariest decision of my life: to leave my abusive partner. In the middle of the night, I packed two trash bags—one full of clothes and one full of my son’s toys—and I left. The next morning, I walked down to the local community college and enrolled.

My son is the main reason why I’m here today. My dreams for his future is what pushed me forward—to enroll and succeed through college despite all the struggles. As a single mother, I had to juggle school and work just to meet public assistance requirements, which led to many nights of lost sleep. Often, I questioned if I knew what I was doing as a single mother and as a college student because I was constantly worrying about my son’s school and homework schedule and how it conflicted with my own.

The thought of giving up occurred to me every single term. Then I would look at my son and know I needed to follow through with achieving my dreams—and uplift him to achieve his own. As a single mother with no support from my child’s father, it is my job to do the best I can to build something better for us.

COVID-19 has been challenging for everyone, but especially student parents. This past year has required me to be my son’s teacher, work full time to (barely) make ends meet, and finish my degree. During the pandemic, my access to SNAP food benefits has been cut given that I work a full-time job and now technically make too much. But the $900 I earn every two weeks translates into only $400 a week after taxes. This leaves me with nothing after I pay for my student loans, credit card payments, car insurance, gas, food, and essentials. The pandemic continues on, and without food assistance, I worry if I can afford food this month or if I need to use my credit cards to buy food because prices keep rising. No one should worry about feeding their family during a global pandemic.

This past summer, I was preparing to move to New York for graduate school. I had accomplished my goal of finishing college and now I was taking another step to further my education by pursuing a Master’s degree in film and animation. The last week of July 2020, I was packed and ready to move when I received an email notifying me that my program was deferred to Fall 2021. My heart broke. This would mean the loss of my work-study job and there was no way I could afford my apartment. It was a hard hit, but I was determined and remain confident, almost a full year later, that my son and I will continue to prevail.

Through the loving support from the Ruth Matthews Bourger Women with Children Program, I met amazing professors and people who have further empowered me to become a positive example for my child. That support gave me the initial confidence to apply for graduate programs in film and helped pave the way for my acceptance into three prestigious graduate schools last year. This fall, I will enter graduate school at the Rochester Institute of Technology to pursue an MFA in Film and Animation.

My son and I faced many difficulties through this pandemic, but we stood strong together and created a closer bond than ever before. Nothing went according to plan this past year, but the biggest lesson I have learned is that we are blessed to have had one another—even through the uncertainties of a pandemic—and that is worth everything.

Jessica Vera is an incoming graduate student at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), where she will be pursuing an MFA in Film and Animation starting this fall. She is currently working full-time at a nursing facility supporting residents to stay healthy and safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ruth Matthews Bourger Women with Children Program empowers economically disadvantaged single mothers by providing the opportunity to complete a college degree, creating brighter futures for themselves and for their children. This program provides free on-campus housing for up to 4 years; free books and academic supplies for both mother and children; priority placement for child care and federal work study jobs; and scholarships awarded annually for tuition assistance. This award-winning program is now accepting and enrolling student families for 2021-2022.