Managing college-level courses and raising a toddler is no easy feat. But for 16 mothers in the Ruth Matthews Bourger Women With Children Program at Misericordia University, their dreams are becoming reality.
The program allows single moms to pursue academic degrees full-time and also focus on their children. While there are only seven programs like it in all the U.S., it's the only one that offers participants free books and housing with their children for up to four years. The families have access to state-certified daycare children attend schools in the district.
For many women, the WWC Program is their saving grace — most are leaving behind situations of domestic abuse, homelessness and food insecurity.
"Not only do you see a family that has been living at the poverty level leave that circumstance and rise to the occasion and receive a college degree. But also you see the growth of both the mom and the child while they're here at the university," Katherine Pohlidal, the program's director told TODAY.
At 20, Jessica Vera was pregnant and in an abusive relationship. Just last year, the sophomore arrived at Misericordia University with two trash bags of personal items and a drive to make a better life for herself.
"On an emotional level, a mental level, beyond that, I am not the person I was when I came here. And I can guarantee you that when I leave in two more years, I will not be the same person I am today. I have a passion that I never had before. I have a love for just what I do," she said.
By the time students have completed the program, they're graduating with much more than a college degree. As of the 2017-18 academic year, the program has graduated 26 individuals who have all gone on to work in their desired fields.
Ashley Peachey, 28, an Iraq war veteran, speech language pathology student and soon-to-be graduate of the program has already taken several interviews for positions in her field.
Her biggest takeaway from the Women With Children Program? She can do it all. She can follow her dreams and be a mom at the same time.
"I'm capable of so much more than I ever thought possible. I'm capable of juggling many hats. Going to grad school taking care of Eileen, taking her to activities, doing clinic — I'm capable of that; I just have to manage my time well."
"They're highly motivated to make a difference. When they leave, they take that degree and they put it into action," she said.
As you can imagine, it's bittersweet for people like Pohlidah to see the women graduate. So she sends them off with this advice:
"Now that they've found their voice and accomplished this goal, I encourage them to take that voice and succeed. To go beyond all of the limits that they thought were in front of them and continue on with all of the success in the world that they have. And then, in turn, give it back."