When her son Junior was 11 years old, Nelda Alderete would wake him up at 6:30 a.m. and “drag him out the door” to drive him to school. On Tuesdays and Thursdays she would drop him off 30 minutes before Terry Middle School opened, when the sky was still dark and only the band director was there to supervise him.
“Two days out of the week, I was terrified,” she said. “But he had a cellphone with him. He’d let me know if something was going on. As soon as he got into the building he would text me or call me.”
Although Alderete didn’t like their routine, taking her son to school so early was the only way she could arrive on time to her 8 a.m. biology class at Eastfield during the fall of 2013.
Earlier that year she had filed for a divorce, prompting her to enroll in college. But the biggest challenge came a few months later, when she learned she had breast cancer. Through the divorce, the long days on campus, and the therapy she underwent later that semester, Alderete found her strength in Junior.
“He was the one pushing me,” she said. “My son was my knight in shining armor.”
There are more than 2 million single mothers in the United States who, like Alderete, balance motherhood with their studies, according to a 2014 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
The majority of these students attend community colleges and usually deal with time and financial constraints.
Alderete, 45, is only days away from graduating. She will walk across the stage with her associate degree in science on Saturday.
In order to provide for her son while meeting her responsibilities as a mother and a full-time student, Alderete works the front desk at TRIO Services three days per week.
“Being a student and working here has helped me a lot,” she said. “Not having to find another job or spend more money on gas. I am here all day.”
Paola Reyes is another full-time student and single mom. Her son, Jeremiah, is 4 years old.
She works up to 30 hours per week at Sam’s Club, which enables her to afford the weekly $135 daycare fee for her son. Reyes is also graduating this Saturday and plans to transfer to Texas Woman’s University, where she will continue working toward her nursing degree.
“Sometimes I feel bad because I’m away from [Jeremiah] all day,” she said. “But at the same time it’s a good thing because I’m working and I’m going to school. I’m doing what I have to do, and it’ll pay off later on.”
Reyes met Jeremiah’s father in high school and got pregnant the summer before her junior year. She had to take off the last few weeks of that academic year to give birth to Jeremiah, but returned to school the following semester and graduated six months earlier than planned.
She started college right after, wanting to get ahead.
“It took me about three years to get my associate, but I’m glad I did it the way I did,” she said.
Reyes, 20, lives with her mother, who takes care of Jeremiah in the afternoons after he gets out of daycare, while Reyes is at work.
“When I come home, sometimes I lay down and try to get homework done,” she said. “But most of the time I’ll shower him and get him to bed, and I’ll sleep later on.”
Although Jeremiah’s father works out of town and has a family, Reyes said he helps her when he can. She also counts on her father and Jeremiah’s grandmothers to provide support.
Estefania Cedillo also relies on her loved ones to help her balance motherhood and college. Cedillo, 23, plans to major in English and minor in early childhood education. Her mother and her boyfriend help her watch after her 21-month-old baby, Preston, when she needs to concentrate on classwork.
“The hardest thing about school has been trying to study while having him,” Cedillo said. “He doesn’t like it when I study. He wants all my attention.”
Cedillo was 21 years old when Preston was born. At the time, she chose to dedicate herself wholly to the care of her son, after her baby’s father decided he was not ready for parenthood.
A year and a half later, encouraged by her new boyfriend, Cedillo decided to enroll in college. Because of its proximity and affordable tuition, Eastfield seemed like the right choice.
Every day before heading to class she drops off her son at a daycare in Sunnyvale.
“It costs a little bit, and by a little bit I mean a lot,” Cedillo said. “But it’s totally worth it, because they have a curriculum, so it feels like he’s going to school too.”
After taking her classes, Cedillo returns home around 3 p.m., does homework, takes care of chores and picks up Preston before 6 p.m. Then she makes dinner and spends time with her son while doing more homework.
“I’ll be outside [in the backyard with him] practicing my speech, or typing my paper while he’s playing,” she said.
Alderete and Junior, who is now 13 years old and in middle school, also spend some of their afternoons doing homework together.
“I remember at one time I had history with professor [Mike] Noble,” Alderete said. “[In Junior’s class] they were talking about George Washington and I was reading about him too. It was kind of neat, him and I doing the same thing for history.”
She remembers sitting at the kitchen table with her son, sharing facts about Washington.
“Did you know about this?” she asked.
“No, mom, they don’t have it in my textbook,” Junior replied.
“Well, they have it on my textbook. Look!” Alderete said.
“A couple of times we did that with history,” she said. “We studied together.”
Alderete plans to transfer to Texas A&M Commerce and pursue a bachelor’s degree in special needs education. Working as a special needs teacher at a local elementary school has been her goal since she started college three years ago.
Although she wants to move to Commerce, Alderete has decided to make the one-hour commute to class so her son can stay in his school.
She said she will try to build her schedule around Junior’s, so that she doesn’t have to drop him off so early in the morning anymore.
“He’s a straight-A student,” she said. “I don’t want to mess that up for him.”