{Student Mama} Graduate School Struggles And The Single Momma

By Alicia Harper


It was three weeks before graduation and I had a 25-page paper due by 1 p.m. the next day for my Family As A Context For Child Development class. I absolutely loved this class and learned so much in it. But I was done. Overdone. And I was tired. Over tired. And I just wanted to graduate.

But first I’d have to get through this paper and a few other long assignments, presentations, and finals. That night, after I tucked Aiden in bed at 8 p.m., I cried. No scratch that. I sobbed. A lot. Uncontrollably. The overwhelming workload and overall stress of being a student momma had gotten to me.

I did the only thing that I knew to do in order to keep my sanity when working out and eating well and staying hydrated with lots of water didn’t work. I meditated… on success and hard work and how far I’d come up until that point.

I graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in Psychology in 2006 and was pretty well employed. But I decided to go to grad school because I wanted more. More opportunities. More career choices. More money. The things you can do with a Bachelor degree are great, but things you can do with a Masters degree are phenomenal. At least that’s what I thought. And think.

When I applied for grad school, I made a commitment to Aiden and myself that I was going to see it through come heck or high water. I adopted a “whatever it takes” mentality, and believe you me, it took a lot.

At the beginning of each semester, I’d look at the syllabi for all five classes. (Yes, I took five graduate level classes each and every semester. And yes, it was rough.) Because of my type-A personality, I’d get my calendar and plan out when I’d work on each assignment. I wanted to feel in control by getting a head start on things. By mid-semester, every semester, that plan went out the window because, well, life happened and unexpected things always arose.

If it was not my breaking up with Aiden’s father and becoming a single mom or my babysitter getting a fulltime job and not being able to look after Aiden while I was in class, it was something else.

Finding a babysitter always proved to be an issue, but it comes with the parenting territory, I guess. Some weeks, I played it by ear. I had three sitters who were available at three different times and on different days. On the eve before class, I’d call all three of them to ask who was available to babysit while I attended class. Most of the time, I’d luck out, but sometimes none of them were available. So off to class we went, Aiden and me.

On the train ride, I’d frantically try to finish a reading assignment, pencil in hand to take notes and underline important passages. I’d sometimes get weird looks from strangers because I was seemingly ignoring the son sitting in the stroller in front of me. But I wasn’t. I was as attentive as an exhausted student-momma on a deadline could be. So I had to bear the looks. Oh well…

One day, I was at work and had to leave early because my head was throbbing, my body ached, I felt incredibly weak and tired, and I had the chills. I looked and felt like hell. These were flu-like symptoms, but I already had my flu-shot for the season. Later, a doctor visit confirmed that it wasn’t the flu. It was stress, which manifests physically for me. Go figure.

There were rough times and rougher times. Nothing about it was easy. Not. One. Thing. But, during the rough times, I took deep breaths and prioritized as best I could. During the rougher times, I repeatedly told myself that this was a short period in my life with a very specific end goal – to get those degrees.


When I fulfilled the 32 credits to receive my M.A. in Psychological Counseling, I was overjoyed. But I wasn’t done. In NYC, you cannot get a license to practice mental health with only an M.A., although you can get a pretty decent job. I’m somebody’s mother now. “Pretty decent” would be good enough if it were only me, but someone else is depending on me now.

Luckily, my graduate program at Columbia didn’t terminate with an M.A. They expected everyone to get the M.A. (32 credits) en passant to getting the Ed.M. (30 credits more, 62 credits total).

I had my M.A., but I had another year as a full time grad student to go. Another year of juggling babysitters. Another year of taking notes on the train. Another year of grinding with little-to-no sleep. Another year of self-motivation. Another year of pushing harder and stronger.

It won’t be easy, I’d say to myself. But I was fully committed. “Whatever it takes,” right?


Endurance…. It’s damn near half the battle, right?


That night I sobbed, but it was okay. The next day, I handed in my 25-page paper. I got an A on it. Three weeks later, I graduated from Columbia. Two Master degrees in one hand, Aiden in the other.

We did it.

No excuses. Grind, hustle, and push. Hard. And get that degree.



  1. I have no words… that’s just amazing. I’m currently working on my bachelors with a three year old and a full-time job as well, and that’s not easy whatsoever! I feel your pain. You are a very determined/ambitious person and it’s great to see that hard work does pay off!!

    • It definitely is NOT easy, but I always say that it IS doable. Hard work does pay off so keep on keeping on.

      • i know this was posted well over a year ago, and i have not a clue if ill get a reply but i too am a young single mother currently living in florida and working on my a.a degree. I so despearately want to move to new york for my b.a and m.a, im weel organized and very self- motivated like you described yourself. im only terrified that finding a good job and place will be hard and also finding the time for my son through school and work… would you at all have any advice for me trying to still hold on to the things that i want to accomplish for me and my son?

  2. Congrats! You had the will and the way. I hope you take a vacation and decompress before plunging into FT work.

  3. CONGRATS!!! You are truly an inspiration! I went through my last year of undergrad as a single mom, ex-girlfriend to a drug addicted, bad-tempered, bi-polar, drug dealer, baby daddy. It was tough but I knew I had to finish for my daughter. Now, 10 years later, I’m a year into grad school with a husband and 3 kids, so my struggle continues but the end result is well worth the sweat and tears!

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank YOU for sharing your story too. Like you said, you KNEW you had to finish… for your daughter. It’ll be the same determination that’ll get you to and through graduate school. Keep moving forward, Mama. Let’s show ’em what we’re made of.

  4. That is phenomenal!! Aren’t you SO glad it’s all over – the papers, the deadlines, the presentations, the clinical? Whew, I got stressed just reading this.

    It’s nothing more than a test of ego strength, grad school… and you emerged successful and stronger than ever! So happy for you!!!

    • You hit the nail on the head, Yakini — a test of ego strength is really what it is. How badly do you want it, is the question I had to keep asking myself. Thanks so much! I am SO totally overjoyed that it is O.V.E.R.


    This is an amazing piece. I must say that I’ve been extremely nervous about being a graduate student and single mother. Being that I just finished my undergrad journey, I know how demanding school can be and as a first time mother this will be new to me. I admire the fact that there are other mothers out there in the same boat who arent afraid to share their stories. Reading other testimonies reassures me that yes, I will be faced with difficult challenges, but I will overcome those obstacles. Since I’ve revealed that I was pregnant, I’ve heard nothing but negative comments from people telling me what I could not do. Ironically, knowing that I have someone depending on me has made my drive and determination extremely solid. I am thankful to have that same reassurance from others, Thanks Alicia for sharing.

    • Jasmine– THIS is why I keep sharing my story. If I can help just ONE person, one mother out there to know that she is not alone in her struggles and that the “impossible” is, well, not so impossible, then mission accomplished! Keep pushing forward. You have a cheerleading in me and in the entire YML community.


  6. :)

  7. Beautiful post, Alicia.

  8. I really don’t think you know how much you inspire me. I’ve said this before on a previous post on your blog, but you are truly an inspiration to me. Sometimes, I feel that what I’m doing is impossible. Raising kids on my own is a difficult task, and sometimes I get discouraged. Sometimes, I feel that all of what I’m doing is impossible. And then there’s you, and there’s Tara, and other people that I’ve met through blogging with the same or similar struggle. And suddenly, everything doesn’t seem so impossible.

    • Carla, sometimes it’s so easy to be discouraged, especially when you feel as though you’re down and out. But… WE are living proof that the impossible is, well, not so impossible. :-)

      • @Alicia – I want to get that tattooed on me: “The impossible is not so impossible.”

  9. Alicia I adore you!

  10. Alicia, I am so happy for you, You are a fireball of inspiration and true grit. Congrats and all the best for your very bright future!

  11. I am so about to get my school hustle on. I have been wanting to go back for a while. Officially, getting the ball rolling.

  12. There are tears gently rolling down my face right now. I don’t even know what else to say. Thank you for solidarity.

  13. This was motivational. I’m currently in my late 20’s back in school to obtain my b.a. with intentions of attending grad school. I have a child and concerned with financially supporting us and school. Any pointers on working and attending grad school as a mom?

  14. Hi this is inspirational. I’m trying to improve my family’s life too. I realized with my 2nd child I want to finish. And then the I started thinking how I should probably try to make myself more marketable, for all of us. I’d like to know more tips about how you managed meals, and budgets. I keep running into the problem of no babysitter. I don’t know what’s going to be the best follow up to my BA, and I should be applying for grad school this winter, and graduating next summer. And my 2nd baby is due in the winter. It’s daunting, even though I know it is what I want, because I don’t want to waste any more time–I want to figure it all out now. Someone suggested that it is possible to take a break between your BA and MA (like a year) but one thing I’ve seen is how easily we put it off, once we ‘quit’ or step away from our goals. Oh, and new babies are sick a lot. Would like to know how you did meals, and some more about your organizational skills. This is my 2nd time being pregnant while trying to finish up a degree (BA, still!) and I’m so close it’s agonizing. Last time, I had to stop attending because I had ZERO babysitting options, and was too scared to put my first child into any one else’s care. Now, with the second, I just know it’s not so harmful as I once believed, and in the long run, it raises our family income capacity. I don’t know whether I should try to jump into more education, with two little ones and not quite knowing what I want to get out of my further education (and putting my family thru those stressors), or if I should take some time off, like until they are both attending their first or second year of school. :) Any advice from others on that? Way to go, I love strong woman. Some days I am there, and others, I feel beat down. I’ve always known in my heart the only person we can truly rely upon is ourselves, but that once we have children, we must learn to trust others, too. That, too, takes courage, to challenge our spiritual fears, and accept the truth that we can surpass our own known limits. :-) *love* to all my single mom-sisters out there striving for the sake of our children. PS. I am also like a B-average student with a bit lower GPA right now, and for me it’s OK because I’ve struggled as a mom thru school. But I’m concerned also about applying and being turned down because maybe they don’t think I’m up to standards. Taking GREs, figuring out how to earn enough to buy a house, and raise our kids the way we think is right. I’m actually most scared of state licensing exams, and the responsibility with being given a license like that (say in psychology).