Last year on Mother's Day, I was driving through the Rocky Mountains, on my way from Oregon to Maine where my life was about to change forever. It was the first Mother's Day I had spent without my kids since they were born, and the first Mother's Day since my own mother had passed away. I yearned to call her to share the news of my latest adventure, as I always had during our frequent long-distance phone chats, but I knew I couldn’t. The following week, my daughter would bring my granddaughter into the world on the southern coast of Maine. The transcontinental journey I was on would end with the newest love of my life joining our family.
My mother was my champion, my role model, my friend, and my fiercest advocate. She had floated between California state colleges for about a decade before I came along, finally earning her bachelor's degree in liberal arts when I was a baby. When I was about nine, she returned to community college to earn her landscape contractor’s degree and licensure. She started a small landscaping business, whose biggest success was its own show garden, proudly featured in Better Homes and Gardens magazine in 1998. A framed copy still hangs on the wall by the front door at my parents’ house.
I didn’t realize at the time that my mom’s journey — at least five schools and over 10 years to finish her bachelor’s degree — was typical for student parents. And like many other student parents whose accomplishments go unacknowledged and undervalued, her degree wasn't counted in retention and graduation rate data because of her long and meandering path. From the outside, her life might look like one of repeated failure and modest accomplishment. But that’s not what I saw.
I watched my mom role model learning as a lifelong process. She showed me that I could do or be anything I wanted, and she showed me how to get there. So even when I became a high school dropout, young bride, and teenage mother, I could not be swayed from pursuing my dreams. Because my mom had been a student parent too, she was a resourceful advocate, finding programs and benefits to support me and guiding me through the earliest steps of what has become my own lifelong educational journey.
With her love and unwavering support, I made it all the way from GED to Ph.D., and through a postdoctoral second master's degree. Fewer than 2 percent of young parents will earn a postsecondary degree before their 30th birthday. Yet I earned my associate's, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees by the time I was 31. Now, I’m a research scientist studying higher education access for student parents. It wasn't until years into my career that it hit me: I am not only a success story as a parent whose education improved her life and her children’s lives. I am also the story of what happens to kids who have a front-row seat to watch their parents pursue an education.
The intergenerational legacy of valuing education is visible every day in my work with student parents and their families across the country. There are nearly 4 million undergraduate student parents in the U.S., about 22 percent of all undergrads. These students are largely invisible, because they’re not who most of us picture when we imagine college students. As a result, they often don’t get the resources they need — and struggle to graduate. Only 17 percent of student parents starting their bachelor's degrees in a full-time, four-year program get their degrees within six years, as compared to nearly 60 percent of college students overall. But when they do graduate, it’s transformative for their lives and their families’ lives. I know this firsthand, because I watched education change my life and my mother’s life, and I hope it will be a positive force for my daughter.
After my granddaughter was born that beautiful, sunny May day, a hospital social worker came to speak with my daughter. I had stepped out to grab lunch and she was alone. Because she was 19 and technically a teen parent, this was standard procedure for the hospital discharge process.
"What are you going to do about your education?" the social worker demanded of my daughter.
To this, my daughter said she just smiled and replied, "I don't think you know who my mom is, but I guarantee you, we got this."
When my mom was alive, she and I talked frequently about how politicians and others fail to see the less tangible and two-generational impacts of education: fostering an informed and critically thinking electorate. But the biggest impact of my mother’s education, I think she would tell you if she could, was us: her three brilliant, creative, loving, nurturing, and well-rounded daughters, our daughters — her granddaughters — and now her great-granddaughter too. We are her legacy. A legacy that is unquestionably intergenerational.
This Mother's Day, as we approach my granddaughter's first birthday, I am proud that I can be the person in my daughter’s life that my mother was for me. And as student mothers across the country struggle to educate themselves and raise their children in a pandemic, I want them to keep in mind what I remember most about my mom: not that she did everything perfectly, but that her passion for lifelong learning nurtured and shaped me. The desire to role-model the transformative power of education, along with the hope to provide a better life for their families, is what drives student parents to fight to finish their education despite the odds. That’s the legacy they’re instilling in their children, too.
Autumn Green, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women studying higher education access for student parents. Dr. Green is nationally recognized for her scholarship on the lives of student parents and has worked to create two-generation programs on college and university campuses.