Women's Center giving hope and
opportunity for students taking difficult road to college
By Lisa Christensen
April 25, 2009 | In 2005, Jenny Erazo decided she'd
Taking her three children and little else, she left
Oregon and her abusive husband to move to Utah, where
she had an aunt. She thought she would be able to get
a good job to support the four of them because she had
worked for seven years in her field, working with people
with disabilities. However, because she had no college
degree, she said she was unable to make anything above
minimum wage. She had no job, no income, no savings.
Erazo realized she had to go back to school, and her
aunt suggested applying for a scholarship through the
Utah State University Women's Center.
"I would not have made it (back to school) without
the support from the Women's Center," Erazo said.
Erazo is not alone in her story, her circumstances
or, fortunately, the opportunity she has had as a single
mother to go back and finish her education. According
to 2008 scholarship application information from the
Women's Center, the average age of the 143 applicants
was 33.3 years and had an average of 2.41 children.
Some are single because of divorce or death, and a few
have never been married. But whatever the reason, single
mothers have a very different college experience than
the typical student.
"When you're paying for it on your own and spending
time away from your kids, it makes school very different,"
said Patricia Stevens, director of the Women's Center.
Theresa Handy, another student who has been helped
through the Women's Center, said she found it amazing
how much different school was after her divorce than
before she was married.
"It's a really big change to think about going back
to school again," she said.
Stevens said the university doesn't keep statistics
on how many of its students are single mothers or fathers,
but she estimates 12 to 15 percent being "non-traditional
students," students who have a five-year or more gap
in their formal education. Around 40 percent of these
non-traditional students are single parents, she said,
most of these being single mothers but a few single
fathers are also among the number the center helps.
Most are divorced, Stevens said, many of them from situations
involving domestic violence, which is a big problem
According to the 2006 report released by No More Secrets,
domestic violence has been steadily rising this decade,
with nearly 165,000 volunteer hours, or the equivalent
of more than 20,500 work days, given between July 1,
2004, and June 30, 2005, at 15 Utah shelters. Of these,
almost 30,000 days of service were given to women, more
than 35,000 to children and 613 to men, it states. Stevens
said Utah's domestic violence problem is worse perhaps
than in other places because of other factors unique
to Utah, chief among them the strong emphasis on families
"You couple (Utah's domestic violence problem) with
that Utah has the highest birth rate," Stevens said,
"and the statistics are against you."
Children frequently make it harder for a mother to
leave a domestic violence situation because trying to
survive on her own without the help of a partner is
a daunting prospect. Especially when going to school,
Stevens said, a single mother has to learn skills that
other parents and more traditional students don't have
to worry about as much.
Handy is currently pursuing a master's degree in hopes
of becoming a school counselor, having already graduated
with her bachelor's in math education in 1990 from BYU.
She did well in school being in the top percentage of
her graduating class and was even invited to speak at
graduation. She taught junior high and high school math
for eight years before getting married, when she quit
to become a stay-at-home mom. The pair welcomed a daughter
in 2000. Unfortunately, Handy said, the marriage was
rocky from the beginning. She felt lonely, rejected,
put down and unloved, and they divorced a little more
than six years after the wedding. Even though she had
a degree, Handy was unable to get a good job because
she had let her teaching license lapse, not thinking
she'd need it again. Furthermore, she said, the world
was a little different since the last time she taught.
"You know, things had changed since 1998," she said,
noting the explosion of computer technology, especially
in the classroom.
She knew she needed more education but was not emotionally
ready immediately following the divorce to go back to
school. In 2005 she first went to the Women's Center
and said they were very encouraging about helping her
get back to school. Handy still wasn't quite ready,
but said she continued to consider the idea and in the
meantime became involved with the Women's Center's monthly
The Women's Center holds monthly workshops which are
open to the public but directed at single parents and
non-traditional students. Topics addressed at these
workshops include stress management, depression, financial
advice and body image. Additionally, Stevens said, the
Women's Center makes sure to focus on three issues single
parents need in particular: money, child care and time
management. Each of these issues carries under with
it several other issues, Stevens said. Money, for example,
she said, involves consideration to money for rent and
other necessities, as well as tuition money and money
to pay child care providers.
Child care is another consideration in itself, Stevens
said, because besides trying to figure out how to pay
for it, single parents might not know where to find
it, and then they have to work around the hours of that
daycare. To help alleviate this problem, Stevens said,
the Brigham City USU campus has an on-site daycare for
students while they are in class called Students With
Children. Children are cared for but not fed or changed,
Stevens said, because that would require a higher level
of child-care license, and are only allowed to be in
the center when a mother or other caregiver is in the
building. Mothers are alerted via pagers and through
the use of cameras when their child needs changing or
feeding. This model works at the Brigham City campus,
Stevens said, because the entire campus is one building;
however, with the Logan campus' multi-building structure,
many of which are far distances apart, it is not a practical
idea for the main USU campus.
In part through the topics presented at these workshops
and from the social bonds she built at them, Handy said,
along with more consideration and healing, she decided
to go back to school in summer 2006. She was accepted
into the Professional School Counseling Education program
in fall 2007 and is scheduled to graduate in May 2010.
"(Going back to school) became very empowering," Handy
said, citing networking, friendships and opportunities
to volunteer as side benefits of returning to college.
She brings her daughter, now 8, to volunteer activities
to help teach her to serve and take care of others.
The encouragement of the people in the Women's Center
was what made the biggest difference in her decision
to return to school, Handy said.
"Those little things you know someone's being your
little cheerleader that gives you a boost," she said.
"It's not easy being a single parent going to school."
Stevens said personal relationships with the students
through the Women's Center is one of the most important
things they do. Students have almost always come from
difficult circumstances and sometimes a lot of healing
"We do a lot of talking," she said
Erazo agreed and said the financial support from the
Women's Center has only been the start of the help she's
"Monetary support is great," Erazo said, "but the
emotional support makes the difference."
Now a junior in social work set to graduate in May
2010, Erazo said she wants to help others who have been
the victims of domestic violence by trying to reform
laws and policies to keep people from falling through
the cracks or becoming prey to loopholes. Custody rights
and procedures, for example, need reforming, she said.
Even though her ex-husband was emotionally and physically
abusive to her and her children and abandoned them financially
and emotionally after she left, she said, he still technically
has custody of them.
"If he were to show up tomorrow he would have full
rights to my kids, and to me that's just not fair,"
She said she feels so strongly about helping others
because of her own experiences.
"I can either be upset about the way my life has gone
or I can use my experiences to make changes to (the
system)," she said. "(My experience) has helped me to
be more understanding, not so judgmental."
Stevens said mothers will often tell her their ability
to finish their education has not only helped them but
benefitted their children, as well. This is because
numerous studies have found the education level of a
child is directly affected by the education level attained
by the mother, she said. Mothers are seeing that education
is the way out of their situation, their current status,
Stevens said, and she is glad to help in any way to
help them get the most out of their education. The valley
is full of generous donors who help fund the scholarships
and even opportunities for study abroad or internship
programs, she said.
"There's a lot of support in the valley," Stevens
said, "an incredible amount."
The recent economic downturn hasn't made a significant
dent on the funding from the donors because they also
feel strongly about this program and helping the women
in it, Stevens said.
"They're amazing, strong, intelligent women and they
are incredibly grateful for any help we can give them,"
Stevens said each of them are individuals and have
their own story to tell. Handy said she is often amazed
at what some women have had to go through, but no matter
the perceived difficulty, each story is a very personal
"Everybody's got their own story, but that's my story,
so it is a big deal to me," she said. "This is me, this
is my life."
Erazo said her story has caused her to now have a
really positive outlook on the world and she appreciates
her current life and is grateful she got out of her
"My very worst day today is better than my best day
when I was in that (abusive situation)," she said.
For more information on the Women's Center, go to
or email email@example.com.