Barbara Bolich’s life turned upside down seven years ago when her divorce left her with four girls to raise.
Pregnant at the time with her youngest daughter, Bolich decided to go to college to start a career.
Sunday, she graduated from Gonzaga University, the latest milestone on her road to becoming a schoolteacher.
Commencement, she said, was an achievement marked by determination and sacrifice. The fact that GU holds graduation on Mother’s Day made for a nice present to herself and her children, she said.
“I knew what I had to do,” said Bolich, 40, one of 1,130 students receiving diplomas.
Although colleges don’t keep track of how many students are single moms, Bolich and women like her have become a significant presence on campuses.
They see college as the best way to achieve financial success, and they are willing to go through years of hard work to achieve their goals.
“I just needed to survive,” Bolich said.
College is tough enough, but the demands are doubly difficult for single parents, who must sandwich classes and homework around their children’s needs. Many of them have jobs, too, to keep from sinking too deeply into debt with college loans.
Kathy Brooks, another single mom, marched through commencement Sunday for a bachelor’s degree in general studies at Gonzaga.
During the semesters leading up to Sunday’s ceremony, she slept as little as a couple of hours some nights so she could complete her studies.
Brooks, 35, has three daughters and is employed full-time fielding consumer complaints for the state attorney general’s office in Spokane. She is finishing with a 3.6 grade-point average and was given the Jerome Nadal award recognizing her efforts to overcome hardship in earning her degree.
After graduation, Brooks hopes to continue working in the consumer division in a job starting at $11 an hour, plus benefits.
“I am really making it,” she said. “It was a lot of work, but in the long run for the kids and myself we are far better off. A lot of people say, ‘I don’t know how you do it.”’
Whether it’s because of the breakdown of the family, or the growing need of adults to improve their skills, people like Bolich and Brooks prove it’s never too late to start a career.
“They sacrifice a lot to go through here,” said Michael Sable, president of GU’s Encore organization, a support group for non-traditional students.
GU has 600 students over age 25 and the majority of those are parents.
The remarkable thing about single parents doubling as students is their ability to establish long-term goals and then struggle through years of college to achieve them, said Sable.
“So many people these days are looking at the short term,” he said.
For Bolich and Brooks, the decision to go to college came when they were at emotional lows. Both were fighting through the pain of divorce and the prospect of single-handedly raising children.
Bolich said she has insisted on maintaining the kind of values she learned as a child. The family attends church regularly. Children do their homework at night and only get to watch television on weekends.
Having the TV turned off doesn’t bother the children as much as their mother’s endless pursuit of knowledge. She has a 3.99 grade-point average.
“She’s always busy,” complained 12-year-old Alicia, the second oldest. “We have to stay downstairs and be quiet while she’s studying.”
Alicia, however, said she understands what her mother is trying to accomplish.
Since starting college, Bolich has told her children the family goal is for her to get a job so they can trade their apartment for a home. Then the girls can have a puppy.
She wants to become a special education teacher, and she’s gotten a start this spring as a substitute teacher.
For Bolich, the late start to a teaching career may prove to be an asset.
“There’s a maturity she brings,” said Marsha Young, principal at Evergreen Elementary School in north Spokane where Bolich is student-teaching.
“There’s a sense of caring and a sense of who she is,” Young said.
Joy Zahl, an Evergreen parent, said Bolich “has the ability to make each kid feel special.”
Said Bolich: “I really like kids, and I think they deserve any chance they can get.”
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