With mentor program’s help, Fairfax teen juggles college, three jobs, a 3-year-old

December 21, 2011

For a class assignment early in the fall, Emerita Ayala of Fairfax County charted a week in her life as a new college student.

Two days a week, she went to classes at Northern Virginia Community College. Other mornings and early afternoons, she studied and helped around the house. By 4 p.m. most weekdays, she was at McDonald’s in Sterling for a shift as a night manager. On Saturday, she staffed the front desk of a Catholic church in Burke. On Sunday, she was back at McDonald’s. Hours were dedicated to driving to and fro. Here and there, she made time for her favorite activity in the world — playing with her son, Dominic.

He is 3 years old. She is 18.

“I never get to see him,” Ayala said. “He’ll tell me, ‘Mommy. College.’ He knows where I’m going.”

But he doesn’t understand why his mother isn’t home to tuck him into bed. Her parents, immigrants from El Salvador, also don’t fully understand the appeal of college. Still, Ayala is determined to earn a bachelor’s degree, launch a career in law enforcement and defy the odds that are often stacked against teen moms. It won’t be easy. She craves guidance, and she needs it.

About 5 percent of females ages 16 to 20 were mothers caring for children last year, U.S. Census data show. Of those mothers, 22 percent were taking college courses. But experts say far fewer obtain a college diploma before their children start elementary school. For a young mother, even graduating from high school is a difficult hurdle.

A few schools, especially community colleges, have built child-care centers, organized support groups for young parents and helped to arrange housing. But most expect young mothers to use services already in place. Some teen moms are hesitant to seek out help or even file for financial aid.

“They are not like everyone else. They’re not like every other college student,” said Nicole Lynn Lewis of Columbia, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the College of William and Mary while raising her daughter. “Once you get pregnant, people stop talking to you about college. If they even were talking to you about it in the first place.”

Lewis, 31, has launched a mentoring and scholarship program for young parents called Generation Hope. Last summer, the group welcomed its first class of seven moms, including Ayala.

Each woman is given a scholarship of $1,2oo to $2,400 and a mentor who helps her navigate the bureaucracy of higher education, address problems in her personal life and celebrate small successes along the way.

“I’ve been through some of the same things you have been through,” Lewis told the students at an orientation session in August. “I’ve been there, and I know what it’s like.”

Ayala was partnered with Kimberly Korbel, 54, who raised a daughter as a single mother while building a career working with business associations. Korbel has helped Ayala push Dominic’s dad for child support, urged her to file for financial aid and prompted her to get a better handle on time management.

As Lewis read applications for the program, she was surprised that many of the students were more interested in getting a mentor than a scholarship. Being a teen mom can be lonely. None of the seven is married or dating her child’s father. All of them say they don’t have any friends. At least, not like they did before becoming moms.

Ayala and Korbel talk on the phone weekly and meet up at least once a month, usually in the NVCC cafeteria between classes. One Wednesday morning in late September, Ayala told Korbel about how it had taken longer than usual to close down McDonald’s the night before.

Then, as Ayala was driving home after her shift, her co-worker called and said her car had broken down. Ayala turned around, popped open the hood and found a broken belt. Ayala didn’t get to sleep until 3 a.m. Dominic woke her a few hours later.

“So you’re taking care of everyone but Emerita — that’s not good, girlfriend,” Korbel said. “You will be able to last longer if you can find time just for you.”

But Ayala’s family needs her. Since moving to Northern Virginia in the 1990s, Ayala and her parents have become U.S. citizens. Ayala has long served as her parents’ chief translator and helped her four younger siblings with homework. Her dad works construction jobs when he can get them, and her mom cleans an apartment in the District once a week and takes care of Dominic. Ayala helps her family pay many of its bills, while also saving for tuition.

Ayala plans to complete an associate’s degree at NVCC and then transfer to George Mason University. Ayala has wanted to be a police officer or FBI agent since seventh grade, when her school’s resource officer took her and other students on a tour of a police training center and jail.

“I like the fact that you get respected,“ Ayala said. “And I like the fact that you can help people.”

Korbel gave Ayala some ideas for lessening her list of responsibilities and finding time for herself, even if it’s just an hour. Korbel told her not to take on anything more.

“I always take it on,” Ayala said. “I always do.”

“I know,” Korbel said. “That’s what worries me about you.”

In early November, Ayala took on another full-time job: assembling secure-line telephones. For now, it’s a seasonal position. If it becomes permanent, she might quit McDonald’s, so she can be home in time to put Dominic to bed.

She’s working more than 80 hours a week at McDonald’s, the phone assembly company and the church. One Tuesday she worked 18 hours straight, and sometimes she worries about falling asleep behind the wheel. Employers always give her time off to attend class. Ayala said she has yet to miss one.

“I might be five minutes late, but I’m always there,” she said.

But three jobs mean even less time with Dominic, who clings to Ayala whenever they are together. They watch his favorite show, “Dora the Explorer,” play with flash cards and count as high as they can. For him, above all else, she wants “education, education, education.”

Until she became pregnant, Ayala said she drifted through school. When she first told her parents the news in 2008, they could barely talk to her for weeks, pained by her decision to have sex before marriage. Her father worried this would derail his dreams for her future. Strangers glared at her growing belly.

A doctor urged her to see a counselor for depression, but she never did. She made the honor roll at Westfield High School in Chantilly for the first time and posted her report cards on her bedroom wall.

After Dominic was born, she broke up with her boyfriend. Alone, she was compelled to survive. She transferred to Mountain View Alternative High School in Centreville, got her driver’s license and a job at McDonald’s that quickly turned into a management position.

“It’s just me, so I have to work a million times as hard,” she said.

On Dec. 9, as Ayala prepared to leave for work early in the morning, Dominic begged her not to go.

“He was saying, ‘But mommy it’s my birthday,’ ” she said. “He was crying and crying.”

She went to work, but the pain of separation must have shown on her face because her boss asked what was wrong — and then gave her the day off. She stopped at the store on her way home to buy a balloon and cupcakes as a surprise, an apology for not being there all along. But Dominic was excited to see her.

“I know it’s going to be bad for a while,” Ayala said. “You just have to think about yourself in the future. You have someone to make proud. You have your kid.”

Database editor Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.

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Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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