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.