Emerita Ayala, 23, takes a selfie with her son, Dominic, 8, during her graduation party at Guapo’s in Fair Lakes, Va. Emerita earned a bachelor’s degree from George Mason University on Dec. 21, 2016. She started at 18 and got help through the Generation Hope nonprofit, which gives scholarships and mentoring to teen moms. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

After the graduation and before the marriage ceremony, Emerita Ayala’s family gathered one recent afternoon at a Mexican restaurant in Northern Virginia for a lunch to celebrate her big day. Helium balloons declaring “Congratulations” floated above the long table.

The 23-year-old, still in her green graduation gown, had just been awarded a bachelor’s degree from George Mason University. The daughter of Salvadoran immigrants in Fairfax County, Ayala was the first in her family to get a college diploma. She had overcome formidable obstacles: When she started, she was a single teenage mother.

So Ayala ordered a strawberry margarita at Guapo’s in the Fair Lakes shopping center and savored a moment that a few years ago might have seemed improbable, if not impossible. Dominic Ayala, by her side, ordered apple juice.

The 8-year-old said he was “really happy and proud” of his mother and explained why: “I can spend more time with her when she has graduated.”

Free time, as mother and son well know, is scarce for a single parent who holds full- and part-time jobs and carries a full university course load. Ayala’s success was the product, above all, of her own determination to get an education, a resolution she traces to her pregnancy at age 15.

She remembers when classmates and adults saw her swelling belly and doubted her future. “Their reaction was, ‘She’s not doing anything with her life. Her life is over,’ ” she recalled. “I just really wanted to prove all these people wrong. I’m not going to be a failure.” With diploma in hand, Ayala said she plans to pursue a career in criminal justice. Her dream is to work for the FBI.

But there is more to her story than defiant ambition. Ayala, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, got help from key sources. Her family provided child care and housing. Public higher education enabled her to start at a low-cost community college and transfer to the university. And she received a scholarship from a nonprofit organization called Generation Hope, which provides funding and mentoring to help teenage parents in the Washington region earn a college degree.

The need for such help across the country is vast. Recent federal data suggests that there are about 4.8 million parents in college, said Barbara Gault, vice president and executive director of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Those student-parents face steep challenges. Many schools offer little or no child care, and federal data shows that what care is available on campus has dwindled in recent years.

Many young parents, especially teenagers, skip college entirely.

“The chances of teen moms getting a college education are extremely small,” Gault said. “Their financial needs are so intense.” It’s not just about tuition, fees, room and board. It’s also about child care and time commitments.

“Without support,” Gault said, “it becomes a near-impossibility to manage taking care of a child by yourself and attending college full time or even part time.”

Five years ago, Ayala was profiled by The Washington Post as she began at Northern Virginia Community College. Her life then was hectic and exhausting.

There were classes two days a week. There were three jobs: managing a night shift at a McDonald’s, staffing a front desk at a Catholic church on weekends, assembling telephones for a company in Dulles. There was Dominic, then 3 years old and not understanding why his mom had to study late at night and get up early for work, even on his birthday. Ayala’s mother, father and sister would take care of him in their townhouse in Centreville when she couldn’t.

There was also a mentor from Generation Hope, Kimberly Korbel, a Fairfax County business executive who wanted to help because she knew from personal experience what it was like to be a teenage mom. Korbel met with Ayala once a month to advise her on time management, financial aid and other life issues, and they kept in touch in between by email and phone.

Now, Ayala’s life still seems hectic and exhausting, but also exciting because her persistence paid off. She earned an associate’s degree from the community college in 2015 and transferred to Mason, the state’s largest public university. She majored in criminology, law and society and minored in psychology.

Along the way, she dropped the jobs at McDonald’s and the church, was promoted at the communications company and started working part time as a probation officer at the Fairfax County jail, a position within her field of study. Dominic started school and is now in second grade, reading “Junie B. Jones” and “Judy Moody” books.

Sometimes she took Dominic to Mason. He recalls going there once when he had a stomach virus and once after a dentist appointment. She recalls taking him with her one day to an adviser’s office while she took a test. She also remembers a time when Dominic called her while she was on campus to assure her that she would ace another exam. “He was my little cheerleader,” she said.

Often, Ayala got only five hours of sleep each night. There was no time for extracurricular activities. Given a choice between hanging out on campus and going home, she always went home. “I stressed about not being there for Dominic,” she said. “He needed me.” But the courses were fulfilling. Ayala said one of her favorites was a class on human rights that covered sex trafficking and slavery.

Her Generation Hope scholarship paid $2,400 toward Mason’s annual in-state tuition and fees of about $11,000. Ayala also received a federal Pell grant and other financial aid and wound up graduating with about $5,000 in student loans. (Dominic’s father contributed no financial support, Ayala said, and has been out of their lives for several years.)

Nicole Lynn Lewis, a former teenage mom and graduate of the College of William and Mary who founded Generation Hope, said the nonprofit has grown since its inception in 2010. It now has 87 scholars at 18 colleges in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

It had started the school year with 88 scholars but lost one when Zoruan Otto Harris, a teenage dad, was fatally shot in September at a community event in Southeast Washington just as he was about to start at Prince George’s Community College.

Lewis said the group aims to expand to serve 100 scholars by 2018. She said the three biggest issues scholars face are child-care shortages, unstable housing and domestic violence. Mentoring is crucial, she said. “This is a model that works,” Lewis said. “We want to be able to scale it, bring it to other cities.”

Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, said three Generation Hope scholars have graduated from the Catholic school in Northeast Washington and 10 are now enrolled there. “It’s a very fine organization,” McGuire said. “The kind of support they give to single teen parents, it’s just critical. There are so many young, single parents who just don’t know how to make the next move in their lives.”

Korbel, Ayala’s mentor, was at EagleBank Arena on Dec. 21 to see Ayala graduate with 2,508 others who received bachelor’s degrees from Mason. “I would not miss this for anything,” Korbel said. “I can’t tell you how proud I am and how proud she should be of herself. She’s come a long way.”

Also cheering were parents Martin Ayala, 51, a construction worker, and Zenayda Marinela Ayala, 44, who cleans houses and takes care of their three sons: Martin, 16; Joel, 8; and Christopher, 6. Emerita’s sister, also named Zenayda, is 21 and wants to follow her path from the community college to Mason. “She’s been an example,” the sister said. “We all look up to her.”

The morning commencement was just the first life ritual in Emerita Ayala’s big day. In the afternoon, she would marry a man she had known since middle school, Josue Alvarenga, 23, a forklift driver from Manassas. After lunch, she and Alvarenga and Dominic and others in the family gathered for a civil ceremony at a lawyer’s office in Fairfax. She would no longer be a single mom.

Jose E. Auñon, who officiated in a small conference room, asked a question before the couple exchanged vows: Was Ayala thinking about law school? The new graduate laughed.

“No, I’m tired,” she said. “I’m tired of school.”