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Bonding on campus

In Beverly, single parents earn degrees while living at college with their kids

Meghann Martino and Mariel Margarin head out of their Endicott College dorm with Margarin’s son, Damien, 3, to enjoy a nearby playground. Meghann Martino and Mariel Margarin head out of their Endicott College dorm with Margarin’s son, Damien, 3, to enjoy a nearby playground. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Wendy Killeen
Globe Correspondent / November 6, 2011

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A manda Lapierre, 21, and Meghann Martino, 22, are good friends and college roommates. But that’s not all; they’re both single parents of toddlers.

The young women are part of the Keys to Degrees Program at Endicott College in Beverly, which allows academically qualified single parents ages 18 to 24 to be full-time students and live on campus with their children.

The program, which started in 1993, is designed for a maximum of 10 students, men or women. This year it is serving eight mothers and their children, ages 10 1/2 months to 4 years.

“With all of us together, it’s like a family,’’ said Martino, of Salem, N.H., who is a sophomore nursing student and mother of 2-year-old Jackson.

“There’s definitely tons of support for us here,’’ said Lapierre, of Springfield, a sophomore liberal arts major and mother of 3-year-old Zavier. “It’s super helpful.’’

The single parents and their kids live in apartments in a wing of a dormitory built in 2005. Two moms and their children share each apartment. Each person has his or her own bedroom, and they share a bathroom, additional vanity sinks, a kitchen, and a living area. The dorm also has a large playroom for the children. The parents are allowed to stay in the dorm during the summer, whether they are taking classes or working off campus.

“It provides a stable living environment,’’ said Barbara Siergiewicz, coordinator of Keys to Degrees.

The program provides financial aid, scholarships, and grants. It also offers workshops on parenting issues and life skills such as managing money. And there is a baby-sitting cooperative among the parents.

The big plus: The parents have the opportunity to attend college for four years and earn a bachelor’s degree.

“We know the statistics are pretty grim as far as single parents getting out of the poverty level,’’ said Siergiewicz. “This program gives them a future.’’

She said the children also benefit from being together and having access to quality day care.

“No other comprehensive program like ours exists in Massachusetts that I know of,’’ she said.

The program was created by Richard E. Wylie, president of Endicott since 1987. He said the idea was the result of talking with the family of a young woman visiting the college in 1993.

“The father said to me, ‘I don’t know why my daughter is interviewing here. She’s going to have a baby and I’m not going to take care of the child,’ ’’ Wylie recalled. “I felt frustrated.’’

Shortly afterward, Keys for Degrees was in place - and that young woman was on the way to her degree. Now, Endicott is helping other colleges across the country replicate the program.

“It’s a deserving population that is largely ignored,’’ said Wylie. “They have chosen to be responsible and keep the child. They want to go to school and be independent and not rely on federal aid or their parents.’’

Lapierre, Martino, and Mariel Margarin said if they were not at Endicott they likely would be living with their parents. Katrina Costa, 20, of Melrose, mother of 10 1/2-month-old Kylie, was living with her brother in Beverly before enrolling at Endicott.

Margarin, 19, of Lawrence, an honors student majoring in psychology with a concentration in criminal justice, is the mother of 3-year-old Damien. She said the program “prepares us for life after college and living on our own and working.’’

She added, “It sets an example for our kids, too. Damien can’t tell me he can’t go to school.’’

Lapierre added, “It’s also encouraging for other moms seeing single parents who have the same struggles going to college.’’

Still, it isn’t easy. “Time management is big,’’ said Margarin. “We have class and then have to pick up our kids at day care [the moms are required to have cars] and cook dinner and clean and do laundry. And we have to do that on a daily basis, and on top of that homework and studying.’’

Many of the young women also have jobs off campus. “We’re full-time moms, but if you work and consider school a job, we also have two jobs,’’ said Martino, who works at an athletic club and a restaurant.

And, she said, “We want to spend as much time as possible with the kids.’’

“It’s all really exhausting,’’ Margarin added.

The young mothers said they spend most of their time together.

“People are nice, and good with the kids,’’ said Lapierre. “But you go in the dining hall and you get looks from other students. You are not cast out from the population, but you are different.’’

Their dorm also houses traditional students. “Parties are going on and loud music is playing, and we are home watching a movie with our babies asleep,’’ said Martino.

“Living on campus, we notice more what we’re missing about our teenage years because we see the other students, people our age, and what they are doing,’’ said Margarin.

Still, the young moms wouldn’t trade anything for the opportunities Keys to Degrees gives them.

“Is it easier every day? No,’’ said Costa. “Is it easier knowing I will be secure in the future? Yes.’’

“I know when everyone graduates, they have a huge sense of accomplishment,’’ said Martino. “But we are working 10 times harder than every other person on campus. We are going to graduate and get our degrees and we’re going to be able to say we did it balancing our kids, our homework, and jobs. That’s a huge sense of accomplishment.’’

KEYS TO DEGREES
1993 Program started
18 to 24 Age range for parents in program
8 Mothers in program this year
10 1/2 months to 4 years Ages of their kids
Source: Endicott College


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