Courtesy of Melanie Gerner
Melanie Gerner returned to community college 16 years after dropping out because she wanted to provide a better life for her daughter and today is pursuing a Master's Degree.

After dropping out of high school and community college and a 16-year hiatus from any kind of schooling, I returned to Long Beach City College in the spring of 2018. I was 41. And couldn’t have been less prepared for what I was about to take on.

Returning to community college was no easy feat as a single mother and first-generation, low-income college student. I continually worried about how to meet my family’s basic needs while I balanced a return to school. I freelanced as an audio-visual technician and sometimes skipped class to work. At Long Beach City College, I didn’t qualify for financial aid because I had too many incomplete semesters from when I first attended sometime after completing my GED at age 19.

Every semester I question the sacrifices and insanity I must put up with as a college student-parent. I spend every waking hour taking care of my family or attending class or doing homework, working my student assistant job or searching for a new job to help make ends meet. My daughter and I have received public assistance in many forms, including cash aid, Medicaid and food stamps. I suppose I realized after my daughter was born that my pursuit of a higher education is the only way out for both of us, so I do what it takes to make it happen.

I often find myself wanting to tell others how emotionally and physically draining my daily life is and the struggles that I face as a student parent. That would have been difficult in March 2019, when I was working 10 to 14-hour days and carrying a full-time load as a community college student. I would have broken down just trying to explain it all. Who would be able to help, anyway?

Today, I am completely numb. The pandemic has made everything that was already hard ten times harder. And introduced new hurdles and hassles, including online learning and shelter-in-place for me and my now 9-year-old daughter.

“I don’t know how you do it,” relatives say to me. “How do you keep going,” friends ask.

The answer is simple. I have no other option.

My daughter is the most important person in my life and I will never let her down. And to do right by her, I need a well-paying career. And to get that I need a college degree. Like I said, I have no other option than to do it all.

I must be a mom. I must be a breadwinner. I must be a college student.

There is no room to give.

I am proud to say that in the fall of 2019, I managed to transfer with honors from Long Beach City College to California State University, Dominguez Hills while balancing life with a then third-grader and freelancing as an audio-visual technician. My plan is to apply for grad school for a master’s in educational technology/academic design, so I can work in higher education and help students through technology. Eventually, I hope to work as an instructional technologist.

When I landed at CSU Dominguez Hills, I qualified for financial aid for the first time since returning to college, and it eased some financial burdens. I still had to work, often outside the 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. hours offered at my daughter’s onsite elementary school child care program.

Cue my babysitting team.

I do not have only one sitter or just a childcare facility, I have a team. A single parent needs a team of care providers. There is not one person in my life who can or will drop everything to hang out with my child to accommodate my school or work schedule. Furthermore, everyone on my team outside of Kids Club, has been vetted for a minimum of 10 years by me.

I am particular about who my daughter stays with. If I need to be in Santa Monica at 6 a.m., I will need a vetted adult to wake my daughter up and get her dressed with breakfast and safely transported to school.

That’s it. That’s my recipe for success as a student parent of a now fourth-grader.

I work, study and take care of my girl. I sleep if and when possible. I apply for scholarships, grants and side jobs and operate my own babysitting squad.

That is the only way I know how to do it. My daughter’s safety, security and smiles make it all worth it.

Melanie Gerner is a senior at California State University, Dominguez Hills and a member of EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps.

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