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(Graduation) Hats Off to Mothers

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With Mother's Day flowers still fresh and commencements kicking off this week, let's table the debate of working mothers versus stay-at-home mothers, and instead turn that energy into saluting the achievements of resilient student mothers -- those young women, many single mothers, who juggle family, jobs, and school so that their children can have the best future possible.

Take Jennifer, a 22-year-old mother of one who enrolled in the Ruth Matthews Bourger Women with Children Program at Misericordia University in Dallas, PA, after overcoming homelessness and her parents' drug addictions. Jennifer worked towards her bachelor's degree in biology and served as an academic tutor while her daughter received on-site, high-quality early education. This month Jennifer will graduate -- with her kindergarten-age daughter, who is reading, by her side -- with plans to pursue a medical career.

Or take Sheri*, a mother of four in Tulsa, Oklahoma, whose two youngest children are enrolled in the Community Action Project's (CAP) Head Start program. CAP offers health care and health information technology training to the parents of enrolled children through its CareerAdvance™ program. When Sheri connected to CareerAdvance™, she had only completed eleventh grade; the CareerAdvance™ staff helped Sheri earn her GED and she has started her clinical rotations. Later this month, Sheri will sit for her Registered Medical Assistant Exam.

Jennifer and Sheri will don graduation caps and gowns and receive their credentials this spring, representing high-quality skills training that will put them and their families on a more solid economic path for the future.

But these student moms didn't get there alone. Jennifer and Sheri were able to succeed in part because they participated in two-generation programs that provide educational and economic opportunities for both parents and their children. In bi-partisan focus groups with low-income parents that Ascend at The Aspen Institute conducted across the country last fall, the possibilities offered by two-generation approaches resonated strongly with moms, and in particular single moms. As a Latina single mom in Los Angeles told us, "When you reach out to the parents, you are enabling them and empowering them to help their children as well."

Being part of a two-generation approach meant that the mothers at Misericordia University and CareerAdvance™ were able to concentrate on their learning and skill development, and attend classes knowing that their children were in safe, quality early learning programs. These families also had access to critical economic supports that minimized the paycheck-to-paycheck struggles and logistical chaos that can plague low-income parents' lives. Whether it's the Earned Income Tax Credit, student financial aid, or health insurance, these kinds of supports provide stability that parents can build upon.

These moms also had the chance to develop connections and support systems -- social capital -- that many of us take for granted. While these young women relied on those closest to them -- families, friends, faith organizations -- to give them positive reinforcement and much-needed help with children or bills, through two-generation programs they made lifelong connections with fellow students, advisors, career coaches, and teachers, all of whom may be crucial links to new jobs, and a more vibrant economic and community life.

The most exciting aspect of the two-generation approach, however, is its power and potential putting both parents and children together on track for a virtuous cycle of economic success. As Vicki Austin, director of the program at Misericordia University observed, "I see the mothers and their children study and celebrate grades together, and now some of the children that were part of the program with their mothers are attending the University as adults."

America is filled with thousands of women like Jennifer and Sheri, who possess drive and determination -- but who need opportunities and support to make a better life for themselves and their children. Two-generation strategies can provide avenues so that more mothers can toss their graduation cap in the air -- and watch their children catch it.

*Sheri is a pseudonym.

Anne Mosle is a Vice President for Policy Programs at the Aspen Institute and Executive Director of Ascend at the Institute.