When Amanda Cavin crossed Winthrop University’s graduation stage this weekend, it was the grand finale of the greatest balancing act of her life.
At age 43, she earned her undergraduate degree Saturday – 25 years after enrolling in her first college class.
“I started at Winthrop when I graduated from high school and I flunked out – I just wasn’t ready,” Cavin said. “It was always my biggest regret.”
She dropped out of Winthrop after a few semesters, got married, and had four children. She and her husband struggled financially at times. In 2009, she was laid off from her job as a media assistant at Saluda Trail Middle School.
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Cavin spent a year looking for another job. The prospects were slim.
Her husband suggested she re-enroll at Winthrop like she’d always wanted to do. Now, Cavin is the first person in her family and her husband’s family to earn a college degree.
She says the family knew it would be difficult for her to attend full time, but “when you want something bad enough, you figure out how to do it. ... It’s a balancing act.”
Her balancing act included staying on Winthrop’s campus late some nights to finish homework. With chores and kids, she said, it was often too difficult to concentrate at home.
Though Cavin used student loans and scholarships to pay for her education, the financial demands of the rest of her life didn’t stop. At one point, her car was repossessed. She took a part-time job on campus to pay for private music lessons for her children.
Time away from her family to attend class, she said, was emotionally tough. And her parents died while she was in school.
But Cavin says she was motivated to keep going because of her children. It’s a big deal, she said, for them to have a positive example of the power of education.
‘A second chance’
For moms who want to go to college, the experience is often much different than the university experience for the average 18-year-old.
Family responsibilities, financial difficulties, and other factors affect what universities call “non-traditional” or “post-traditional” students, says Susan Andersen, founder of the ANSWER foundation and scholarship program.
ANSWER provides financial aid for college for mothers who are seeking their first four-year degree or two-year nursing degree. The scholarship is for women who have school-aged children and live in Mecklenburg County or surrounding counties, including York and Lancaster in South Carolina.
Cavin received one of ANSWER’s scholarships to finish her Winthrop degree.
Andersen says she came up with the idea for ANSWER while she was working as a sales director for Mary Kay. She recently retired from that position after 20 years.
As a cosmetics sales director, Andersen says she met women from all walks of life who had children and struggled financially. A college degree, she said, has the potential to open new doors and opportunities for women to be financially stronger.
“It gives these women a second chance.”
Andersen also learned that it is difficult for non-traditional students to find financial aid for school. The ANSWER scholarship is one of the few in the country that specifically serves mothers, she said.
The mission of helping moms earn a degree, Andersen said, has far-reaching potential. “You educate a mom and you’ll educate her children.”
ANSWER provides an average annual scholarship of about $3,000 to each recipient. The scholarship program also requires a monthly meeting with other local recipients and participation in ANSWER’s “Mentors for Mom” program.
Those extra efforts, Andersen said, are designed to give ANSWER scholarship winners a support system while they balance life, family and school.
The unique approach appears to have paid off, she said. Nationally, Andersen says, less than half of non-traditional-aged students graduate from college in six years or fewer. ANSWER scholarship recipients have an 85 percent graduation rate in six years or less.
Moms returning to school, military veterans and other non-traditional college students are a growing group on campuses nationwide, Andersen said.
A special Mother’s Day
At ANSWER, the scholarship has served women pursuing a range of careers including science, nursing, and law. Many of the ANSWER moms want to be teachers or school administrators, like Cavin.
She says ANSWER’s help to attend Winthrop is “so much more than just the scholarship.” The monthly meetings, Cavin said, made a difference in her ability to finish.
At times, she said, she felt like the odd woman out when sitting in classrooms with students nearly half her age. “There is a sense of, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m the only one.’”
At ANSWER meetings, she said, everyone in the room had a different background, but a common bond united them: They were all moms pursuing a college degree.
During Cavin’s final semester at Winthrop, she spent most of her time inside a kindergarten classroom, student-teaching at Finley Road Elementary School. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education.
Cavin now plans to earn a master’s degree in special education from Winthrop through an online program focused on “response to intervention” or RTI. RTI is an approach school administrators and teachers use to intervene early when a child shows indications he or she is at risk of falling behind in class.
This year, Winthrop’s undergraduate commencement ceremony fell on Saturday, the day before Mother’s Day. So for the Cavin family, the whole weekend is special.
Cavin wants her children – the oldest is 18 years old and the others are 12, 14, and 16 – to attend college. But, she said, if they don’t go to college right after high school, it’s OK.
She says she’s proof that, “even if you don’t do it right now, you can do it.”
Anna Douglas • 803-329-4068
Want to help?
What: The ANSWER scholarship, provided to moms enrolled in college.
Where: Scholarships are available for women living in York, Lancaster, Mecklenburg, and seven other counties in North Carolina.
When: Donations can be made any time. A special “challenge grant” from the Leon Levine Foundation will earn ANSWER a $10,000 gift if the scholarship organization raises $10,000 in donations from individuals by June 15.
For more information, visit the ANSWER website. Donations can be made online, and a scholarship application is available.
Checks may be made to The Foundation For The Carolinas and sent to Foundation For The Carolinas, 220 North Tryon St., Charlotte, NC 28202. “The ANSWER Scholarship Endowment” should be written in the memo line.