On the Burdens Carried by Single Black Mothers Enrolled in Ph.D. Programs

by Juhanna Nicole Rogers

Black women doctoral students who have children and are enrolled full-time often suffer in the dark while committing their talents to the academy. We are some of the brightest, yet we can also be some of the most financially struggling.

On the surface, the life of a Ph.D. student is privileged in many ways. We attend exclusive social and academic events and meet with world renowned scholars, political leaders, and activists while discussing the policies and systems that affect our society and culture at large. We are mentored by some of the most brilliant thinkers and encouraged to present our work at national and international conferences with vast audiences spanning from the hundreds to thousands. The prestige of the academy are intoxicating as a new graduate student. But what happens when the intersections of gender, race, and class are realistically factored into the equation? Life within the Ivory Tower becomes a road less traveled for many Black doctoral candidates who are also single mothers.

I had a plan. I always had a plan.

I was going to complete my coursework in three years and have my dissertation written over the next year. As a mother of a young son, it was paramount that I finish in a timely manner. However, life always has a different plan than whatever you had for yourself.

I received the news that my financial aid limit has been reached one week before starting my final year. Life as I knew it changed. My plan—so well-thought and meticulous—was derailed. Instead of one assistantship with devoted time to write, I took on an additional teaching load and a part-time job to cover life expenses. The more I worked, the further away my writing became. Working three jobs and trying to write a dissertation is a tragedy waiting to happen. In order to complete my dissertation, I should have been in the library reading, writing, and editing. Writing a dissertation requires a critical level of focus and discipline, all of which I quickly lost. On top of this, I also had to fulfill my motherly duties. Needless to say, finding reserve mental space and energy was more than a challenge. I lost steam. And with pockets full of lint, I had to visit the public assistance office—one of many visits, I’d soon find out.

* * *

It was 8:30 AM on a Friday. I sat before yet another counselor, examining the walls, looking for any sign of commonality to spark a conversation. It was early in the day and I hoped that meant she would be in a better mood. Timing is everything in a social service office. I never arrived during or near their lunch break, and certainly not the end of the day. I learned this the hard way. A counselor with a friendly disposition was not always likely when they oversee a multitude of clients and a barrage of phone calls from the start of their work day to finish. But this was my fifth visit in nine days, so I had hope that this would be the day that I was approved for food assistance. We were down to our last few dollars and were in need of groceries. I could go without, but my son couldn’t.

I heard my name. I prepared my mind for the short, possibly unfriendly demeanor that awaited me. I find it a little funny that I have professional experience and more education than many people I meet, yet my mornings and days consist of navigating the American welfare system.

I sat across from my social service manager. I recognized the burnout and frustration on her face. I imagined the workload and the pressure placed by state regulations on verifying applicants financial status and documentation.

As I sat and shared my answers, the conversation was sterile; robotic and depressing. Nonetheless, I knew that I don’t make enough to maintain my son and I’s lives. I perused the walls, once again, thinking whether I should quit my job as a researcher and work a menial job? But what about the rent? Could I move back home? Absolutely not! The public school system was unstable there. How ironic that I studied the injustices rendered by race and gender and the cyclical nature of a Black women’s plight in academia, and society’s systemic oppression which keeps the poor dependent and unliberated. I laughed because I found myself caught in that same web. I laughed because within moments I was told that I needed to make yet another appointment with a job training agency. Never mind that I was a Ph.D. student and an educator who had led dozens of trainings and workshops on resume writing. Nevermind that my mother managed a job training program for years, or that I advised undergraduates on job skills. I was told that in order to receive temporary assistance I had to participate in a 30 hour-per-week job training program. I selected a day and time, and I left there infuriated.

All of this just to ensure I could buy food to feed my son.

Memories of elite academic events were a distant past. My pursuit of the dissertation led me to the social services line, after line, after line. On that day, I left the office more quickly than I entered and bee-lined to the nearest café to debrief and maybe to write. I didn’t write. Instead, I found Brenda. I noticed her immediately. Perhaps it was our bartered smiles and the warm “hello” as I passed. But I also recognized a kinship due to our similarities in skin color and gender. I was compelled to sit at the table beside her.

Books and various papers consumed her entire table. Our eyes met once more as we traded grins, “My name is Brenda. What program are you in?” she said. “Higher education,” I eagerly replied. “I am in psychology,” she sighed. I followed suit. I knew exactly what that sigh meant. Defeat.

Brenda and I chatted in more depth over cups of coffee. We learned that we shared way more in common than we bargained for. We were one of few Black women in our programs and we were both single mothers from working class families. As we took sips of our coffee, we discussed the stressors, politics, and financial burden placed on the life of a single mother in a graduate program. Brenda began to delve into the hoops she had to jump through in order to get additional support for her and her children. Her concerns about completing the program and valuing the time spent raising her children were an all too familiar tune. But even more startling was Brenda’s disclosure of being halted by the financial aid limit notification, just three days before the start of her semester. And just like that, I felt the daggers in my heart, as if it were happening to me again. I listened through the pain and tears as Brenda described having to vacate her home to eliminate overhead and living with a friend; receiving donations from Black women faculty members to help stabilize her; and friends offering temporary childcare services and a comfy couch to sleep on for a week or two.

As Brenda told her story, I listened attentively. As a doctoral student one cannot function without financial support. Federal student loans are essential for survival. No research project or paper in the world could have prepared me for the frustration and ego assassination that transpires when seeking this kind of help. Being funneled through the welfare system while pursuing a terminal degree continues to be one of the most challenging and critical learning experiences I’ve ever faced.

Just as Brenda finished, tears in her eyes, she said, “We can do this.”

I smiled and kindly replied, “We have too.”

* * *

A very small population of Americans earn doctorate degrees every year. People of color represent an even smaller fraction of that. For example, the National Science Foundation reported that in 2009, blacks earned 1,451 degrees, Hispanics earned 1,335, and American Indians/Alaska Natives earned 154. In 2010, Black women averaged 65 percent of all doctoral degrees awarded to Black students. In short, Black women make up more than half of the Black population enrolled in these programs.

"Black woman doctoral candidate" is not the typical image that comes to mind when used in the same sentence as public assistance. Yet, here I am. Too often, it is the stereotypical image of Black, illiterate, promiscuous, angry young mother living in a poverty-stricken urban community. That is far from who I am, and far from most women who apply for welfare are. And yet, the fact remains that we are still responsible for providing for our children. This responsibility creates a sense of urgency mixed with guilt. I have had to make a trade-off for my degree. I have had to limit the time and resources I can use to work, and thus have had to rely on public assistance programs to provide what my child needs. This assistance is the solution of how I can complete my degree and put food on table.

As a scholar who critically examines race and has gone through the social service process, I’ve been refueled by this experience. By any means necessary, I will finish my degree. And upon completion, I will continue to voice the injustices that Black women—particularly Black mothers—face in the academy.

I want other women to know: They do not carry these burdens alone.

Juhanna Rogers is a doctoral candidate who lives in Syracuse. She works as a freelance writer and educator.

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