Single Parent Scholar program celebrates 20th anniversary

By Coleen Dee Berry

Current Single Parent Scholar student Breana Park with her son, Aiden (looking at camera).
Current Single Parent Scholar student Breana Park '17 with her son, Aiden (looking at camera).

For the past 20 years, the Single Parent Scholar Program at Wilson has made dreams come true.

Ligmie Preval ’09 dreamed of working for a high-tech company like Google, but her attempt to change careers meant juggling parenthood, a job and community college classes. Enrolling at Wilson in what was then called the Women with Children program and living on campus with her daughter, Sunaii, “was the easiest and fastest way for me to get my degree. I could go to school full time (and) have more time to spend with my daughter in her transformative years.  Being a full time student also allowed me to fully participate in campus life.”

After graduating with a degree in computer science, Preval went on to receive a master’s in instructional technology and media, and then was hired to work in software development as a human factor engineer at athenahealth, an electronic health records company in Massachusetts.

Nicole Zvarik ’03 enrolled in Wilson’s program with her daughter, Savannah, in 1999. “When I came to Wilson, I felt a sense of freedom and support that I had never experienced before,” she said. “Although single parenting while in college was challenging, I found my life work while I was there—my passion for dance.”

Zvarik graduated with a degree in dance and sociology and now is an independent choreographer in the San Francisco Bay area and co-founder of the Deep Root Dance Collective.

“Over the years, the Single Parent Scholar program has helped open the door for college education—first to single mothers and now to single fathers as well—whether they are 18, 38 or 48,” said Wilson President Barbara K. Mistick. “That’s why this program is so special—it is giving students the opportunity to achieve their dreams.”

In 1996, the Women with Children program began with two single mothers and their children. This year, 18 mothers and 19 children were enrolled in the recently expanded and re-christened Single Parent Scholar program, which is open to single parents of both sexes.

The program grew out of Wilson President Emerita Gwen Jensen’s passion to address barriers to education for women in poverty. “I was very concerned about single mothers and the difficulty they faced getting into college,” Jensen said. “What I didn’t realize at the time was that the program at Wilson would also have a tremendous impact on the children—that it would change their lives also.”

Jensen credited then-Dean of Students Kathy Houghton with getting the program off the ground, and praised Sylvia Field of the Eden Hall Foundation with obtaining the grant that allowed Wilson to renovate Prentis Hall for family life on campus. The program continues to receive support from the Charlotte W. Newcombe Foundation and generous donations from alumnae/i, including class gifts, according to Katie Kough, the current program director.

“Wilson made a very courageous decision to start this program 20 years ago,” Kough said. “Of course it was the right thing to do, but it was also a difficult thing to do from a logistical standpoint, especially for a small college.”

“It’s an incredibly unique program,” said Sherri Sadowski, Wilson’s director of residence life. “The students in the program have their own community. They are very protective of each other. That’s why I like the common rooms they have at Wilson—they share kitchens and play space—because it helps create that community.”

Single parent scholars are treated as traditional undergraduate students, with all campus courses, events and programs open to them—even study-abroad.

Stephanie Marshall ’17 spent this spring semester studying in Berlin with her two children, Brettney, 11, and Logan, 9. “Living and studying in Berlin has been an amazing experience for me and my children,” Marshall said. “As a history major with a particular interest in the lives of women and children under the Nazi regime, the ability to explore and conduct research at former forced labor camps and in the archives and libraries of various museums here is beyond words.”

At the time it was first formed, Wilson’s Women with Children program was one of the first such programs in the nation. Today, according to Kough, only eight other colleges nationally have similar undergraduate residential programs for single parents.

Children, as well as their parents, benefit from living on campus, Mistick said. “Living at a college while their parent goes to school has an enormous impact on the children. The experience encourages them to follow in their parent’s footsteps and achieve a college education. So the program not only helps single parents, it impacts the next generation as well.”

When Keshie Mansouri ’10 enrolled in Women with Children, her daughter, Vanessa Whitfield, was 15, one of the oldest children ever accepted in the program. “I have to be honest, at first I was miserable,” Whitfield said. “I had left friends and basketball behind. When I matured a bit and realized I was going to be here a while, I got more involved, made friends and came to appreciate what a unique opportunity I had.”

When Whitfield graduated from Chambersburg Area Senior High School (the same year her mom graduated), Wilson was her first choice for college. “I had bonded with several professors when I was here,” she said. “I liked Wilson’s no-distractions environment and I already had friends here.”

Whitfield majored in sports management and starred on the Phoenix women’s basketball team, where she scored more than 1,000 points. After graduation, Whitfield ’14 landed a job coaching seventh-grade girls’ basketball in Waynesboro, Pa., and a year later was recruited by Wilson to become an admissions counselor. At college fairs, she can talk about the Single Parent Scholar program from a personal standpoint.

“For me, being in the program helped me realize the feeling of togetherness, of belonging. We were all like a big family. I still am friends with people in the program— some of them my mom’s friends—still see them and talk to them,” Whitlock said. “The bonds we made are lifetime bonds, something that I’ll have forever, and that makes my heart smile.”


Published: March 27, 2019