Making the Grade
When parents become full-time students, moms and dads face unique challenges
As a student parent, Cynthia Gonzalez (above) gets emotional when she talks about the milestones she has had to miss as she seeks her degree. Two parents share their stories as they strive through STC’s challenging Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) program.
With three children under the age of 14, Christopher O’Grady’s decision to quit his job and go back to school full-time was not an easy one. But South Texas College’s two-year Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) program was calling to him, and he knew that it was a field with solid employment prospects.
“I spent years as an athletic trainer, working in school systems six days a week, 12 hours a day. I just got burned out,” he recalls. “My end goal was to find a career where I could see my kids grow up.”
Despite his background knowledge of biology and the musculoskeletal system, he still found the OTA program workload extremely challenging.
“The intensity was more than I expected. This first year entailed a lot of studying, with one or two exams a week, plus projects and presentations,” says O’Grady, who is looking forward to starting clinical rotations this year. He’s on track to graduate in Spring 2022.
Since his wife, Patricia, works full-time in Brownsville, their biggest hurdle has been juggling the after-school pickup. And then there’s homework – both his and the kids’. “My older boys are at the age when the work is difficult, they need help, and sometimes I just have to tell them to give me a couple of hours until I’m done with a class.”
O’Grady’s classmate Cynthia Gonzalez understands what he’s going through, though her challenges are different. As a single mom of a very active four-year-old, she gets emotional when she talks about the milestones she’s had to miss – like her son’s first steps.
“The most painful thing I’ve had to hear is him complaining that I’m never there,” she said. “He would ask ‘Why did you leave me?’ There were times I’d only see him when he was going to bed.”
Her grandmother helps whenever she can, and Gonzalez hopes things will get easier now that her son has started school and not so aware that she’s not home.
No question about it, there are times she’s frustrated and emotional, and many times she’s questioned her decision to go to school full-time.
“But I’m the only parent he has, and I want to give him a better life. I want to be his role model,” she says. As a cosmetologist, she had to quit her job when she began the Occupational Therapist Assistant program.
Gonzalez plans to continue on to get her bachelor’s degree, making her the first in her family to graduate college. Eventually, she hopes to pursue a doctorate and open her own business.
“I’m the only parent he has, and I want to give him a better life. I want to be his role model.”
Helping Student-Parents Meet Challenges
O’Grady has a tip for parents going back to school: “Make sure your family is on board with you, because you’ll need their support, especially from your spouse,” he says.
Both he and Gonzalez appreciate that their instructors are understanding and flexible, knowing that children and life can interfere with the best-laid plans. South Texas College also has counselors available, and students are encouraged to check in with them when the going gets tough.
Gonzalez is grateful for the financial help she’s received through the VIDA program, which has helped her pay for tuition, books, and even the scrubs she must wear in clinicals. Ironically, the COVID pandemic has been helpful to parents like her, as more classes and meetings moved online this past year.
“Although it’s been tough mentally, we got to spend more time with our family and children, we got tons of financial help for school, and going virtual allowed us to go at our own pace,” says Gonzalez.
The OTA program requires more in-person class time than other programs, but O’Grady agrees that having some classes online has been tremendously helpful.
“You have to have self-discipline and not get distracted by what’s going on at home, but you can create your own schedule, and instructors have been extremely supportive when there are problems getting online,” he said.
South Texas College “has knocked it out of the ballpark” as far as organizing online and hybrid classes and making sure they run smoothly, he says.