Young daughters inspire adult learner to finish college degree

University Park, Pa. — Stacy Baptiste knows the challenges of returning to school as an adult learner while raising two young children.

After eight years in pursuit of a degree in elementary education — and at the same time waiting on tables to support herself and two young daughters — the 35-year-old Baptiste is preparing for her commencement from the College of Education.

She looks back now with a sense of relief, thankful that her daughters, 13-year-old Julienne and 5-year-old Frances, graciously endured the long road with her. “I give my complete gratitude to Julienne and Frances,” says Baptiste. “Both of them have been so patient and encouraging over these last eight years.”

When she graduated from high school in 1992, Baptiste had a plan. “I wanted to take time off for a year and travel — just be independent and find myself as an adult,” she remembers. “Then I would join the Peace Corps. That way I could do some good for others and attend college through their program.”

Fresh out of high school, Baptiste moved to Ocean City, Md., where she married her boyfriend and worked for a year on the boardwalk and in restaurants. A year later she enrolled at a community college. Shortly after Baptiste completed her freshman year, Julienne was born.

Baptiste put her college career on hold. She and Julienne eventually settled down in central Pennsylvania.

“When Julienne started kindergarten, I did some volunteer hours at her school,” says Baptiste. “That’s when I realized that I wanted to be a teacher. My daughter inspired me to do something I love, and that is to teach children.” In spring 2001, Baptiste enrolled at Penn State.

Throughout her college years, Baptiste supported herself and Julienne (and later Frances, who was born in 2002) by working as a waitress at Denny’s Restaurant. The routine of working, attending classes, and raising children was tough. “I’ve learned to go without a lot of sleep and to drink a lot of coffee,” states Baptiste. “I worked 12-hour days three to four days a week, and then regular hours the other days.”

The restaurant rewarded Baptiste for her dedication with a flexible work schedule that allowed her to pursue her degree. But she found the combination of working, attending school, and tending to her children was draining. “It was extremely hard. I missed my daughters, and several times I wondered if it was all worth it,” she admits.

Even after Frances was born, Baptiste pressed on with her academics. “When I took my finals, I had to take Frances with me,” she recalls. “I had no one to keep her. She slept through my finals and woke up at the end of each of them. I had to nurse her in the car before I drove home. It was crazy.”

For a while Baptiste switched from a full-time course load to part-time. At one point, she recouped by taking a two-year leave of absence from her studies.

“But these times have made me strong and made me believe no matter what your dreams in life, you can obtain them even without a lot of support,” she says.

Baptiste credits Madhu Prakash, professor of educational theory and policy, for keeping her focused on completing her degree. “She was genuine and listened to me when I was having major struggles in my personal life while attending classes,” says Baptiste. “She believed in me.”

Baptiste has applied for a teaching position in Bellefonte and several others in Maryland. “My heart wants to go where I am most needed,” she says, “and I feel like that place would be in a city or a third-world country. But then I have to think about my daughters. I want them to have a quality education and a peace-filled and happy life. We'll see where it leads me.”

Baptiste knows that the eight years of sacrifice will pay off. “I needed to prove to myself and to my daughters that perseverance is a quality worth having to make it to where you want to be,” she says. “No one handed me anything. Except for some grants and scholarships along the way, I earned it on my own.”

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Last Updated November 18, 2010