SEATTLE—Maliaka White was scared. A single mother of two, she suddenly found herself out of work. That’s when she decided she would try again—for the fourth time—to further her education.
“It was the scariest time of my life,” recalled White, now 39. “I’d never been out of a job before. It was a point when I was at rock bottom.”
White had worked 14 years in a variety of roles for Bank of America before deciding to leave when it became clear to her that her lack of a postsecondary degree limited her opportunities and income at the bank. She then took a supervisor’s job with the government of King County, Washington, but two days before her probation period was to end, she was laid off.
Suddenly, she had no steady income from a job—but she did have unemployment benefits, and that helped. So did the fact that her two daughters were then old enough to need less supervision.
White decided to take the plunge. In the winter of 2015, she enrolled at Seattle Central College. She’s now on track to graduate with an associate degree in the spring of 2018.
“I was kind of embarrassed to come back to school,” she admitted. “But I always felt I had the potential to do more.”
That potential went unrealized for decades—though White had taken a few faltering steps into higher education prior to this one. Her first attempt was also at Seattle Central, where she enrolled at age 19. It was there that she met the father of her two daughters, DaVonne, now 17, and Nieela, now 12. White admits that at that time she “didn’t have a clear educational focus.” She ended up dropping out after she became pregnant.
During her time at Bank of America, she “always had the desire to get an associate degree.” She started and stopped school two more times while she was working at the bank. Those two attempts—one at Seattle Central and the other at a for-profit school that’s now out of business—didn’t work out, in part, because she couldn’t afford childcare.
That’s a challenge many students face: how to live their lives and go to school.
“It’s often the life circumstances that get in the way” of continuing education, said Sheila Edwards Lange, president of Seattle Central. Lange said the average age of a Seattle Central student is 28.
Yoshiko S. Harden, vice president of Seattle Central, said many of the community college’s students have “a margin of error that is so narrow.”
“You have your funding, your classes, your car, your apartment. One of those falls, and it’s a house of cards,” Harden said.
White’s school experience has been different this time because she’s taken advantage of the counseling and mentoring available to her. She also has a job in the college’s administration office. She started there working at the front desk and has been promoted several times to more advanced assignments. She now works for the Seattle Central Foundation, putting in 15 to 20 hours a week.
This time, the fourth time, everything is working out, she said.
“First, there’s maturity. I’m much more focused now,” she said. “My kids are older. They can take care of themselves. And I’m fortunate to work here, too, and they make my schedule flexible. And my counselors help me every step of the way.”
One of those watching every step is President Lange, whose office is just down a hall from where White works.
“She’s incredibly talented,” President Lange says of White. “Although she’s faced a lot of life challenges, she’s highly motivated and a self-starter. She’s a professional. Not all of our students are as polished.”
White hopes to continue her education by seeking a bachelor’s degree in public affairs at Seattle University, which is located five blocks south of Seattle Central.
But for now, White is looking forward to a celebratory spring next year, when she graduates from Seattle Central and her daughter DaVonne graduates from high school in Renton, Wash., south of Seattle. The entire family will celebrate, including the girls’ father, who has given some financial support, helped with parenting and “has been very encouraging about me finishing my degree,” said White.
She will also celebrate with her larger, extended family at Seattle Central.
“When I graduate, I’m just not graduating for myself,” she said. “I’m graduating for this (administration) office. Everyone here helps.”
Harden said the college works constantly to remove barriers for students like Maliaka White and make it easier for them to finish. Counseling, financial aid, transportation, and flexible scheduling all contribute to students’ success, but the students’ determination is a critical factor, she said.
“At graduation, when students walk across that stage, it’s heroic,” Harden said. “To successfully get through the system isn’t easy.”