Young mom beating odds by earning 2 degrees

December 08, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

We are stuttering through rush-hour traffic, and Penny Robinson is muttering under her breath, "Don't do this to me, don't do this to me." A street blocked by construction, an impossible left turn into several lanes of equally impatient drivers - each snarl puts her a little behind on a schedule already short on breathing room: Pick up one daughter at day care, cross town to retrieve the other at school, drop both off at a relative's house, head back to a meeting that began a half-hour ago.

It is a wheel-gripping gantlet familiar to any number of moms in minivans navigating the roads, their children's activities and their own. The difference is we're in a Geo Prism with more than 215,000 miles on it, and Robinson is a 23-year-old student at Johns Hopkins, finishing course work that will leave her with two bachelor's degrees - in physics and engineering - and a way out of the more typical fate that awaits kids who have kids.

According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, fewer than a third of adolescent mothers ever get a high school degree, a mere 1.5 percent get a college degree before age 30 and half end up on welfare within five years of giving birth. And, no surprise, the picture is grim for their children as well - they have more health and educational problems, and are more likely to be abused or neglected.

You probably would want your daughter to do things differently - I know I would - and reverse Robinson's order: school first, then babies. Robinson can't really explain why she let herself get pregnant, first as a junior at Poly and then as a sophomore in college. (I found myself thinking of that Oscar Wilde character who said losing one parent could be regarded as a misfortune, but losing both starts to look like carelessness.)

"I really don't have an answer for that," she says when I ask the same question 10 different ways: Why didn't she use birth control?

At this point, I suppose it doesn't matter. That, at least, was the thinking behind a program that a Baltimore native started to help young mothers like Robinson afford child care and allow them to remain in school.

"There are programs for abstinence, but what can we do when they have babies?" said Sherrill W. Mosee, the founder of a nonprofit that began in Philadelphia and has expanded to her hometown. "Are we going to leave them out there? We just push them aside - `Here's welfare, here's work.' We say, `You're not going to make it - you messed up your life.' "

Being a former engineer herself, with a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland, College Park and a master's from Drexel, Mosee has a particular affinity with Robinson. When Mosee's stepdaughter had a baby during her first year in college, she began to realize how crucial affordable child care was in keeping young women in school. That eventually led her to found Family Care Solutions, which works with child care providers and a federal program to offer free or discounted tuition for the children of young mothers - and a few fathers - who stay in school.

Robinson is one of the first women in Baltimore to receive assistance from the group when it started accepting applications here several years ago. She is shy, skinny and bespectacled, and, with her 6- and 4-year-old daughters skipping alongside her, she looks more like the high school babysitter than the mom.

She always liked math, and when it came time to pick a high school, she asked someone which were the best ones in town. She applied and was accepted to Poly and was put in the tough, top-level A course.

Maybe it's her engineer's problem-solving sensibility, maybe it's just the kind of neighborhood she grew up in - "I saw a lot of young girls pushing strollers around" - but Robinson says her reaction to having a baby was just to deal with it. Her grandmother watched the infant while she finished school.

Then she went on to the College of Notre Dame, where she learned about a five-year program that would result in two degrees and involved transferring after three years to another school - she applied to College Park and Hopkins, got into both and chose the latter. At this point, she already had her second baby, but despite a bit of self-disappointment - or as she says, "I thought, geez, Penny ... " - she never considered dropping out.

With on-campus jobs, scholarships, loans and the help of her family, she kept her kids in a day care program at Notre Dame while she shuttled to Hopkins. Getting the child care scholarship, which paid for her kids' preschool, helped eased the financial burden, and except for Wednesdays, when she has a particularly heavy academic load, she and the kids usually can go home together at the end of their school days.

"They have so much love," she says.

Her final finals start next week - although she won't officially graduate until next spring - and her job search then will begin in earnest. She'd love a position that would put her out in the field, gathering info, analyzing data, solving problems. One that might eventually reimburse her to go to graduate school. And someday pay enough so that she can turn around and contribute to the group that helped her get to that point.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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