Mirandi Candanedo with her three of her four children. It took the Boyle Heights resident 14 years to complete her associate's degree, but she didn't stop there. Photo: Art Torres

For many mothers, a day’s work ends once their children are fast asleep.

But for Boyle Heights resident Jeanette López, 33, a second shift begins. After bathing her two young daughters, checking their homework and tucking them into bed, she spends hours flipping through class notes and reading physiology textbooks to prepare for an exam the following day.

Two years ago, López, a single mother of two, quit her job as a medical assistant and went back to school full time to become a licensed vocational nurse (LVN). “Even though it’s hard and stressful, it’s a good stress. My children, they are not excuses, but reasons to do better,” says López.

While more students are going to college right after high school, many women are pursuing an opportunity that passed them by earlier in life. In spite of the obstacles they face, these women–many of them single mothers– are returning to school hoping to build careers that will help them support their families, set an example for their children and give them a sense of accomplishment.

A national trend

Degree-granting institutions have seen a 32 percent increase in women over 35 attending college, according to a National Center for Education Statistics analysis of data from 2001 to 2011. In the 2011-2012 school year, a third of undergraduate females had dependents, most of them children, and the numbers continue to rise.

One of the most common reasons mothers decide to go back to school is the need to provide for their families in the bleakest of moments. After her second daughter was born and her boyfriend abandoned the family, López realized she had to do something to support her family and herself.

It was clear that her low-wage job wouldn’t pay for daycare, bills and rent. So, she took on the challenge–sitting in a classroom for seven hours a day and fulfilling clinical requirements to obtain a licensed vocational nurse (LVN) certification at a private college.

“When you have two children depending on you, you cannot fail,” says López, referring to daughters Jaslene, 7, and Juliet, 1. “It would just disappoint everybody and myself. My kids don’t have anybody else.”

Mirandi Candanedo, 35, decided to go back to school to earn a degree in nursing to achieve a personal goal. She wanted to take advantage of new opportunities, set an example for her children and emphasize the importance of school. The mother of four, now a registered nurse, says she lacked resources growing up in South L.A.

“I think kids learn with what they see,” says Candanedo, who began her studies in nursing at a local community college at 18, after the birth of her first daughter. But school wasn’t easy, she says, reflecting on the 14 years it took her to earn her associate’s degree.

“[My kids] have not only seen the struggle of [me] going back to school, but also the compensation of having a higher education.”

Her eldest daughter, Giovanna Candanedo, 17, a student at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School, sees her mother as a role model and feels a sense of responsibility to make up for all her sacrifices by becoming a nurse, too.

According to Luz Montalvo, an educational outreach program counselor at California State University, Los Angeles, it is common for older women and mothers to return to school as transfer students and pick up where they left off when they interrupted their studies.

Jeanette López, mother of two, returned to school to become a vocational nurse. Photo: Art Torres


While these students are generally successful, says Montalvo, many mothers can fail due to financial restraints and the challenges of balancing their academic life with family life.

“If they don’t have reliable child care or if they have pressure from their spouse or significant other, that would have a big impact,” says Montalvo, who counsels students from low-income backgrounds, including older women and mothers. The key to success, she says, is a proper support system, such as “a family that’s backing you up and being there for you when you need it or someone on campus.”

That kind of motivational support was crucial to both Candanedo and Lopez. Candanedo juggled long hours in school with her job as a security guard and her family responsibilities. While she was in school, her husband, a tailor in the fashion district, brought in most of the family’s income and took care of their children.

“If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know what I would’ve done,” says Candanedo. “I would’ve probably had to choose a different career.”

Candanedo is now taking online classes to earn her bachelors degree and working night shifts at a local hospital to support the family, since her husband has gone back to school to study fashion tailoring. Her parents help with the children, and her eldest daughter, Giovanna, plays a key role by being an additional maternal figure.

López, on the other hand, is paying her way through college with financial aid and public assistance. She credits part of her success to her parents, who not only help her financially, but also care for her two daughters when needed.

“Even though they are tired and don’t have much income, I’m very grateful for [my parents], because at this age, it’s a privilege to have their help,” says López.

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