The Voices of Reentry Black Mothers and their Daughters

Rising Above Reality: The Voices of Reentry Black Mothers and their Daughters

Sealey-Ruiz, Yolanda

This article examines the following three themes present in the educational narratives of a group of Black reentry (returning to college) mothers: (a) reentry as a response to a critical moment, (b) reentry as a strategy for coping with challenges, and (c) reentry as a practical step toward getting their daughters into college. Cursory reviews of Black women in higher education and representations of Black motherhood contextualize the struggles these and other Black women have faced in getting an education, raising their families, and maintaining a positive image. The daughters’ voices are included to provide a clearer picture of the effect a Black mother’s reentry can have on her children-particularly her daughters-who are the next generation of females in her family.


“Reality is something you rise above,” said Liza Minnelli referring to one of the most difficult periods of her life (“Liza: A Legend with an L,” 1996). For too many Black Americans, the daily act of “rising above” challenges related to inequity and poverty is a stark reality. Specifically, this quote holds special significance for the reentry Black women in this study who struggled against a litany of trying circumstances before and during their journey back to school. Nevertheless, for them, reentry is viewed as a way to rise above their present condition; to alter or adjust to their current circumstances.

The constructs of racism and sexism obscure the lives of Black women in America. These two towering structures influence every facet of their lives; however, from post-slavery times to the present day, Black women have viewed education as a mechanism to ameliorate the negative impact racism and sexism has on their life chances (Giddings, 1984). Both the traditional undergraduate, who enters college directly after high school, as well as the reentry woman who walks through the doors of the academy years after earning a diploma or GED believe in the promise of education. Each buys into the notion that education can be, as Horace Mann once noted, the great equalizer (McKlusky, 1958).

These women are confident that their degree will lead to employment opportunity, job advancement, and respect from others although the permanence of racism (Bell, 1992) and gender inequality, particularly against Black women (Collins, 2000), decrease the odds for their academic success. For example, Black women are often the recipients of an inferior elementary and secondary education, the effects of which are immediately realized when they enter college (Sealey-Ruiz, 2006). Their future degree serves as a beacon of hope to another, somewhat easier life. Therefore, school becomes particularly important for the reentry Black woman who must often care for children, elderly parents, or meet other financial obligations while in college. Regarding reentry Black women, Omolade (1987) and Sealey-Ruiz (2005) noted that obtaining a college degree is a lifelong dream for many who have had to interrupt their education because of family or financial crises.


The purpose of this study was to explore the educational narratives of reentry Black mothers; to gauge the effect reentry has on their lives and the lives of their children, particularly their daughters who are the next generation of females in their families. This article includes brief reviews of Black women in higher education and representations of Black motherhood as frameworks for the women’s stories. The phenomena of the reentry Black woman is mentioned, then followed by a description of the participants and the qualitative method used to conduct and analyze this study. Finally, the themes which emerged from the data, along with possible implications for the society concerning the continued increase of reentry Black mothers are discussed. For the purpose of this study, reentry means the woman’s entrance or return to college after being away from a classroom setting for five to twenty years or more (Henry, 1985).


Ever since Mary Jane Patterson became the first Black woman in the United States to earn the AB degree (Oberlin College) in 1862, the Black woman’s journey to higher education has been paved with struggle. She has confronted resistance, had to negotiate space, and fought against marginalization (Johnson-Bailey, 1994). Anna Julia Cooper, a contemporary of Patterson and fellow Oberlin College graduate, fervently spoke and wrote about racial and gender equity and the importance of education for Black women (see Giles, 2006). She also noted that the Black women’s presence at Oberlin College was an exception to the widespread rule of exclusion. Oberlin College made a concerted effort to admit Blacks in general, and has an impressive history of admitting Black women. For the most part, Black women were barred from academia. A turning point came for them with the emergence of Black universities and colleges at the close of the nineteenth century. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were founded. For several decades, HBCUs were the main, if not the only, institutions whereby Blacks could receive an education. Of particular importance for Black women was the opening of the first Black women’s college, Spelman, in Atlanta in 1881 and Bennett College in North Carolina in 1926. Slavery made it unlawful for Blacks to receive an education. When former slaves began to pursue educational opportunities immediately after the Civil War and during Reconstruction, the focus was primarily on educating Black men. If Black women were to be educated, they were funneled into the fields of domestic service or teaching (Giddings, 1984). Seldom were their intellectual interests considered. To many, the principal reason for educating them was to facilitate their service in uplifting the race (Giddings, 1984).

The earliest major study on Black women in college (Cuthbert, 1942/1987) investigated me college life of Black women during the 1930s. It revealed that the women felt isolated; marginalized by Black men and White women, and unchallenged or demoralized by their professors. The central theme of the study was education as a means to racial uplift. Player (1948/1987) further explored the findings of Cuthbert’s study, but concentrated on one specific HBCU. Her research revealed the major theme of Black women using education to gain economic security. The women in Player’s study believed, as many Black women do today, that a college degree would improve their life chances. Although the women in Player’s study were certain that the job they landed after college would help improve their economic situation, they also lived with the reality that they would earn less than White women college graduates (Player, 1948/1987). Noble (1956) surveyed 412 Black college women about the impact of college on their lives. Participants in her study expressed that they felt discriminated against because of their race and gender. Despite their difficulty in higher education, Black women have made amazing strides, and today not only attend HBCUs, but predominantly White universities as well.

The Emergence of the Reentry Black Woman

Education is the most consistent and obtainable

means for the empowerment of Black women.

(Johnetta B. Cole, 1988)

Twenty years ago, Glass and Rose (1987) projected that reentry women would be the largest growing population on university campuses and they encouraged schools to prepare to facilitate their retention. In 1997, approximately 6 million or 42% of college students were over 25 years old; 40% were part-time; and 56% were female (U.S. Department of Education, 2002). The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that in 2000, adult women represented 56% of all female college students. That same year, 17.7% of Black women 25 years or older earned their bachelor’s degree (U.S. Department of Education, 2002). Other research on reentry college women – reentry Black women included (Thomas, 2001), showed that adult females continue to be the largest growing segment among college students. With this influx of older women, colleges and universities have had to reexamine their goals, philosophies, and programs to make way for this new crop of students. Black women, in particular, have been returning to college in record numbers since the 1990s, a trend Thomas (2001) suggested will most likely persist:

[G]iven the social and economic situation of early- to late-midlife African American women (e.g. escalating divorce rates, the growth in never-married female-headed households, special efforts to encourage low-income and minority women to return to school), coupled with the demands of the job market for a more skilled labor force, growth in the numbers of non-traditional-aged African American women returning to college is likely to continue, (p. 140)

During the 1970s, the typical profile of the reentry woman was a White, middle-class housewife in her middle 30s with some college education. By the 1990s, this demographic had become browner, poorer and older. Their formidable presence pressed adult education scholars and institutions to better understand their reasons for reentry, and what their reentry experiences were like. In her award-winning book, Johnson-Bailey (1994) aptly summed up the experience of most reentry Black women:

Each of the eight women in this book has persisted in making a way when no way seemed apparent. . . And all of this to face a goal that when attained doesn’t guarantee a better future, for there are always the constraints of racism, sexism, classism, and colorism to be factored into the equation – so reentry women returned to school and each in their own way made a way out of no way, with the understanding that she was engaged in a game where the rules, stakes and conditions were relative to her unique position as a Black woman in a society that values neither her race nor her gender, (p. 96)

Johnson-Bailey stated that this experience is representative of reentry Black women in various regions of the world:

[T]heir incidents are not bound by parameters of the southern experience. When I have lectured and presented on my research nationally and internationally, I’ve heard similar stories from women in Chicago, San Diego, London (UK), Dallas and Edmonton (AB). This confirmed for me that the eight women who tell their stories in this book are representatives of everyday non-traditional Black women students. ( 1 994, p. 2)

For this study, six women were chosen; however, their stories echoed the experiences of the hundreds of reentry Black women the author encountered during her seven years of teaching them. Challenges notwithstanding, Black women enter college classrooms with the belief that it is better to be in the game than on the sidelines; that even if the rules of the game are constantly changing, at least there is some chance of winning.

This study extends the work of Johnson-Bailey (1994) and Thomas (2001) by offering further insight to why Black women return to college; however, its uniqueness is established by having the daughters’ account of how their mothers’ reentry decision influences their opinions about higher education. Their commentary resonates with research that cites a mother’s education as the primary predictor of a daughter’s educational attainment (Rothstein, 2004). The voices of these daughters are particularly vital to understanding a Black mother’s influence on her child’s education. The reentry Black mothers in this study view their return to college as creating an educational legacy for their families by initiating an imperative that their children must continue. These reentry mothers took to heart the notion of setting an example for their children and serving as their role model. These mothers find it their responsibility to “school” their daughters on what it means to be a Black woman and a Black mother in America (Bell-Scott, 1991; Carothers, 1990).

Representations of Black Motherhood

In the United States, the dominant culture has insisted on defining the Black woman (Miller, 1986). Black women have always used their lives to form a resistance to this trend. Even under the subjugation of slavery, they insisted on defining themselves, and asserting their humanity (Richardson, 2002). Washington (1974) noted that while Black women “suffer from race, class, and gender biases; they are undeniably preoccupied with keeping their children safe and with making life better for themselves and their families” (p. 189). Carothers (1990) observed “of the many dyads occurring within families, the interactions between mothers and daughters are a critical source of information on how women perceive what it means to be female” (p. 233). The Black mother-daughter relationship is complex and unique due to the impact of racism and sexism. It is a dyad that must be examined according to the context of the Black family, which includes Black culture and Black folkways. Prior to Joseph and Lewis’s (1981) groundbreaking study on Black mothers and daughters, it was common for Black mothers to be analyzed within a White hegemonic paradigm. Joseph (1991) argued:

It is actually misleading and dysfunctional to engage in a discussion of Black mothers and daughters patterned along the lines of [W]hite theoretical writing, which focuses on specific psychological mechanisms operating between mothers and daughters, unless the relevance of racial oppression and cultural differences are considered as factors. To date, with few exceptions, few [W]hite theoreticians and authors take into account these factors, (p. 98)

She further comments:

Far too often, research on Black families, child rearing practices, discipline, rewards and aspirations follow patterns of research that are based on middle-class White values. To discuss Black mother/daughter relationships in terms of patterns of White mother/daughter relationships would be to ignore the explanations and interpretations of Black women regarding their own historical and cultural experiences as Black women, (p. 76)

Collins (1993) and other Black feminists take issue with the Eurocentric perspective of motherhood as a model for Black motherhood, particularly the concept of “true womanhood,” which equates being a true woman with being a good mother, and a “good” mother with being one who stays home to raise her children and financially depends on her husband. Black motherhood as a full-time occupation is atypical in African American families. Black women have always worked outside of the household while they have raised their children and taken care of their homes (Carothers, 1990). They primarily worked so that their children could have a better life and a greater access to education than they had. This is evident in this study because these reentry mothers used their own reentry to influence their daughters to attend college.


All of the participants attended a small, liberal arts college located in the Northeast. The school, which primarily focuses on educating students 25 years of age or older, is located in a large, bustling metropolis. The participants were recruited by using flyers posted in the administrative office and student lounge of one of the largest campuses of the college, and through suggestions made to the author by the college’s advisors. The author taught at two different campuses of the college for seven years. By the study’s design, none of the author’s present or former students participated in the study. The reentry women in this study had left the educational system for five to twenty years or more (Henry, 1 985). The mother participants were between the ages of thirty-two and fifty-four, self-identified as Black/African American, and had at least one biological daughter, who at the time of the study, was from 19 to 32 years of age. All participants were given pseudonyms.


Articulating and recording the experiences of African American women is a multilayered task because race, gender, and social class intersect language, history, and culture. It is important that they tell their stories and have their voices heard (Etter-Lewis, 1991). The author’s experience in teaching reentry Black women for several years prompted a more in-depth look into their reentry stories, since the research of these women has rarely been a focus (Johnson-Bailey, 1994; Rifenbary, 1995).

A purposeful sampling (Bogdan & Biklen, 1982) was used to ensure a variety existed in age and family size among the participants. Ultimately, six women (three mother/daughter dyads) were selected for the study. Table 1 provides an overview of the participants. Although each mother and daughter contributed their unique aspects to the study, continuity was found among their experiences and characteristics. For example, all of the mothers viewed their reentry as part of their effort to make a better life for themselves and their children, and all of the daughters, while in varying degrees, were positively affected by her mother’s return to school. There was also a marked similarity in the previous educational experiences of the mothers, while two of the three mother/daughter dyads shared the same occupation, and all women identified themselves as poor or working class.

Qualitative research makes possible the investigation of complex and sensitive issues. It allows the researcher to describe the phenomena of interest in great detail, using the original language of the research participants. This mode of inquiry enables the researcher to examine the lived experiences of the participants; to understand them, and give them meaning (Byrne, 2001). Over the course of four months, three unstructured interviews with each mother and daughter were held. The average time for each interview was four hours with some participant interviews lasting between seven and nine hours. Additionally, the author met with each participant for a fourth time to check the accuracy of the information given in previous interviews. All interviews were audio taped and transcribed verbatim. Data analyses were conducted using various qualitative techniques, such as a field log and analytic memos. Data were reviewed by using the compare and contrast qualitative method (Maykut & Morehouse, 1994), which requires the establishing and eliminating of emerging themes to develop a data-coding scheme. A color-coded numeric system was maintained in a word processing program. These color/numeric codes were used to reveal the patterns and connectedness among the data. These data analyses revealed the themes discussed in the next section of this article: using reentry as a response to critical life events; viewing reentry as a coping mechanism, and using reentry as a way to encourage their daughters toward college. When data coding was complete, the author met with the participants for a fifth and final time to present a brief overview of the preliminary findings of the study.

The Mothers and Daughters

Following is a very brief synopsis of the participants’ stories.

Veronica and Angel. Veronica, 35, the youngest mother in the study was an orphan by the time she was ten years old. She was raised by an aunt who showed little concern for her education. As a result, she became disinterested in school and pregnant at 16. She dropped out of high school and decided to return to a classroom nearly twenty years later after her husband left her and her four children for another woman.

Angel, 19, is the youngest of the three daughters in mis study and the oldest child of Veronica. At this tender age she has experienced feelings of isolation and frustration that come from having a father diagnosed with schizophrenia, and living with a stepfather and mother with whom she is at odds. For five years, Angel was in an abusive relationship and spent the last year negotiating a separation from her boyfriend. Now that she is “free,” she spends more time talking to her mother Veronica and is considering a future that includes college.

June and Keisha. At 31, June found herself and her six children down and out and living in a homeless shelter. She reflects that life has never been easy, and it was never more challenging than when her oldest son was stabbed and her youngest son was jailed in the same year. Now, at 45, June says these two events, and the desire to be a role model to her four daughters, motivate her to finish her college degree.

Keisha is the eldest of June’s six children and one of four girls in her family. At 27, she has had some problems, but is determined not to repeat the mistakes her mother has made. As the oldest child she remembers what it was like living in a homeless shelter. At the age of ten she ran away from the shelter to live with her grandmother, who raised her until she was 19 and on her own. As a single mother, Keisha is determined to set an example for her son, and continue with her education so she can qualify for her dream job.

Browne and Lisa. Browne, 54, entered college immediately after high school, but a severe drug habit forced her to take several breaks in her education over a span of twenty-five years. She spent a decade estranged from her family, traveling from state to state, dropping in and out of school, and living what she calls “the street life.” When her ex-husband contracted AIDS, it motivated her to aspire to be drug-free, reunite with her family, and finally, complete her college degree.

Lisa, 32, is the youngest daughter of Browne, and the oldest daughter in this study. Her sojourn into college began with her mother’s insistence that college was the only way to improve her circumstances, and with her desire to erase the embarrassment of attending school for four years and not receiving a high school diploma. Her own reentry is marked with struggles as she attempts to establish a bond with her mother, lose over one hundred pounds, and raise her two daughters without their fathers.


The journey back to school was a challenging one for each of the reentry women. The mothers, in particular, recall critical life events that prompted their return to school. These stressful situations, they believed, could only be alleviated if they entered school and took an active step toward changing their current situation. Like their mothers, the daughters began to see the possibility of a college education as they watched their mothers attend school.

Reentry as a Response to Life’s Critical Moments

As the reentry mothers spoke about their lives, they each shared that returning to school was the only option they believed could change their situation. Although the number of years it would take them to complete their college degree seemed daunting, it did not deter them from their goal and the belief that going back to school would make an immediate positive impact on their lives. Being a student symbolized to them and others that their lives were going in a positive direction. They felt mat others would respect and admire them for being in school, particularly because they attempted to earn their degree during some of the most trying moments of their lives. Veronica offers the various reasons behind her return, not the least of which is to set an example for her daughter Angel:

Just going to school has been a dream for me. I dropped out of school in the 10th grade and it has always been my desire to go back to school. When my husband left and I had no way to feed my kids, I had to go on welfare. I knew that I could not be in the system for a long time, so I went back to school. It was so hard. I knew I needed my education. And I think, too, with my children, particularly Angel, they knew I didn’t have no [sic] form of education. So, I didn’t want it to come to a point in our lives when I said to her you need to go to school, and she’d turn and say, “Well mommy, you didn’t finish.”

Veronica is motivated by the need to get a job, take care of her children, and serve as a positive example to her daughter. Going back to school represented a move toward fulfilling a lifelong dream for Veronica who dropped out when she was 16 years old.

In June’s case, the incarceration of her youngest son and the nearly fatal stabbing her of oldest son encouraged her to enter and persist with school:

It’s hard to concentrate on school, to put your focus right there. I really stopped going to [high] school after I had Keisha. I was like the only one out of my friends who had a child. I started school again in 1999 after my baby son had the book thrown at him. He was a first-time offender. It kinda pushed me to want to go. His situation made me realize that I want to be able to get a job working with children. I wanna be a social worker, but I wanna branch out into the court system. 1 wanna work with delinquent children. I saw how they treated the children, you know, the big difference between White and Black. They treated the Black children totally different. Before you go into that courtroom everything is decided about your kid already; you just going through the motions, and once I saw that, I said “[0]h no! [T]hey need somebody to fight for them.” Then my eldest son got stabbed. I didn’t know whether he would make it because he was severely stabbed, yeah, 19 times. I called my professor and told her I’m not coming back, and she said “June don’t stop now.” It was really hard to stay, but I stayed ’cause I needed to do this for me, and 1 needed to show my children that they didn’t have to live the life they was living. I had to be that example. I was doing it for them, but it’s for me too. I wanna graduate. I want my degree.

June views reentry as the way to eventually alleviate her sons’ problems, serve as a role model to them, and get herself on track to becoming an advocate for teens in trouble with the law. In one of her interviews she talked about the difficulty of being a woman in her 40s returning to school with the “young ones,” and the insecurity that it created in her. However, she would not let her insecurity turn her away from all that an education “promises” her.

In Browne’s case, her critical moment not only encouraged her to return and complete her bachelor’s degree, but to also give up a 15-year drug habit and return home to her family:

For years I was kinda lost. From ’90 to ’95 there was no school, you know, I was in jail and all that crap. I went to jail in 1982 too. I know what depression is. I was married to an addict, I got beat up, I was abused . . . domestic violence . . . men beat me. I took the HIV test from ’95 ’til just last year. I took one every six months or so, or once a year because I had do. And this year, I just took it a few months ago, and I thank God it’s negative. Hey, there was nothing out there to tell me do this and don’t do that. My ex-husband has AIDS. If I had stayed with him I would have been dead. He has AIDS from shooting drugs. His brother died from it, his best friend died from it, and now he’s dying from it. I lived with him and he gave me hell, he abused me. God let me live through that. He let me live through prison, he let me live through men, the box, the fuse, through the whorish things I did to get high, the stealing, he let me do that and he let me live. I’d been away from the family for a while; you know doing other things, running around with boyfriends and doing this and that. I went here . . .1 went there. I had been drugging, running for fifteen years. It was time for change. Yeah, this is when school comes in, clean up my life and back to school, you know.

Reentry as a Means of Coping with Challenges

The already difficult lives of the mothers were further complicated by the additional burdens of attending classes two or more times per week, meeting deadlines, keeping up with schoolwork, readjusting to a classroom environment after being away from one for decades, and fitting in with the other students, some of whom were as much as twenty years younger than they were. Additionally, there were recurring issues with their children who relied on them for money and support. Rodriquez (1996) noted,

Reentry women experience other problems that are different from those encountered by males and younger women: [T]hey generally have primary responsibility for child rearing and other family matters; they suffer a disproportionate amount of stress, guilt, and anxiety over their myriad responsibilities; their success is often dependent on the behavioral and emotional support from spouses and other family members; and at some postsecondary institutions, there is a lack of support services to help reentry women overcome the barriers to furthering their education, (p. 2)

Although being in school created new concerns, these mothers were apt to view the challenges as temporary circumstances that would change after they earned their degree. Aspirations for becoming a special education teacher helps Veronica coped with current challenges:

Getting my education is more crucial now because the twins, you know, they can’t understand why when they have days off why mommy don’t have days off if I work at a school. They don’t understand why I work the hours I work. So one of the reasons I went back to school and chose to take up education is so that I can be home and get those things off and spend the time I need with the kids.

June’s story reveals an increase in challenges after enrolling in college. In addition to the monthly trips to visit her son in prison, and taking care of her oldest son after the stabbing, June became involved in a bitter custody battle against one of her four daughters for her oldest grandson. Additionally, as a vocal member on her co-op board, June let her dissatisfaction with some of the tenants be known. As a result, some became angry and treated her badly. And if mat were not enough, she began to experience problems when her partner became jealous about her return to school. As fragile as her grasp, school became June’s only anchor in the midst of her life’s storm. She held on,

Everything was coming at me left and right. I didn’t start school until after he got locked up. That would make me, kinda push me to go. He was my baby. I used to just sit home and cry about the situation, cause I couldn’t do anything for him. I would go to see him. I would call and go visit. It just broke my heart. So I said I have to do something for myself, something for him. That’s when I enrolled in the college. I think I’m going through a turning point in my life right now. I’m tired. I’m tired. I feel kinda drained, but I want to finish. The thought of finishing makes all this seem possible.

Perhaps even more so than Veronica and June, Browne viewed her attendance in college as a coping mechanism. For fifteen years (the duration of her drug-habit), school was a beacon for Browne; the light that led to a clean life. After her expulsion from a SEEK program at Columbia University in the 1970s, Browne’s life began a downward spiral. She spent the next fifteen years attending community colleges in various states in an attempt to finish her degree, and experienced several unsuccessful attempts at drug rehabilitation. Her presence in school helped to suppress the guilt of leaving her “two daughters to be raised by my parents,” and the “evil” acts she said she committed for drug money. She reflected on her struggles and hopes, and the struggles of other Black woman in American society:

Being a Black woman in society is hard. We have so many obstacles in front of us. We have so many things that put us down, being Black women. We have to survive and nobody really gives us an edge on that. We have to really struggle. The only thing that’s going to break this is love of God, love of self and education.

Reentry as a Strategy for Getting my Daughter into College

Each mother saw her enrollment into college as the first and most important step to getting her daughter interested in school. Veronica noted,

So, I didn’t want it to come to a point in our lives when I said to her you need to go to school, and she’d turn and say, ‘well mommy, you didn’t finish’. What better way to show her that school is important, that you can have choices than for me to be in school myself?

June shared,

my being in school shows them they can do something with their lives. Honestly, if I can go back to school after 24, 25 years anybody can do it. My children see me struggling, but they also see me sticking with it.

And finally, Browne who overcame drug addiction and completely changed her lifestyle, was most proud, not of her personal accomplishments, but of getting her daughter Lisa in to college. She stated, “Of all the things I’ve done in my life, getting clean, and staying clean, I have to say that I believe my biggest accomplishment with my children was to get Lisa to go back to school.”

The Daughters ‘ Perspectives

Consistent across all dyads were the daughters’ feeling mat their mother’s reentry influenced their opinions about college in some way. Angel, Keisha, and Lisa stated that their mothers’ insistence that attending college was the way to change their circumstances caused them to seriously think about college. Angel made a connection between her mother’s return to college, and the recent revelations she has had about herself and her future:

She [mom] pursued herself and went to school, and you know, kept up the grade point average that she did and still kept down a steady job. She wanted to better herself and she did ’cause a lot of Black women wants[sic] to do things like that for theyselves and I’m proud of her. Yeah, I would say my mom, in some way affected me. Even though I’m proud to have my G.E.D. through the Job Corps, I gave up hope. For six months I was out of work. All those interviews and temp agencies and no call, no responses. I mean I went on second interviews and still nothing. It made me feel like I wasn’t good enough. Getting the job made me feel better. Like I said, I felt like I wasn’t good enough. Right now I’m focusing on work, trying to go back to school. Just like trying to figure out what I wanna do with my life. I want to be a nurse. I had an aunt who was, you know, started studying as an RN and it was a lot of work. I saw all the studying that she had to do. So I know once I go to school that’s gonna really pull everything together.

Angel is frank about the difficulty she has experienced in getting a job without an education, and makes a connection to her mother being able to “better herself and get off of welfare after she entered college. Veronica and an aunt offer Angel a structure for how to move forward in pursuing her goals. For June’s daughter Keisha, the connection between an education and a better life was much more apparent:

I dropped out of school in the 1 1th grade. My family used to be homeless. We used to live in a shelter. I used to be on public assistance so, you know, I know what it is like to not have a job and not have money in the bank, and not be able to get things that you wanna get. You don’t wanna be, “Oh, I can’t get this because 1 don’t have the money. I like this but I can’t get it.” I promised myself I’ll never be that way again.

Although June inspired Keisha to go to school before she began attending college, and Keisha completed her bachelor’s degree before her mom, they still have an important school connection, particularly now that Keisha is in graduate school pursuing a master’s degree in public administration:

Sometimes I try to help my mother with her papers and stuff, but it’s only so little I can do because I have my own stuff. It’s ironic, she pushed me to be here and here I am telling her that she needs to finish. Sometimes I tell her “you should have been finished. You have grown kids now. You can’t keep letting them and what goes on outside bother and interrupt.” She let’s outside bother what’s going on inside with what she needs to do. Too many things distract her. She let her grown kids distract her. And wanna baby them and wanna baby the whole community. You can’t do that; you can’t take on everybody’s problems.

For Browne’s daughter Lisa, a bright moment appeared in her life when she was 17 years old and she rescued a cousin from choking. Although this event prompted her to consider a career in nursing, it wasn’t enough to motivate her to immediately earn her GED and enroll in college. It was over a decade later, after Browne’s insistence, that Lisa attended a college orientation:

So my mom was like “well, you need to get your G.E.D.” And I was like “for what Ma?” I had jobs. I had experience. No one else in our family has a degree. My mom is the first person. She was the first person who graduated with a degree. I mean everyone has good jobs but no one has a degree. It took her so long to get there. I was like ‘wow, it must be worth something.’ I’ve always wanted to be a nurse. And even though I don’t want to do another two years for a Master’s, I mean I really don’t, but I know in the end it will only be better for me and my girls. I’m just tired of administration. I’m so tired of working at these boring companies and doing boring things. I want to do something that interests me and makes me want to get up and run to work. I hate going to work. I mean I can do my job with my eyes closed, that’s how long I’ve been doing it and that’s how boring it is. I just can’t wait to until I’m finished. I want to show my girls they don’t have to just have a job.

Since enrolling in college, Lisa lost over 120 pounds. She attributes her weight loss to a new attitude about herself because of school. She thanks her mother for her change in life and lifestyle, and noted, “It’s my mom. She’s why I’m in school. My mom, my mom.”


When Angel dropped out of high school in spite of the example she was trying to set, Veronica said it led her to reevaluate her parenting strategies. She admitted that college has helped her become a better parent and there was no “magic formula” to raising teenage girls. Angel knows that eventually she will need more than a GED to secure a career as a nurse. For now, she is focused on amassing skills at her new administrative job and building her self-concept through working.

June is proud of Keisha because she is the first in their family to earn a college degree and attempt a graduate degree. Keisha is encouraged by her mother’s confidence in her, and believes her mother is making a mistake by allowing her children to distract her from school. Keisha does her ‘best to give back the encouragement her mother once gave to her. Although it has been difficult for her mother, Keisha believes that someday June will reach her goal of earning her college degree.

Perhaps more than any other dyad in the study, the relationship between Browne and Lisa revealed the clearest connection of how a mother’s return to school affects her daughter’s opinion about higher education. Despite her mother taking 25 years to complete her degree while making negative decisions along the way, Lisa acknowledged that Browne is die reason she is in college today.


The face of higher education is changing. In noticeable numbers, Black adult women are entering the college classroom. The increase of reentry Black mothers could be one possible reason for the upswing of Black women in college. If there is a deeper understanding of how reentry Black mothers view their reentry, perhaps entire households of Black families can be encouraged to see the promise and possibility of an education. The possibility of an increase in the number of college-educated poor to working class Blacks has enormous implications for how they can be treated in American society. On a smaller scale, a better understanding of a reentry Black mother’s views about family and reentry can significantly impact the ways in which diese women are researched, discussed, and treated by academic institutions.

Further research on Black reentry mothers (and their daughters) can give colleges and universities insight into this population and help them create appropriate curricula, recruitment, and retention strategies specific to the ages of these reentry women. An examination of Black reentry mothers and their daughters can also shed insight on ways the larger society and family dynamics affect their schooling experiences. It can also spur the enactment of policies that encourage more Black women and other family members to attend school. For instance, if the mother’s return to college positively influences die daughter’s decision about school by showing her diat college is possible, university officials and policy makers can develop methods to provide incentives for bom mothers and daughters to simultaneously attend college. They can devise the requisite financial aid and support services to make college completion possible for diem both. Those who are college educated are more willing to become involved in local community building and leadership. This can be beneficial to local communities, cities, states, and die nation at large.


The reentry momers in this study reported many trying experiences in their pursuit of higher education. They decided to stay the course and use their lives as testimony that Black mothers have the ability to endure and manage difficult situations, raise families (with or without partners) while pursuing their educational goals. Their portraits revealed diat reentry Black motiiers face challenges in general, and even more hardships when they choose to go to school while raising children. Their daughters acknowledged mis sacrifice and also considered higher education or enrolled in college as a result of their momers’ reentry.


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YOLANDA SEALEY-RUIZ is Research Associate with New York University’s Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

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