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USA TODAY

NEW YORK — As she struggled through yet another difficult class, Marleny Hernandez felt her dream of becoming a nurse slipping away — again.

She was halfway through a two-year associate degree program at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Hernandez, a 33-year-old mother of four and high school dropout, had already overcome an array of obstacles on her nearly five-year journey.

“No matter how much I studied, I was failing,” Hernandez said, recalling the pediatric and medical-surgical care course that almost felled her. “I was just so frustrated.”

Hernandez had persevered through a difficult pregnancy, the demands of children, a job as a home health care aide and her other tough courses. But now the professional degree that could propel her entire family toward the economic stability they had never known was vanishing from sight.

“I was crying so much I didn’t know I was able to create any more tears,” said Hernandez, a petite woman with a mass of curly brown hair who lives in a two-bedroom public housing apartment in East Harlem with her husband and four children.

Marleny Hernandez often studied for her final exams with 2-year-old Jayce on her lap. (Photo: Liz Willen/The Hechinger Report)

The odds of continuing were not in her favor. Students who are parents are 10 times less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree within five years than students who are not.

Nursing, the nation’s largest health care profession, has always been among the hardest majors at BMCC. It’s also a nearly sure-fire way into a recession-proof career that pays well, especially this year, as a pandemic has stretched the U.S. health care system to its limits and accelerated the demand for qualified health care professionals.

For Hernandez, the pandemic was not turning out to be an opportunity. It was her biggest obstacle yet.

When the coronavirus began its dramatic and insidious spread, with New York City at the epicenter nationally, Hernandez became sick. First, her asthma acted up. Soon, she had chills, a fever and a headache that wouldn’t quit. Then she lost her senses of taste and smell. There were few tests available for coronavirus at the time, so she didn’t get one. Her resolve to stay in school weakened.

“I think I am going to withdraw this semester,” she wrote in a March 29 email to Cecilia Scott-Croff, the director of BMCC’s Early Childhood Center, where her 2-year-old son, Jayce, and 6-year-old daughter, Anjerlin, had been regulars. “I am very stressed with everything that’s going on, and then I was really sick. I couldn’t study the way I wanted to.”

A few days later, she got a call from Marva Craig, BMCC’s vice president of student affairs, urging her to stick it out and reminding her how badly nurses were needed now.

“You can do it,” Craig insisted. Hernandez wasn’t so sure.

‘I want to be a nurse’

Parents like Hernandez have particular challenges when they go back to school. They most often enroll at community colleges, where students are usually older and working and often the first in their families to attend college, and where graduation rates are notoriously dismal. Such students are also the most likely to change their plans, recent research shows.

Even before the pandemic, many student parents struggled with hunger and homelessness, hurting their chances of finishing degrees in programs that could guide them out of poverty toward a stable middle-class life — programs like nursing.

With three children at home at the time, the odds against Hernandez were even greater when she decided to go back to school and study nursing in 2016. While working as a medical assistant, friends and colleagues had suggested she try nursing.

“I just loved working with kids,” she said. “I kept thinking: ‘Yes, that’s what I want to do. I want to be a nurse.’”

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She enrolled first in BMCC’s highly supportive Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, which helped her figure out what courses she needed to take in order to apply for the highly competitive two-year nursing program.

Hernandez had stopped working as a home health aide by then and was in school full-time. After breakfast, she would strap her daughter, Anjerlin, into a stroller, jump on the subway and travel 40 minutes downtown to BMCC. Anjerlin played happily at the child care center, while Hernandez went to class and studied.

At first, it seemed manageable. But her workload grew. Time ran short. The steps up from the subway felt like a mountain on the way home, where other duties awaited. Before going to bed, she looked over homework and schedules for her two older children, Michael, now 16, and Nasiir, 15.

She tried studying late into the night and again early in the morning, but became pregnant again, and was often sick and constantly exhausted. Her grades began to slip.

“I was scared,” Hernandez said. “People were telling me I wouldn’t get into the nursing program without straight A’s.”

After passing the prerequisites for the registered nurse program, Hernandez took some time off following Jayce’s birth in February 2018 to prepare for the grueling entrance exam in May. Depending on the year, more than 200 applicants may vie for between 80 and 90 spots. Hernandez will never forget the call she got, telling her she had passed.

“I started jumping, screaming, telling my husband, my mom, my aunt, my whole family — anyone who was around,” she recalled. “I was just filled with joy.” 

Marleny Hernandez hopes her children will understand what she went through to become a nurse, and remember to “never give up.” (Photo: Liz Willen/The Hechinger Report)

‘Mommy, am I going to see you?’

The work got even harder that fall when she entered the nursing program full time. Her aunt helped out with Jayce, who wasn’t old enough yet to attend BMCC’s child care center. By January, classes in mental health and maternal-newborn nursing care had become tougher than expected.

And Hernandez’s daughter, Anjerlin, then 4, grew more demanding. She had started public school and no longer traveled to BMCC with her mother, and didn’t understand why she saw so little of her.

“I would be in school by 9 in the morning, and my aunt would be with the kids so I could stay late and study, but Anjerlin didn’t understand,” Hernandez recalled. “When I left in the morning, she would say, ‘Mommy, am I going to see you tonight?’ It broke my heart.”

Hernandez studied hard, but still failed some key exams several times. That’s when she had a talk with her husband, Jesus, who works long hours in construction for an interior design firm.

“I really need to pass,” she told him. “I need your help.”

Jesus promised he would try get home from work earlier. Dinner became cereal many nights. Laundry piled up. Hernandez kept studying — and struggling.

A nursing professor, Edna Asknes, saw how discouraged Hernandez seemed and suggested she withdraw and take the difficult maternal-newborn nursing class again. Hernandez declined.

“Marleny has the heart of a nurse,” Asknes said. “She is a very caring person, very empathetic, but professional. She’s had all sorts of obstacles she’s jumped over and under and gotten around, but she’s still pressing on.”

Hernandez managed to pass that spring — barely. Things got a little easier the next year when Jayce was old enough for the onsite Early Childhood Center at BMCC that his sister had loved. He played happily while she studied and went to class.

Marleny Hernandez with her 2-year-old son, Jayce, in her East Harlem apartment. (Photo: Liz Willen/The Hechinger Report)

Centers like BMCC’s that support parents who are students are recognized as a key component of student success. This year, foundations and policy groups put together $1.5 million in prize money for potential solutions aimed at supporting student parents.

There’s now a toolkit aimed at helping this group, as many have struggled mightily during the pandemic. A poll released this month found that when students have the support to connect their education to a career, they are more likely to say their education will be worth the cost.

At the same time, policymakers are taking note of a looming crisis: The number of new students enrolling in community college tanked by 21% nationally this fall, while enrollment among first-time beginning students was down 16% compared with a year earlier.

These declines confirm worries that poor and minority students are being left even further behind, their problems exacerbated by the economic devastation of the coronavirus.

Marleny Hernandez outside her apartment in East Harlem with her mother, Nancy, and daughter, Anjerlin. (Photo: Liz Willen/The Hechinger Report)

‘Don’t quit!’

BMCC’s child care center became a lifeline for Marleny Hernandez. Scott-Croff, the director, saw Hernandez struggling last spring and told Craig, the student affairs vice president, about her plan to drop out. Craig, a graduate of BMCC who later earned a doctorate, loves speaking with students and often has tissues on hand when they visit her office. On a Sunday afternoon last March, she called Hernandez and gently asked how she was doing.

“I was so surprised to hear her voice,” Hernandez said.

They talked about nursing. “I listened to how important it is to her,” Craig recalled, “and we talked about the difference she can make in her own life and the lives of four other people if she becomes a nurse.”

She reminded Hernandez that nurses are in great demand and can earn upward of $80,000 annually, with an array of schedules that make the profession manageable for a mother of four.

“You can lift a family out of poverty and into the middle class just by being a nurse,” Craig told Hernandez. She also told her that she, too, had once been a nursing student, back home in Jamaica, but had been too afraid of needles to stay with it.

“I grew up on an island where there weren’t many options for a profession like the one that I’m in now,” Craig told Hernandez. “The one successful person in my family was a nurse.”

She also referred Hernandez to an advocacy center at BMCC where she could apply for food, counseling and emergency funds. A counselor called Hernandez a few days later asking what help she needed to stay in school.

“I felt so much better after talking to her. It really helped me,” Hernandez said.

Afterward, Craig sent notes of encouragement, as did Scott-Croff, who recalls writing some that were straight to the point: “Don’t quit, don’t quit, don’t quit!”

The notes and calls made a world of difference.

“I was so scared and stressed and sick and feeling awful, but they made me feel that someone really cared,” Hernandez said. “I owe them so much.”          

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Last spring, Hernandez passed both the midterm and final that she and many other students had missed in March when the school shut down in-person learning. She immediately wrote to thank Scott-Croff.

“Without your words of encouragement, I would not have made it,” Hernandez wrote. “I was ready to give up and you didn’t let me. Thank you for having faith in me and always helping me.”                               

With an ending to her long journey in sight, Hernandez thinks about the many conversations she’s had with her younger sister, who works in human resources at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx. She hears about the shortage of nurses constantly.

“They need so many nurses, they need so much help, and I just want to tell her, ‘I want to go help!’” Hernandez said.

That opportunity might come in a few more months.

During her journey to become a nurse while at Borough of Manhattan Community College, Marleny Hernandez many times though she wouldn’t make it. (Photo: Liz Willen/The Hechinger Report)

‘Never give up’

A snowstorm was on the way on the day of final exams in the nursing program at BMCC this month. Hernandez bundled up but still shivered as she walked out of the building, lifting her blue surgical mask to reveal a smile of relief and joy.

She had passed the last course needed to finish the program. The final – 30% of her final grade – had been particularly tough. ­­The professor met individually to tell each student their grade.

“I was so nervous I don’t remember what she said, but she was smiling,’’ Hernandez recalled.

In the next few months, Hernandez will apply for a nursing license and then begin studying for the licensing exam she must pass before applying for jobs. She’ll also begin applying for a bachelor’s of science degree program in nursing, hoping to attend college part-time while working as a nurse. And of course, she plans to show up on Jan. 6 for the virtual ceremony that will replace the traditional in-person pinning ceremony.

Plenty of obstacles await. Newly minted nurses will start their jobs under enormous pressure, as they wait for vaccines.

Hernandez will worry about that, certainly. But for now, she’ll celebrate Christmas with her family and appreciate what it took to achieve her dream.

“A lot of times people told me I wasn’t going to make it,’’ she said, tearing up beneath her mask as she discussed her journey over a steaming cup of coffee. She hopes her children will learn from what she went through and sacrificed to stay with the program.

“You just have to keep going, no matter what others say about you,’’ she said.

“Just keeping pushing and never give up.”

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This story about student parents was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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