A single mom’s Mother’s Day gift to herself and her daughter: A college degree

Every morning since mid-April, LaWanda Walker has awakened to a heart-bursting sight: a graduation gown, hanging neatly on her closet door.

Her graduation gown.

Which she smiles at when she hops out of bed at 5:30 a.m. every weekday morning, walks past on her way to wake up her daughter, 10-year-old Alexandria, and comes home to at the end of a busy day of work and classes.

The road to the graduation gown has been a long one for the 46-year-old Walker, and it’s one that will end May 18 when she walks across the stage at Belmont Abbey College to accept her bachelor’s degree.

Being a single mom with a full-time job is grueling. Being a college student is a struggle.

Put those two together, Walker says, and there were days when the mountains ahead seemed too high to climb.

“It felt like a dream — so far off, like it would never happen,” she said.

But then, she’d remember her motivation: Alexandria.

And the little moments that kept her going: shared screams of joy when they both got As on their report cards. Evenings spent together at the kitchen table, mother and daughter doing homework side-by-side.

Alexandria has a front-row seat to the power that is a mother’s drive to do better for herself and her child, and even on the toughest days, there was no way Walker was going to let that slip away.

This Mother’s Day, LaWanda Walker has much to celebrate. Her final papers have been turned in to her professors at Belmont Abbey, and her last exam is completed.

And her daughter, too, is achieving her academic goals, making the A-B honor roll at her charter school on Charlotte’s west side.

“When she would get an A in her class, I’d want to get an A in my class too,” Alexandria says, snuggling on the couch with her mom after school on a recent afternoon.

“I’m glad mommy went back to school,” she says. “It encourages me to do better in school and try harder.”

Walker realizes crossing the huge college finish line will mean more to Alexandria as the years go by than it does right now.

“I want her to know more, to experience more, to have more and to appreciate what she does have,” Walker says. “You have to work hard for what you get.”

The tug toward college

College was a pipe dream early on in Walker’s life. She grew up in Richmond, Va., and although her parents and relatives had good jobs that paid the bills, none had gone to college.

Her family life was rough during her teen years, and Walker had to leave home and move in with friends while still in high school.

She spent two years at a back-breaking job cleaning hotel rooms, earning just enough to pay the $315 rent for a one-bedroom apartment.

Then, she says, she realized: “Hard work does get you what you want, but there’s got to be a better way.”

She applied for a job as a human resources assistant at a credit card company and discovered she loved human resources work. She moved to Charlotte, got married and had Alexandria, and went to work in the business office of what’s now Atrium Healthcare. She and her husband divorced when Alexandria was young.

Walker still works at Atrium, but realized years ago that there was a limit to the jobs she could do — and the money she could make — without a bachelor’s degree.

So about six years ago, she confided in her friend Stephanie Blevins, who teaches at Alexandria’s before- and after-school program, about the tug she was feeling toward going to college.

Blevins was getting a bachelor’s degree at Belmont Abbey, and she promised her friend that she’d be right alongside her to help if she decided to dive into a college career.

“Just try it!” Blevins coaxed her. “If it doesn’t work out, you can postpone it and do it later.”

Walker went to an informational session, submitted an application, and several weeks later, an ivory envelope appeared in the mailbox: an acceptance letter.

New routines — and a scholarship

As soon as she read the letter, Walker knew it was time to go to school.

She navigated the world of student loans and course selection, lined up childcare for the two nights a week when she’d go straight from work to class until 10:15 p.m., and bought herself a backpack.

Alexandria was just 5, and starting her own academic journey in grade school.

So began the routine that would span Walker’s five years of college: classes on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Homework on weekends and late into the night. A tight adherence to meal schedules and bedtime routines and school deadlines — for the two of them — because there was no wiggle room on the calendar for last-minute surprises.

Walker declared Fridays no-homework days, and after picking Alexandria up from after-school care, the two would get Chick-fil-A for dinner and sometimes visit the hair salon.

Summers were also a break — Walker took summers off from coursework, which made her college term span five years instead of four. But it meant more time with Alexandria while she, too, was out of school for the summer.

Midway through her college program, Walker developed health issues and doctors told her she needed a hysterectomy. She scheduled the surgery around her class schedule, and her Belmont Abbey adviser gave her a handicapped placard so she could park close to her academic buildings while she recovered.

Another year, she broke her foot, and the pain and hassle of just going through an ordinary day on crutches seemed overwhelming, not to mention the marathon days of working and going to school. But she didn’t give up.

“I never stopped going to school,” she said, “because I knew if I stopped, I would never go back.”

Just before her last year of school, Walker learned of the ANSWER scholarship, which helps mothers raising school-aged children fulfill their dreams of a college degree through tuition assistance, mentors and other support. She was accepted into the ANSWER program and her mentor, Robbie Johnson, became a rock to lean on during the challenging moments of her final year.

LaWanda Walker, center, shares a laugh with Martha Honeycutt, left, of the ANSWER Scholarship organization, and Walker’s 10-year-old daughter, Alexandria. LaWanda Walker is a single mom who had a rough start earlier in life and is earning her bachelor’s degree this spring from Belmont Abbey College. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

“They have given me more than just money — they have given me support,” Walker said.

‘You did it’

Walker’s gown is ready for May 18, and she and Alexandria have already ordered the graduation cake: a half-lemon, half-red velvet cake shaped like a book, with a graduation cap made of icing on top.

On the first Monday after graduation, Walker will send out applications for human resources jobs she’s now qualified for, thanks to her degree in interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in human resources management and a minor in business management.

With school complete, she won’t have to run so hard anymore. Weekends can be her own. She can pull down the board games Alexandria got for Christmas — Jenga and Uno — and play them for hours without the weight of homework hanging on her shoulders.

Alexandria will be sitting in the audience May 18 as her mom gets her diploma. Blevins, Walker’s parents, and members of Walker’s ANSWER support team will be there, too.

Blevins says she’s bursting with pride for her friend.

“When I look at her all I can do is smile and say, ‘Girl you did it,’ “ Blevins says.

Walker hopes that along with the pride Alexandria feels for her mom, that she later understands the struggle it was juggling so many aspects of adult life all at once: motherhood, work and school. She wants Alexandria to earn her bachelor’s degree as a young woman before so many responsibilities of adult life add up.

“She needs to go to school when she’s young and fresh, and before she starts a family, before she starts a career and gets a taste of making money,” Walker says. “She needs to know that if you work hard, you can accomplish whatever you want.”