Larissa Littleton-Steib is the chancellor of Delgado Community College, in New Orleans.
Growing up as a child of a single mother, I had a front-row seat to the life of a single mom. I witnessed firsthand my mother's struggles, triumphs, disappointments and resilience. Although I fully understood the challenges single moms face every day, the ones they encountered during the COVID-19 pandemic were like nothing I had ever seen before.
Single moms, who in many instances were the sole providers and caregivers for their families, found themselves unemployed, shifting from in-person to virtual classes and having to assist their school-aged children with virtual learning. Many of these single moms did not have the resources they urgently needed to be successful in the new COVID-19 reality. They found themselves alone, overwhelmed, depressed and seriously concerned about their ability to maintain shelter for their families, keep food on the table, stay in college and stay sane. Those problems were compounded by the need to support and navigate virtual learning with their kids.
When the pandemic began in 2020, Delgado Community College, the largest community college in Louisiana, shifted rapidly to replace 1,800 sections of face-to-face instruction with virtual, online and hybrid modalities. The digital divide in New Orleans and the surrounding metropolitan area was real, and the shift to online instruction would be a significant challenge to many of our students. Up to one-third of New Orleans households do not have access to the internet, and around one-fifth of New Orleans residents do not have computers.
We knew that our students would struggle to navigate virtual coursework. For those with kids, having to help them navigate virtual learning as well would be an added burden, and maybe an obstacle to remaining in college and continuing their studies. Those issues were particularly concerning for our single mom student population, who were approximately 26% of those attending Delgado.
Many students were feeling the urge to give up, but we couldn't allow them to give up on themselves. The economy and the workforce would rebound, and we wanted them prepared to succeed with the necessary educational skills and training when that time came.
We inventoried the laptops and Wi-Fi resources available at our college, and we loaned as many as possible to our students. We knew that the students would use the laptops for their virtual courses. We also knew that their kids would use them, and in some way, this contribution would reduce the stress and anxiety they were feeling.
We opened our food pantry and allowed students on campus to shop for food. We launched our Delgado Cares webpage, which provided the latest information related to COVID-19, including testing and vaccinations. It also had resources for renters and homeowners, as well as information about federal supplemental funding for students. Delgado provided free access to virtual mental health counseling to help students develop coping strategies and counsel them through anxiety, loneliness and depression.
Support of single mother learners during global challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic is the hallmark of an initiative Delgado launched last fall called the SMART Program, which stands for Single Mothers Accessing Resources Timely. The program enables single mother learners to make progress in their education and career — all while supporting their families financially — through a mix of personalized learning, career guidance and holistic support.
Single mother learners can take advantage of one or all of our programmatic offerings. These include "earn and learn" opportunities with living wages to help single moms support their families throughout their time in school. We have asynchronous online courses, industry-specific career navigations and orientation courses specifically designed for single mothers in order to provide personalized learning and career support. Delgado's app also has an online community for single moms, providing consistent, proactive outreach in addition to resource sharing. This helps to support community building and the networking that many single mother learners find helpful. Holistic supports in the form of scholarships, child care vouchers, transportation assistance and access to an online social care network for needs and resource referrals help to close the gap and ease the financial burdens of single mother learners so that they can focus on their education.
The SMART program was developed using human-centered design — a process that is intended to help teams fully understand the perspective of people experiencing a problem in order to create effective solutions. Our program is a product of the Single Mothers Success Design Challenge, a grant-funded project sponsored by the ECMC Foundation in collaboration with the Education Design Lab. Through the challenge, Delgado and three other community colleges are designing and testing programs intended to improve attainment rates for single mothers seeking degrees.
So far, the SMART program has served over 300 students. Our goal is to impact at least 2,000 single mother learners, leading to a 30% increase in their degree and credential attainment rates by spring 2024.
The pandemic forced us all to reevaluate our lives. Through the collaborative efforts of our Delgado faculty and staff working with a broad range of service organizations, we are pushing through the ongoing challenges faced by single mothers enrolled in our college. Positive changes in how we serve significant student populations like single moms are helping us all to become better members of our community.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that Delgado Community College loaned laptop and Wi-Fi resources to students.