The author often bartered for services with friends and neighbors, rather than paying for them.
DRAWING: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Perhaps I should have entitled this article "How to Go to College Even When You Think You Can't!", because — at age 35 — I'm not only a divorced mother who's actively involved in rearing two preteenaged sons, by myself, on a small farmstead . . . I'm also a full-time college student. And, although juggling the two roles of country mother and campus coed can be pretty demanding (not to mention confusing!) at times, I'm happy to say that my life is continuously challenging, always fulfilling, and never boring!
Over the past three years, my boys and I have had to shoulder new responsibilities and solve complicated problems that — before my divorce — I never dreamed we could handle by ourselves. You see, when I was married, I thought living the good life meant staying at home with the children and tending to the chores on a little farm . . . while my husband worked in town to pay the bills and helped out around the place on weekends. Our family was getting pretty good at homesteading, too: We were raising most of our own food and striving to become fuel self-sufficient, as well.
Struggling as a Single Parent
Sadly, however, my bubble of idyllic self-reliance burst very quickly once my husband and I were separated, and I found myself alone with two youngsters to raise and no income or assets (except 3,000 canning jars, a few sticks of furniture, a beat-up pickup truck, and about $6 in cash) to help me out. I knew the three of us couldn't afford to stay on the farm, so I considered moving to the city where I might find a job. But somehow, just thinking about that odious option was more than I could stand, and I suddenly realized that I wanted much more for my children — and for myself — than to "survive" in some overcrowded, smog-ridden metropolis! I wanted us to be able to continue to thrive in a natural and invigorating environment. . .and there simply had to be a way to do that.
So, with renewed fire for pursuing a life that was worth living, I dismissed the idea of moving to a big city and came up with a new plan. I knew that — since it takes at least some money to maintain a homestead, and there was no longer a man around to keep it coming in — "bringing home the bacon" was now solely up to me. That meant I needed to acquire some kind of career skill. I decided to go to school and get a degree in nursing, a profession I figured I could practice anywhere. . .even in the country!
Maybe I didn't have any material assets to assist me in achieving this goal, but I sure as heck had some valuable natural resources to fall back on. . .such as an active imagination (which had gotten me out of many a tight spot) and an impregnable stubborn streak (which refused to allow the word "impossible" to enter into my vocabulary!). But, most important, I had two terrific kids who believed in — and depended upon — good old Mom. So, I owed it to the three of us to see that this dream of an education became a reality.
Getting My Degree as a Single Mom
Armed with plenty of determination, I set out to take the necessary steps toward attaining a Bachelor of Science degree. First, I traded off a few odds and ends to get my truck in running condition. Next, I found a temporary living situation with a friend just outside a college town. And then, with no cash up front, I enrolled in a nursing program!
How did I manage that neat monetary maneuver? Actually, it wasn't hard to do. When I checked into the financial aid program at the small state university where I'd enrolled, I discovered I was eligible for a $1,000-a-year Pell Grant (formerly the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant — or BOEG — which covered my tuition and book costs, and even left me with a bit of extra cash. I also qualified for, and was granted — from a local bank— a government-secured, interest free (as long as I was a student) loan to cover living expenses. In addition, although I was too late to be considered for a state scholarship the first year, I've gotten that free aid every year since.
Not wanting to dip into my borrowed money more than I absolutely had to, I began to discover lots of ways to put my bartering expertise to work. For example, after I located a rural rental house that was badly in need of repairs, I talked the landlord into letting us live on the tiny two-and-one-half-acre farmstead for free, in exchange for painting and fixing up the place.
To earn extra cash income, I got together with a friend and started a housecleaning service for professors. Our work hours were flexible, allowing us to juggle them around the changing schedules of our classes and our children. Soon the demand for our help grew so much that we had to hire other students to assist us!
A Community of Single Parents
Once my children and I were settled into our new home, and I became acclimated to college life, I began to realize that there was a whole community of single parents — just like me — who were short on cash but long on "barterable" skills. It didn't take long before I was right in the middle of this group, informally exchanging talents and time with several people. For instance, I babysat a little girl whose father kept my vehicle in shape. This same man worked on another woman's car in exchange for her giving piano lessons to his daughter. But, since the mechanic didn't have access to a practice piano, I let his child come to my house and use our instrument. . .as long as he came and stayed with his daughter and my boys so I could go over to his apartment to study in peace and quiet. Whew! Some of those trade arrangements got pretty complicated!
I was also able to persuade some folks to help me with a few of my homesteading chores (such as gardening, canning, butchering, and cheesemaking). In exchange for these volunteers' assistance, I taught them how to do those food making and preserving jobs and gave them a small share of the finished products. And the nicest aspect of becoming a part of this college's single-parent swapper's circle is that my sons and I now have an extended family of "uncles", "aunts", and "cousins" with whom we can share, learn, and enjoy plain old good times.
Fulfillment of a Dream
In the meantime, I've completed three of my four years of schooling and have been able to earn an annual income (exclusive of grants and loans) of around $5,000. Now that may not sound like a whole lot of money for a family of three, but when you consider that we continue to raise most of our own food and do a bit of "horse trading" with our friends for about anything else we need . . . then — to us — that five grand is practically a fortune!
My Postgraduate Plans
Once I get my degree, I plan to pack up my children and belongings and settle on 120 acres north of here that my grandfather left to us. My hope is to farm the land and build an energy-efficient house (financed by my new career!).
Of course, I realize that we're pretty lucky to have a parcel of property waiting for us. But even if my granddaddy hadn't been so generous, I feel certain that somehow we'd find another place to live that'd be equally suited to our needs. Because if there's one thing my boys and I have learned by starting from scratch and "living close to the bone", it's that nothing is impossible for folks who are just too darn stubborn to believe that it can't be done!