This article was co-published with EdSurge, a nonprofit newsroom that covers the future of learning through original journalism and research.
BALTIMORE — At 8:45 on a Thursday morning in May, 20-year-old Sarah Turner stands at the stove preparing two meals at once: eggs for her son Noah’s breakfast and a grilled cheese sandwich for his lunch.
Noah sits expectantly at the dining room table. The 3-year-old boy — about as tall as his mother’s hips — plays with a toy piano keyboard, then arranges his collection of toy cars and trucks into a formidable line of traffic. When Turner delivers his plate of eggs, sausage and grapes, he eats while pretending to soar through the air.
“Noah’s on the airplane,” he declares, wobbling on his chair. “Woahhh!”
Turner isn’t cooking for herself this morning. She’ll grab breakfast later on campus, in between her college classes and club meetings. Lunch, too.
The apartment where Turner and Noah live has two of everything: his and hers. Two tidy desks stand side by side. On the smaller one: a package of “mess-free” paper and markers, tiny squirt guns and an empty container of dinosaur counters. On the large one: a collection of reminders written on colorful cards, a printer and a stack of books: “The Fire Next Time,” “The New Jim Crow,” and “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.”
A name card printed with the logo of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, also sits atop the large desk. It reads: “Sarah Turner, Ph.D.”
That’s Turner’s future. The calendar on the refrigerator marks the upcoming milestones on her journey to get there. One day left to plan a big ceremony for her college mentorship organization. Five days left until the final class of her junior year. Seventeen days left until her 21st birthday.
Turner has two big goals for the summer. The first: to fully potty train Noah, using a three-day regimen, no distractions allowed. The second: to make the most of a 10-week residential research program at Harvard, alone, leaving Noah with family, first with her aunt, Leslie Turner, and then Turner’s mother, Chantal Turner.
Sarah Turner tries to ensure that Noah’s life is “predictable and stable,” she says. “My job is to keep him low-stress,” she adds. She knows the summer separation could put that at risk. This is the kind of compromise that she has to balance as a single mom and a college student.
“I want to be a great role model, but I want him to have an active mom in his life,” Turner says. “Is it worth being away?”
With Harvard on the horizon, Turner savors each morning with Noah, knowing there won’t be many left like this one. Noah takes a few spins on his red Radio Flyer tricycle before Turner helps him slip on his giraffe backpack and ushers him out the door on his way to preschool. Buckled into the back seat of the car, Noah chats with Turner about the teachers he will see today. He points out his grandmother’s house when they drive past it.
In the parking lot of his preschool, Noah affixes a small mask to his face. He strides confidently into his classroom, where other small children are eating snacks, pausing just briefly to turn around and wave goodbye to Mommy.
If no unforeseen force topples the carefully balanced time blocks of Turner’s schedule, it will be seven hours until she is called that name again. The intervening time is hers — to study, to work and to learn.
It goes by fast. “My days start out like this,” Turner says, undulating her hand in a relaxed wave, “and then” — her fingers snap.
At 16, Turner was determined to leave Maryland to attend college in Florida. She spent a week touring campuses there with her Aunt Leslie and her mom during the spring of her junior year of high school.
Back then, Turner had strong grades and participated in plenty of extracurricular activities. She ran track. She was an officer in her school’s Minority Scholars Program. She was a member of a student club for American Sign Language, which she uses to communicate with her oldest brother, who is deaf. She had every expectation of becoming the first person in her family to graduate from college.
Then she got pregnant. She gave birth just before Christmas, during winter break of her senior year. A few days before she went into labor, Turner selected a name for her son: Noah. It reminded her of the biblical man whose story — the flood, the ark — represented forgiveness, and a fresh start. The day after Turner chose the name, she saw a double-rainbow in the sky.
Noah’s arrival transformed Turner. But her daily life didn’t slow down. About a week after Turner gave birth, she had to take an exam for one of the online classes she had switched into late in her pregnancy. And in early February, she returned to high school in person.
“It seemed impossible,” Turner says. “I was so stressed out.”
As a new mom, Turner reconsidered her higher education plans. She decided that she wanted to give Noah’s father an opportunity to build a relationship, which seemed more likely if Turner stayed in Maryland to attend college.
“I had to let Florida go,” she says.
On the counsel of a friend from her track team, Turner enrolled at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She now thinks it was a wise choice. She has appreciated how the smaller school has helped her make connections.
The university also has a whole community of students who live off campus and commute to class each day, so Turner doesn’t feel like the only person left out of dorm culture, even if most of the others have different reasons for not staying in the residence halls.
Turner settles in near the university’s commuter-student lounge at 11 a.m., time for her scheduled check-in with Shanika Hope, or Ms. Shanika, as Turner calls her.
Ms. Shanika is Turner’s mentor — one of many. They were paired together through Generation Hope, a nonprofit that provides coaching, tutoring, tuition money and other services to teen parents as they pursue higher education.
Women who give birth as teenagers are less likely than their peers to graduate from high school, and even less likely to graduate from college. Leaders at Generation Hope argue that this is in part because few colleges are set up to address the needs of students who are raising children, even though they make up a fifth of today’s undergraduates. About two-fifths of college students who are raising kids are single mothers, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research; most have low incomes, and many struggle to find enough time for their studies.
As a rising junior in college, Turner signed up for Generation Hope to meet other young parents.
“It helps you know that you’re not alone. Because sometimes I’m like, ‘Am I the only parent here?’ I feel really isolated,” Turner says. “It’s like, ‘No, we’re doing it, we know it’s hard, and you have other people that are doing it with you.’”
Ms. Shanika, a mom of two teenagers who works at Google training engineers, signed up to mentor because of her memories of what her younger sister experienced when she had a child at age 18.
“I tried to help my sister stay the course to get her college degree, to have better outcomes. That didn’t happen,” Ms. Shanika says. “Fast-forward 23 years later, I just feel compelled to help enable other young mothers to stay the course.”
Ms. Shanika notes that her mentee has a solid community surrounding her: “What’s unique is Sarah has a very strong support network, which enables her to fly.”
What difference does a network make? Financial resources count for a lot. Turner’s aunt helps with that. So does child care. Turner’s mom watches Noah three days a week this semester. Her father and one of her brothers live nearby and are there for her if she needs support — say, if she falls ill. Less tangible, but just as significant, Ms. Shanika says, is how support can instill a young woman with confidence and empower her to think, not just survive.
“Teen moms are dealing with shame, and it causes them to become insular. They lose the friend groups and support they originally had when they got pregnant,” Ms. Shanika says. In contrast, Turner “has a natural curiosity that has not been closed off by being a teen mom. She makes space for it,” Ms. Shanika adds. “My sister and others that I’ve supported in similar constraints, it gets squelched because of all that they’re managing.”
Ms. Shanika tries to act as Turner’s coach. Not for academics — Turner gets high grades in her psychology courses — but for building more peace into her long days. The pair talk about how to get more than five hours of sleep, how to set aside time to spend with friends, how to take care of a child while also taking care of yourself.
During one of Turner and Ms. Shanika’s early conversations soon after they were paired up, last semester during the fall of Turner’s junior year of college, Turner explained that she was creating flyers for four different campus events. She was in the middle of exams. Noah’s nose was running, and he had missed a week of school.
“Just make sure you are being kind to yourself,” Ms. Shanika counseled during the call. “Everything you’re describing, it’s a lot of responsibility. And your son is sick.”
They talked about remedies for a toddler’s cold, and the best brand of rubber pants to help with potty training. They talked about graduate school applications, and what life might feel like if Turner relocates to continue her studies and no longer has family members nearby to watch Noah during the week.
“She’s young. Doubt comes. She’s balancing a lot,” Ms. Shanika says later. “I just get to ride along, give her additional nudges, give her confidence and calibrate as she makes decisions. She’s a unicorn, I would say. I literally am just tagging along with a little bit of superstar.”
To apply to graduate school, Turner will need to ask five or six people to write letters of recommendation for her. She can’t wait until senior year to build those relationships. So she started even before she got to college, recruiting her university’s vice provost, Yvette Mozie-Ross, into her corner. She’s the person who first helped Turner learn about Generation Hope. Turner also recruited the university president, Freeman Hrabowski III. Before his recent retirement, Hrabowski met with her every six weeks or so. Hrabowski gave her a copy of the book he wrote about raising African-American boys, signaling to Turner how important her role is as Noah’s mother.
Turner’s knack for outreach comes somewhat naturally. But some of it stems from training she’s received from the McNair Scholars Program. One of the federal TRIO programs, its mission is to help first-generation college students from low-income families and historically excluded racial groups earn doctorate degrees within a decade of graduating from college.
McNair Scholars programs across the United States received a $51.7 million boost from the U.S. Department of Education in 2022, and student outcomes data reveal why these efforts have become a national priority. Surveys from Pew Research Center show that first-generation college graduates are less likely than other college graduates to complete an advanced degree. And of the more than 55,000 students who earned doctorate degrees in 2019, only about 7 percent identified as Hispanic or Latino, 5 percent as African American or Black, and 0.2 percent as American Indian or Alaska Native, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics Survey of Earned Doctorates.
Turner is a McNair Scholar at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County branch, and she also works as one of its student-staff members. That’s why, at noon, she’s sitting in a small office off of a dark hallway in an academic building, tuning into a Zoom call with a few other students and a couple of McNair leaders. One of them is the program director, Michael Hunt.
They’re meeting to discuss tomorrow’s torch and induction ceremony, an event that celebrates all that graduating seniors have accomplished and welcomes new students into the program. Turner asks and answers questions about where to find the McNair Scholar banner, how to blow up the balloons they’re using for decorations, and how to officially conclude the event. With a toast? Special remarks? Affirmations?
The first time Turner was invited to apply to be a McNair Scholar, she declined, unsure whether it would benefit her. It took a second email invitation to motivate her to seriously consider the opportunity. The program’s perseverance in pursuing her, and its promise to support her goal of earning a doctorate degree, appealed to her. She wants to build a career in organizational behavior, a field that applies research to the workplace. Turner likes the idea of being able to work both in industry and at a university, perhaps as a professor who mentors students.
“How can I make money helping people be better people?” she asks. “Higher education is a nice place to make an impact.”
Mentorship is a key component of the McNair Scholars program. Its approach emphasizes diffusing mentorship across multiple relationships. Rather than pair each student with only one faculty mentor — an arrangement that can sometimes overwhelm mentors and underwhelm mentees — young scholars learn to seek support from McNair staff, multiple professors, their family members, other adults in their lives and even each other.
“I am where I am, I am who I am, because I had multiple people in my life that mentored me,” Hunt says. “Mentorship is what you glean from everybody.”
Hunt believes mentorship is a powerful tool. But too often in academia, he says, that power is misapplied. It can be used to train students to change themselves to fit more comfortably into universities, rather than changing universities to serve students they weren’t originally designed to educate.
“UMBC McNair has been around for 30 years — this is our 30th year. And yet I often bemoan that. Why are we still around? With the progress that we’ve made, we’ve also been mentoring to continue what I would call the oppressive nature of higher education,” Hunt says. “Folks are doing enough to get a door open to them, but not enough to kick down the door.”
So he teaches a framework called “Holistic Critical Mentoring.” The model does help McNair Scholars navigate the university as it currently exists, but it also challenges them to consider how they will change the system as they pursue graduate school, become professors and take on academic leadership roles. It aims to disrupt old standards for what counts as “professional” in academia — standards largely set by White people and shaped by a culture that prioritizes whiteness. It encourages students to bring their whole selves — all facets of their identities, each of their personal experiences — into their mentorship relationships.
For Turner, that means showing up as a student, as a Black woman, as the daughter of an immigrant — and as a mother.
When Turner meets new folks in college, she doesn’t always broadcast that she has a son. She likes to get a feel first for how accepting people seem. She doesn’t want anyone to assume that being a mom might hinder her.
But she doesn’t hide her reality, either.
“Once I get in the door,” she says, “I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m a mom!’”
At 2:45 p.m., Turner gets out of her Psychology of the Black Experience class and walks to her car. A few other students meet her there. Turner drives them around the corner to Arbutus Middle School, which sits beside the university campus. Kids stream out of the building and into the warm spring air. Other college students arrive with pizza boxes. It’s time for tutoring.
The college student volunteers stand in the front office, rounding up the middle schoolers and searching for paper plates. Turner walks around to chat with kids, some nearly as tall as she is, others still seemingly years away from puberty. She’s taking 17-and-a-half credits worth of classes this semester, and this volunteer service isn’t earning her anything toward her degree. She simply likes to help young people grow.
“A big thing for me is giving back to students, being an example, and showing them that it’s possible and they just need to see someone do it,” she says.
It’s a priority that Turner shares with her Aunt Leslie. A former corporate lawyer, Leslie Turner now volunteers her time on the boards of nonprofits and universities. She’s keenly interested in helping young people establish solid trajectories for their careers.
That includes, of course, her niece. When Turner was younger, Aunt Leslie nudged her to read “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens,” which the pair then discussed as a sort of two-person book club. She introduced Turner to friends whose professions might inspire her.
“People need guideposts,” Aunt Leslie says. “My obligation as an aunt is to interact with Sarah and say, ‘How do you live in this world?’”
By 3:20, the college and middle school students are settling into a classroom with bright bulletin boards, snacking on pizza and brownies and sipping Capri Sun. To celebrate the end of a successful year of tutoring, they’ve set aside homework and are instead playing games.
The tutors cue up an online quiz they created to test whether the kids have picked up on any of their personal details. Which tutor likes to ice skate? Which tutor knows more than three languages? Which tutor loves the musical “Hamilton”? The answer to a final question comes easily: true or false, Arbutus Achievers tutoring has been fun and helpful?
To invest in another person — with time, money or emotional support — is to divert resources from yourself to give to someone else, Aunt Leslie says. Yet when done willingly, this doesn’t feel like a sacrifice.
“It isn’t burdensome at all. You want to do this,” Aunt Leslie explains.
It’s the kind of care for others that Aunt Leslie’s mother, who worked as a nurse, modeled for her. That she models for her niece. That her niece models for middle school students, and by extension, for her son.
Now, Aunt Leslie finds herself guiding the next generation of her family. When she watches Noah, she tries to model for him. When it’s time to get dressed, she asks him, “What pants do you want to wear today, red or blue?” When he has trouble opening a container, she narrates, “How do we get this open, hmm?”
Noah’s catching on quickly. One day, Aunt Leslie overheard him playing with toys in his room. He was talking to himself out loud, asking, “Hmm, what should we do here?”
“You have to start early in a child’s life to give them the tools to learn about decision-making,” she says. “You pull back, pull back, pull back.”
Aunt Leslie must do this for Turner, too.
“It’s an evolution for me as well, in my role with her, recognizing the maturity she has,” Aunt Leslie says. “I told her I am going to step back from strongly suggesting things you should or shouldn’t do—now you’re an adult.”
After tutoring ends, Turner drives 15 minutes to the parking lot of the preschool. It’s 4:30 p.m. She pauses briefly in the front seat to freshen up, to take a breath, before, as she explains, “the mommy hat goes back on.”
Noah stares out through a big classroom window. He spots Turner. He points at the tower he’s been building. He runs to his mother and wraps his arms around her legs. He stayed dry all day, his teacher reports.
Turner drives Noah to a nearby apartment complex, where her mother, Chantal Turner, is waiting with dinner she picked up from Chick-fil-A. Noah unpacks his lunch box on his grandmother’s couch. She passes him the macaroni and cheese she got especially for him. He devours it.
Noah calls his grandmother ama. Her apartment is his second home. He has his own room here, and when he stays overnight, it gives Turner a chance to study in her own apartment. Turner says leaving Noah with his ama alleviates some of the guilt she feels about being so busy during the school week.
“Does he know why he doesn’t always stay with mom?” Turner wonders. “He’s in grandma’s hands. That gives me some peace. Not everyone has someone they trust to take care of them.”
Turner’s mom was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of 16 children in her family. She had two sons before moving to the United States. Once here, she met and married an American man. The pair raised Chantal’s two sons and had a new child of their own: Turner. Chantal passed down to her daughter a shared middle name — Rosalie — as well as a strong sense of responsibility to look out for the people around her.
“My life has been African American, literally,” Turner says with a laugh. “So I have that individualistic side of me, [and] I have that community, leave-no-one-behind part of me. And that really makes me who I am, you know, the fusion of those two cultures.”
Turner’s mom was the first person to realize that Turner was pregnant. She prompted Turner to call Aunt Leslie, to help them devise a plan for her future. When Turner doubted whether she could finish high school, let alone make it to college, her mother didn’t waver.
“Mom knew, and right away, she gave me support,” Turner recalls. “Everybody around me was like, ‘We have your back. We’re gonna get through this, whatever you need, you know, we’ll do for you.’”
“We love each other,” Chantal Turner says. “We are a team.”
As Turner considers graduate schools, she wants to enroll in a great program. She wants to live somewhere with good primary school options for Noah. She no longer wants to limit her life to Maryland.
Still, she worries about leaving the community she’s created. She wonders if she should just stay near her mom. Her mentors offer advice.
“I said, ‘Look, no, Sarah, you need to think about where you see yourself, what gives you energy, what programs you want, and then look at the right set of supports,’” Ms. Shanika says. “You can do it. You have everything you need to navigate this.”
Staying close need not require proximity. Noah’s ama is teaching him a bit of French, one of the many languages she speaks. Turner knows some, too. Noah also has picked up a little American Sign Language, to start to communicate with one of Turner’s brothers, the way she learned to. These are threads that tie Noah to Turner, and will bind the pair of them to their larger family, no matter where they go. They are filaments that will help Turner hold her identities together, too, even as she changes and grows.
But for now, it’s time for family dinner. Soon, Turner will open her computer back up to squeeze in a few more hours of work. There is so much to do.
A few hours left to plan the torch and induction ceremony for her fellow McNair Scholars. Five days left until her final exams begin. Three weeks left until she says goodbye to Noah, and leaves for Harvard, and seeks the courage to share her whole self there.