Juggling single parenthood, college with a village's support

If you ask social work and sociology alum Tara Carlson what inspires her, she’ll smile and say without hesitation, “my kiddo.”

Like other students, Tara’s education was at the top of her priorities while earning a degree at MSUM. First and foremost, however, she prioritized being the best mother she could to her now two-year-old son, Lucas.

Carlson found out she was pregnant shortly after getting accepted into MSUM. From the start of her pregnancy, she knew she’d be a single mom needing additional help. That led her to the Jeremiah Program, an organization headquartered in Minneapolis with locations across the country, including one in Fargo-Moorhead.

According to its website, the Jeremiah Program’s mission is to disrupt the cycle of poverty for single mothers and their children. They help moms apply to schools, find childcare and affordable housing, and connect them with mentors. While Carlson appreciated all of these resources, her regular meetings with her mentor, Meg Thompson, stood out to her most. She found them therapeutic.

“Just knowing that a lot of people out there were going through the same thing was fulfilling for me on this journey,” Carlson said.

Carlson and Thompson worked through challenges as well as celebrated accomplishments together. Thompson has enjoyed watching Carlson’s growth and continues to cheer her on.

“When Tara and I met it didn’t take me long to see how driven she was to earn her social work degree from MSUM, participate in the Jeremiah Program, and be a great mom to her son Lucas,” Thompson said. “Tara’s work ethic has never wavered. She now has a great career in social work, and I couldn’t be more proud.”

People like Thompson at the Jeremiah Program answered Carlson’s questions and helped her feel less alone. She built relationships with the employees, especially those at the daycare.

“They really take an interest in your kid. It’s not just a paycheck for them,” she said.

Thanks to the people at the Jeremiah Program, Carlson began classes at MSUM once Lucas was a few months old. Unfortunately, it wasn’t smooth sailing from there. Being away from her son was emotionally draining, and many days she juggled parenting and homework simultaneously. She quickly learned that communication was key, especially on days when she’d have to stay home with a sick kid or even bring him into class.

Carlson found her sociology and social work professors to be understanding of her situation and willing to work with her. Not only was she able to bring him to her classes, but one of her night professors even went so far as to make paper airplanes with him. With the amount of class time and textbook reading Carlson did with her son, she jokes that he might be an academic in the making.

“He probably knows more about sociology than I do,” she said.

While Lucas might already be on his way to a sociology degree, Carlson found her way to sociology and social work through her experiences in high school. Growing up in a low-income town, she felt like many of her friends might have pursued higher education if they had the right connections and resources.

“Now I get to be that resource and support I wanted to be for my friends back then,” she said.

With the inspiration of her son, the resources from the Jeremiah Program, the education from MSUM and her own determination and grit, Carlson found a job soon after graduating in May 2023 as a foster care case manager. She can now provide for her little family.

Tara Carlson Social Work and Sociology Alum

“I finished all my goals. I have an amazing life that I’ve created for me and my son with the help of so many,” she said.

Her advice for students in the same position is to connect with the Jeremiah Program and MSUM’s financial aid office and communicate with your professors so they understand your priorities. Lastly, whether you face a difficult situation at work or are potty-training your toddler, there’ll always be an opportunity to learn after graduation.

"Always be a learner. Just because you have your degree, you'll always be learning, especially in the social work field."

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