FARGO — A hefty nursing textbook stands out amid colorful toys in Olivia Foss' apartment, as do dozens of cards propped up on the counter congratulating the single mother for graduating.
Foss, 26, has lived in the apartment with her 3-year-old son, Leo, ever since the building opened last January. It was built specifically to support single mothers pursuing college degrees and dreams, which for Foss has finally come to fruition.
After four years of studying and tests, she's starting as a nurse in Sanford Health's oncology department next week. "I think being a mom is probably the hardest job — the best, but definitely the hardest and most rewarding," she said while playing with Leo after a day at Rasmussen College.
She's one of the first moms to graduate from college among those living at the Fargo-Moorhead Jeremiah Program campus in south Fargo that serves 20 families. A ceremony at Rasmussen was held earlier this month, though she still has a couple of weeks left of classes.
Jeremiah Program offers safe and affordable apartments, on-site child care, life skills classes and communal spaces. Similar campuses exist across the country. The first one opened in Minneapolis in 2001.
Lonnie Pederson, the program's executive director in Fargo-Moorhead, said the mission is to end the cycle of poverty for single mothers and their children two generations at a time.
With two of the first mothers to enter the program here now obtaining their degrees, Pederson said it's a major milestone for the program.
"It shows that we have accomplished that goal of building upon the strengths of Jeremiah moms and supporting their efforts to bring their dream of completing a college education to fruition," she said. "At the same time they've been on that journey, their children have been learning all the while in a high-quality child development center."
Pederson said the program helps remove barriers for single mothers who face more challenges than traditional students. '"Even the strongest, most determined moms face insurmountable barriers," she said.
The number of single mothers in college more than doubled between 2000 and 2012, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research. But between balancing school, work and caring for a child, single mothers are less likely than their peers to complete a college degree.
Nearly 60% of women without children achieve degrees, the institute reported, but that percentage is cut in half for single moms.
Single mothers often face major financial challenges that can impede degree completion, with child care costs topping the list. While single mothers work in addition to school, it can negatively impact grades with less time devoted to studying.
But Foss found more time to study when she moved into the Jeremiah Program campus. Prior to this, she was living on her own and working full time to afford rent and child care.
“Since living here I didn't have to work full-time, I just work part-time. Reducing my hours really helped me focus more on school," she said. "And just having the support of the program — Leo loves the day care, he loves the school.”
Foss was initially hesitant about applying for the Jeremiah Program. Her sister, Whitney Wright, works as the program's event and volunteer manager, so Foss found herself volunteering before going through a 12-week empowerment course that's required before moving in.
"I felt like there were more people who needed it who don't have a support system," Foss said. "Living here has shown me it's about having a safe place to live and building relationships with more moms going through the same thing. Our circumstances might not be the same, but we're in the same place."
Foss will move out of the campus in June, but Leo will still get to attend the child center until he is 6.
"Once I get going on my feet, I will for sure be supporting this place 100%," she said.
Pederson said the program is accepting applicants now for the fall empowerment course that begins in September. Participants qualify based on income and must be on a two-year or four-year college track.