(ABC4) – When Lisa Sledge was accepted and began attending classes at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law, she thought, “Oh my gosh, what have I done?”

“Everyone around me was talking about how they’d been planning on doing this their whole lives. They’d always wanted to go to law school and their father was a lawyer and their brother is a lawyer and their sister is a lawyer. They’re so excited to be there…,” Sledge says.

For Sledge, who started law school as a recently divorced, single mother of two, law school would prove to be a very different experience than for many of her peers. In fact, out of 1.7 million single mother undergraduate students, only eight percent finish their education within six years.

And for that reason, she created Freedom for Resilient Women, a nonprofit organization with a mission to provide support to single mother students and graduates working to gain financial independence.

Sledge’s law school experience

Sledge describes her law school experience as exhausting and really, really challenging. As a legal assistant, Sledge says she took the LSAT at the recommendation of her bosses and friends. She passed.

“I thought, what the heck, I’ll apply to one school, and we’ll see what happens,” she says.

In fact, due to co-parenting reasons, Sledge couldn’t move from the Salt Lake Valley, so the University of Utah was her one shot, and she was accepted.

Sledge says she applied to law school to give her family a chance at a better life.

“I was excited but scared. If I stayed as a legal assistant, I knew at the moment, I was not able to pay all of my bills. I had to rely on government support. I was scared every month, and I knew looking around me that that becomes the permanent state of existence for most single mothers- you barely make ends meet for the rest of your life. You never own a house, you struggle to get your kids to school, you struggle that your kids don’t get to participate in extracurricular activities. You are just lucky if you can still make it to the end of the month with anything leftover in your bank account, and that wasn’t the life that I wanted.”

On the other hand, if she went to law school, she didn’t know what might happen.

Sledge says she knew it would be three years of intense poverty, but at the end, “I might just be able to make it and have a great job after and give my children the life that I feel like they deserved,” she says.

Over the next three years of school, Sledge says she took out student loans, donated plasma twice a week, asked family and friends for help, received welfare from her church, and went to the bishop’s storehouse. Sledge says she also had a job she was trying to work, as well as unpaid internships during this time.

At one point she says it was no longer safe for her and her children to live in their home. She received a scholarship from the University of Utah for homeless students, which helped, but she went two weeks without housing.

Her children attended evening classes with her and went to campus with her to study when they weren’t in school or daycare.

“My kids have sat through months of evening classes with me at the law school. I would spread my coat out on the floor for them and hook up headphone to the iPad or their Kindle, and they would just sit and watch a show while I attended class,” Sledge says. “It was exhausting for all of us. I struggled to pay bills, and we struggled to find time together as family.”

The kids were wonderful; they rarely complained, she says. “We called ourselves the law school team, and we’d get up in the morning and we’d say “lets go law school team!” And then we’d be out the door until late at night, and we would say we are the family that does hard things, and we never give up,” Sledge recalls.

Now a law school graduate, she says her kids still remind her of this when she gets discouraged working with her nonprofit.

“They know that we’re trying to help other families that were having a hard time like we did… It’s a blessing to be where we are now and to be able to help others get through it,” Sledge says.

Sledge graduated, passed the Bar exam, and was able to find a job at a software company that provides her with a good salary and allows adequate family time, Sledge says.

Things are better now. She can provide a comfortable home for her children. They can take piano and swim lessons. Sledge has a little bit of savings.

“I can sleep at night. I’m not scared every waking moment of everyday like I was for so many years,” she says.

Sledge: Single mother students need help

It was after she was sworn in as a lawyer, that Sledge went home and looked up the statistics of single mothers who make it through school.

“I started to wonder how many other single mothers are able to have this experience where they take this leap, and they go through years of sacrifice and pain and hard work and fear and anxiety and overcome it to find that moment when they realize it was all worth it, and we are now going to be okay.”

The statistics were horrifying, she says. Out of 1.7 million single mother students in the United States, only 8% are able to graduate within six years of their enrollment date, and that’s just for undergraduates in any program, Sledge told ABC4.

She says it’s very common for women to get undergraduate degrees in a major that leads to low-paying jobs that wouldn’t allow them to really care for their family.

Furthermore, studies showing a woman needs to earn the equivalent of a Bachelor’s Degree in order to make as much as a man with an Associate’s Degree, she says.

“Single mothers have higher amounts of debt and not only need to have a degree higher than men, but enter professions plagued with gender wage gaps,” Sledge states. “We are really failing women, and we are failing single mothers as a society.”

As Americans, we love underdog stories like Rudy and The Pursuit of Happiness, she says.

“We love stories of people who struggle and fight and sacrifice and work hard and then see their dreams come true and they overcome,” Sledge states. “But we have not set up programs that actually reward that kind of hard work. What we have instead, is we have women who sacrifice, who strive, who try, who do all of the things we admire as Americans, and then we just let them go and let them drown because there isn’t enough support for them. They drown in student debt. They drown because childcare is unaffordable. They can’t complete their degree. They are forced out because they have no one to help them.”

And when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Sledge says she couldn’t sleep anymore thinking about all the single mother students affected.

“I kept thinking about all these women who are dropping out of school because now their kids are out of school, and now they don’t have any childcare, and now they don’t have access to the internet, and now they may not have their jobs and they might be losing their homes,” she says. “You can’t go to school if you are so consumed by those basic survival needs.”

According to Sledge, she could not have gotten through law school without the help of professors and family members who stepped in to provide emotional and financial support. She says her ex-husband paid child support and took her kids every other weekend, which she acknowledges that not every single mother student has.

“That’s when I said, I know what these women need to succeed, more than one time scholarship. They need a network, support systems, people in their lives to catch them, because that’s what I had,” Sledge shares. “Single mothers will struggle with panic disorders, PTSD, and they’re still trying. I just think we want to help these people who are working so hard! We want to help them!”

Sledge says it was feeling the weight of these women needing help that inspired her to start Freedom For Resilient Women. The mission of the nonprofit organization is to “increase graduation rate of single mother students and help single mother student graduates achieve independence as they begin their new careers.”

Freedom for Resilient Women

According to Sledge, the program offers financial aid to single mother students in the form of help with rent, childcare, utilities, and internet. Single mother students can apply for applications for aid with these items.

The main vehicle to earn this money comes through a membership system, she shares. There are three levels of membership – Sapphire, Emerald, and Diamond.

Sapphire membership is for single mother students and graduates working on obtaining financial security.

Emerald and Diamond membership levels are for friends, neighbors, family, employers, coworkers, professors, and all people who care about the success of single mother students, she says.

“Their donations support the financial aid award that we give to single mother students and graduates,” Sledge explains. “There is a monthly membership fee with Emerald and Diamond membership levels, and that funds the financial aid that we give.”

Emerald and Diamond members can also volunteer as informal mentors to single mother students.

Through the organization, Sapphire members also benefit from prerecorded membership series, which include lecture segments from professionals on topics that are relevant to single mothers, such as finances and how to support children emotionally.

Another goal of the organization is to create a database of resources for women that can find scholarships so they can find additional financial aid, get counseling services, and assistance with legal issues, Sledge explains. The organization is intended to provide comprehensive aid to single mother students.

“Women just need to be aware that these programs exist and they need to know what exists in their area,” she says.

In addition to becoming a member, what can the average person do to help single mother students?

“There’s a lot of criticism for single mother students. If I would’ve continued to stay living on government support and government aid, I would’ve been criticized for being a parasite, living on the government,” Sledge shares. “Going to school I was criticized for not spending more time with my children and for “foolishly” taking out student loans. And it’s true, I have student loans. But I can pay my bills now, including those student loans, and I wasn’t making my monthly payments before going to law school.”

People can acknowledge that a woman has the ability and the right to make decisions for her own family, she says. “And whatever she chooses, she deserves our support, whether that is to go to school or to not go to school.”

She says the Emerald membership is for the average person at $19 a month.

“It gives members the ability to be in touch with single mother students who are struggling, discouraged, afraid, and who are working their tail off for a better life for their family. They can get on that platform, and they can encourage those mothers every day, and they need that encouragement,” Sledge says.

And her advice to single mother students?

“First, every day that you don’t give up, you’re winning. Reach out to those in your community cheering for your success…., and hold onto your children and believe in yourself because what you’re doing is very brave and incredibly scary.”