Jessica Lawless, College of CharlestonWe all have our priorities in life – some abstract hierarchy of what matters most, what always comes first. For Jessica Lawless ’14, there is no question: Her son will always rank No. 1.

But if her son is her first priority, then the job keeping the roof over his head has to be right up there, too. And the kind of job security, health benefits and opportunities she’d need to continue to support herself and her son – well, that meant a bachelor’s degree. That’s a lot of priority. Lawless didn’t know how she could pull it off.

When the new single mom graduated from Trident Technical College with an associate of arts degree in fall 2012, she didn’t think she’d be able to attain a bachelor’s degree and keep her job at Red Wing Shoes in North Charleston.

That’s when she learned that the College was developing a specialized continuing education program that was designed for people like her – nontraditional students who already have credits or associate degrees, for example, and who need the flexibility of online and night classes.

The program itself wouldn’t take off until August 2013, but she decided to go ahead and get a head start in the spring.

“I had to take some filler courses to maintain full-time status while I waited for the program’s approval and the seminar courses to be developed and then offered,” says Lawless, who last fall was the first to graduate from the College’s Bachelor of Professional Studies program.

It wasn’t always easy balancing being a single mom, an employee and a student. Finding classes that fit into her work schedule was sometimes a challenge, and she tried to take as many online and night classes as possible.

“It has been challenging, but the flexibility of scheduling and the staff’s willingness to help make even the most difficult loads more manageable,” says Lawless. “I was lucky enough to have teachers who were understanding of my situation because of open lines of communication and familiarity with the struggles that come with being an adult student.

“I’m also blessed with a good-natured and easygoing child, so his disposition definitely helped,” she continues. “But my love of caffeine may be the key factor that helped me find the time to get it all done – especially late at night once I put my son to sleep and got the housework done so I could do assignments.”

Whatever it took: She got it done. And she’s hoping that the degree will translate into a secure job with health benefits – perhaps in logistics, contracts or human resources for SPAWAR or some other government entity.

“I concentrated in organizational leadership and management, and that allows me to be useful to a broader category of job offerings,” says Lawless. “This program will push you to succeed with all the tools you need – you just need to take them.”

And – as difficult as it was to make school a priority when, as she says, “having a job and just being a mom are my actual priorities” – she never felt like she was compromising what matters most in life.

“This program allowed me to complete my bachelor’s degree while still being a first-rate employee and mom.”

And, for Lawless, being a mom always comes first.

– Photo by Reese Moore