LIFE & STYLE

How A Chance Encounter On A Plane Put A Mom On Track To College Graduation

Meghan Mangrum
The Dallas Morning News

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Meghan Mangrum reports, “It took [Erica Flores] six years to complete her online program while raising three children as a single mom, working full-time, caring for her ailing mother and navigating the upheaval of the pandemic the past few years.”

Dallas

Erica Flores, 40, used to hate when people asked her where she went to college.

Growing up in south Irving, Flores and her peers didn’t talk much about college. Many of them finished high school and headed straight into the workforce. That’s what Flores did, along with becoming a young mother.

And though she pursued a successful career in economic development, it still nagged at her when someone new would ask, “Where did you go to college?”

That all changed in 2015 when she rushed onto a Southwest flight headed to Austin and sat next to a man in a “sweater vest and a newsboy hat.”

The man was Kent Hance, Texas Tech University’s chancellor emeritus who never misses an opportunity to recruit.

This month Flores is graduating — finally — with her bachelor’s degree in general studies with concentrations in human sciences, psychology and sociology.

She sometimes thought she wouldn’t make it to graduation. It took her six years to complete her online program while raising three children as a single mom, working full-time, caring for her ailing mother and navigating the upheaval of the pandemic the past few years.

But now she can finally answer the question with, “I went to Texas Tech.”

Flores never took the SAT before graduating from Irving’s Nimitz High School in 2000. Most of the students she knew weren’t encouraged to pursue studies after high school, she said. Around that time, Nimitz mirrored state rates that showed just under 20% of students enrolling in the kind of advanced courses that prepare them for college, according to available Texas Education Agency data.

“We didn’t talk about college,” she said. “It was understood that option wasn’t available to us.”

By 2015, Flores had made a career for herself working at the Dallas Regional Chamber on the economic development team. But she still didn’t have an answer when people asked about where she studied.

Traveling to Austin for work, she chatted with Hance on the short flight, telling him she was focused on her career and raising her kids. At the time she had one each in elementary, middle and high schools in Dallas. But he was insistent that she reconsider college.

“He said just take one class, then you can say you went to Texas Tech,” Flores remembers.

From 2008 to 2016, the number of part-time students at four-year universities across Texas increased by 78%, according to Every Texan, the think tank and advocacy group formerly known as the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

But as of 2018, only about 49% of the 350,000 students who graduate from high school each year in Texas were enrolling in a postsecondary training program, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. And less than a third of them — only 29% — were successfully earning a credential or degree.

Sensing a future Red Raider, Hance had a recruiter call Flores the next day.

As chancellor, Hance set a goal to grow enrollment at the university to 40,000 students by 2020 — one the school reached, school data shows.

Though virtual classes and online degree programs are more common since the pandemic, distance learning was less accessible previously.

Still, even in 2015, Hance knew the university had degree programs that could accommodate busy, working parents like Flores.

Flores worried about being an older student in school, but online classes eased that worry. And often she’d met military wives, single parents or other nontraditional students, Flores said.

Flores credited much of her success at Texas Tech to Hance and her former boss and mentor, Mike Rosa, senior vice president of economic development of the Dallas Regional Chamber. (The Dallas Regional Chamber is a supporter of the Education Lab.)

“It wasn’t impossible but it was hard,” Flores said.

During her first year of college, when her youngest daughter was about 6 years old, Flores would spread her books out on her bed or settle her computer in her lap to work on coursework.

Her daughter would lay down next to her and sometimes drift off to sleep. Other times, the youngster would grab her own books to read or stack them like a computer in front of her, mimicking her mom.

“It broke my heart in all the best ways,” Flores said.

But the last 18 months were the hardest for her.

Flores was laid off from her chamber job during the pandemic. And then with her mother battling cancer, she turned down a job offer as she focused on family and finishing school.

But balancing keeping up with school and her family’s needs was tough and Flores said she sometimes felt like giving up. One especially hard day, she called Rosa.

“I was crying and couldn’t breathe and kept saying, ‘I have to stop, I have to stop,’” she recalled. “And he said, ‘No, you have to finish. The sooner you continue, the sooner you finish and the more likely your mom will be there to see it.’”

Several members of her family — including her mom and her oldest son, Isaiah, a junior at Texas Tech — traveled to Lubbock for her graduation and a special dinner Hance set up in her honor early this month.

“She got that degree and what’s so important is the confidence that it gives her that she can do it,” said Hance, noting that it will serve her well as she considers what’s next for her career. “Dont quit. Don’t give up. There’s a way you can do it.”
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©2022 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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