It’s the Sundays that save Virginia Betancourt from doubting the path she has chosen.
Mondays through Saturdays, the 26-year-old Holland native spends most of her waking hours dedicated both to completing her social work education at Saginaw Valley State University and showing up to the job that helps her pay for her studies.
“It’s been tough; very, very emotional,” said Betancourt, an SVSU alumna now working on her master’s degree. “There have been a lot of times when I felt I couldn’t do it, and that I wanted to give up.”
Then comes Sunday, and with it, the memories made on those days with Benicio.
“Everything I do is for him,” Betancourt, a single mother, says of her 4-year-old son. “Everything.”
Sundays represent the one day each week the full-time college student uncompromisingly turns her full attention toward her son. Sundays represent precious hours spent swimming, having fun at the park, baking, visiting grandma and watching Benicio’s favorite wrestling and superhero shows on TV. Sundays represent a reminder of why she works so hard on all the other days of the week, when she invests so much of her energy into efforts she hopes will benefit the boy as he grows up.
Once, Betancourt contemplated other options. She considered skipping college altogether, instead making ends meet with the wages earned from the types of waitressing jobs she worked after graduating from Arthur Hill High School in 2012. She also explored the idea of enrolling as a part-time student at SVSU, which would have freed up more time to spend at home but would have delayed her launching her professional career.
Instead, she opted to dive into life as a single mother and full-time college student, enrolling in between 12 to 15 credit hours at a time as well as a few classes during spring and summer semesters.
“I was waitressing when I got pregnant, and I knew I didn’t want to follow that path as a mother, living paycheck to paycheck,” Betancourt says. “I wanted to do better for my child. I knew that wouldn’t be easy, but it was important to me.”
While her status as a full-time student meant less time spent with her son, she was comforted by the idea he would be too young to one day remember when she was often away at school or work. The payoff, she says, will be worth the sacrifices.
“The beginning of each semester is emotional for me — thinking about all the time I will be away from him, all the books I won’t be able to read to him, or all the times I won’t be around to play with him because I will be at school,” she says. “But, by doing things this way, I’m so much closer to where I want to be. Benicio and I will have the rest of our lives to reap the benefits of my labor.”
Studies show that Betancourt is on the path to a more comfortable lifestyle. College graduates still earn more than non-college graduates in every state in the U.S., according to data from Business Insider’s 2017 American Consumer Survey. In Michigan, the survey showed the difference in median earnings between college grads and non-grads is 93%.
Betancourt passed one major milestone in May 2020 when she earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from SVSU. She immediately transitioned to the master’s degree program in the same field at the university. She will earn that degree in May 2021.
Meanwhile, she works as a behavioral therapist for children with autism at the Saginaw office for ABA Pathways, a mental health service organization. It’s an opportunity that both relates to her studies as a social worker and helps pay for her education. Betancourt is helped on the latter challenge, she says, by the fact that SVSU’s tuition rate is the most affordable among Michigan’s public universities.
Within a year, she hopes to begin the process of receiving her license as a social worker.
“Eventually, my dream is to open an agency that could serve as a women’s shelter,” she says.
Betancourt says her passion for helping others likely stems from her experience as a child, when she supported her great-grandmother during her battle with cancer. When she was about Benecio’s age, her family moved closer to her great-grandmother’s home in Pinconning to help her.
“We were there every day, by her bedside, bathing and feeding her until she passed away when I was 6,” Betancourt says. “That experience is part of what molded me into who I am.”
Now, Betancourt is focusing her energy and time on bettering the future for her son. During her time away from Benicio, her family watches him.
“We have a very strong support system,” she says.
Still, the comfort of knowing Benicio is in good hands does not calm her wishes to spend more time with him. Fortunately, she says, Sundays spent with her son serve as a reminder of why she decided to pursue a college education as a young mother.
“I want him to grow up with financial stability and opportunity,” she says. “When he graduates from high school, I don’t want him to worry about having to take out a lot of loans or pay out of pocket to go to college. I want things to be easier for him than for me; that’s why I’m doing this.”