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University of Mary’s community for student moms celebrates its first graduate

Katie Chihoski smiles after receiving her degree with her daughter, Lucia, in her arms during her graduation ceremony at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., April 27, 2024. She is the first graduate of the Catholic school's St. Teresa of Calcutta Community for Mothers. (OSV News photo/courtesy University of Mary)

(OSV News) — When Katie Chihoski walked the graduation stage at the University of Mary April 27, she was holding both her hard-earned bachelor’s degree in social work and her 18-month-old daughter Lucia.

She is the first graduate of the University of Mary’s St. Teresa of Calcutta Community for Mothers, a program that the Benedictine school in Bismarck, North Dakota, launched in January 2023, which offers free child care, room and board and other resources to young women facing unexpected pregnancies as they pursue their degrees.

The idea for the program initially came from a couple who were donors to the school and wanted to know if there could be something more that could be offered to young student mothers who wanted to continue to receive a college degree. The school’s president, Msgr. James P. Shea, said the program was part of the university’s effort to “witness to the pro-life cause in a very tangible way.”

When Chihoski found out she was pregnant in the fall of her sophomore year while studying abroad in Rome, she didn’t know if she could go back to college. “There were so many times where I would just say I can’t do this, this is crazy,” she told OSV News, “but then I had 20 classmates around me who would say just the best things.”

Her fellow students offered to help with babysitting, meals and moving. The offers weren’t empty ones either; her classmates did all of those things after Lucia came along.

The new program offered by the school was a key support as Chihoski returned to college as a new mom after taking some time away from school to have Lucia. She and Angelina Hanft, a young mom who came with her baby, Auggie, from Texas to pursue her nursing degree as part of the program, were the first two student mothers in the community at the start of last year.

The community has grown by two more moms since then. “It’s just such a unique experience,” Chihoski said, calling it “a growing opportunity for all of us just to learn how to work together and share a home.”

Babies have become a normal sight on campus as the school accommodates the young student mothers as well as staff with young children. A few of the school’s residence directors are mothers who also have their babies on campus. Chihoski said she has drawn close to these other families who have offered friendship and support.

When she first returned to college, she worried that she and Lucia would “stick out like sore thumbs,” but she came to realize that the school is “the least intimidating place to bring a baby.”

The second Lucia starts crying, “someone walks up and starts talking to her and makes her laugh and she finds a new friend,” she said. She frequently hears from her fellow students that interacting with Lucia is the highlight of their day.

Chihoski was also able to do an internship her last semester at a local high school and elementary school, which has helped her feel equipped to pursue a career in social work.

On the immediate horizon, though, is her upcoming wedding to fellow graduate Joshua O’Meara. She said they met initially on campus in her freshman year, and when she returned to school after her pregnancy, he “fell in love with Lucia” first. She became good friends with him and they eventually dated, becoming engaged on a snowy hike in his home state of Minnesota.

She hopes to find a job in the school system as the two prepare to move to Minnesota after graduation, but because of her experience as a student mom, she said, “Whatever happens, I feel confident.” She added that through this experience she’s learned time management, how to ask for help and how to foster relationships.

Chihoski also praised the faith life on campus. “It has been way easier to form good habits like prayer and daily Mass with Lucia looking over my shoulder,” she said, “She also reminds us to do those things.”

She said Lucia has developed a strong love for Mary and whenever they walk by the grotto on campus with the statue of Mary, “she will get so mad if we don’t stop and talk to Mary. She starts to cry.”

She said that as a new mom, it can feel “impossible to reach out to people sometimes” and for Catholics looking to help new moms in difficult situations, it’s important to remember that sometimes you have to “put resources in mothers’ laps for them to use” because often they don’t have the time and energy to find good resources or the confidence to ask for what they need.

Chihoski has enjoyed watching the community of moms on campus grow by two new moms and their babies over the past year. A young mom with a 2-year-old is moving in a few days after her departure as well. “Word’s just getting out really fast and it’s awesome to see,” she said.

Since beginning the program with their babies, she and Hanft have been able to offer advice to the moms joining the program about “all the baby things because we’ve all been through it now and it’s just nice to be able to relate to those small challenges.”

While she’s excited for the future, Chihoski said it’s hard to leave the friends she’s had since her freshman year who have been by her side through her pregnancy and beyond. She said for the people who were with her when she discovered she was pregnant, “it feels like they love Lucia almost as much as I do because they’ve just been around for the entire time she’s been alive.”

Msgr. Shea gave little Lucia a parting kiss on the cheek as he handed Chihoski her degree. She will be missed on campus by the community of friends and faculty that equipped her mother with the confidence and resources she needed to move forward.

Lauretta Brown is culture editor for OSV News. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) @LaurettaBrown6.

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