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Defying All Odds a mother's determination to make a change for herself and family

By Kathryn Ziesig

Work hard, go to college, get a good job, meet your mate, settle down, have kids, and retire comfortably. The American dream, an idealized version of how one’s life is supposed to play out.

Merriam-Webster defines it as, “A happy way of living that is thought of by many Americans as something that can be achieved by anyone in the U.S. especially by working hard and becoming successful.” It is a goal people have been chasing for decades. However, is the American dream still within reach for everyone?

“The ‘American dream’ of how your life should be, it’s a complete myth.” -Deanna Close

A student at Western Kentucky University is among the people who are struggling to bridge the economic and social gap to provide a better life for their families. Deanna Close, 33, is a mother of two, a first-generation college student, and a recent WKU graduate.

Close was born into a low-income family in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Neither of her parents achieved a high school level education. “Seeing my mom struggle was one of the things that made me see that that’s not what I wanted for myself,” Close said. “I wanted to do better and I wanted to make her proud.”

As the years pass, the American dream seems increasingly difficult to achieve for people like Close. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center analysis, the wealth gap between upper-income and middle-income families was the widest ever recorded with no wealth growth among middle and lower-income families.

According to Pew, in 1983 upper-income families had a median net worth that was 3.4 times greater than middle-income families. However, in 2013 it was reported that the upper-income families had a median net worth 6.6 times greater than the middle-income families.

Looking to take her education beyond what her parents had achieved, Close worked hard in high school to get good grades and planned on attending college after taking a gap year. However, her plan changed drastically after becoming pregnant with her daughter, Jezayla, who is now 13.

“I never gave up on school,” Close said. “I just kind of put it in the back for a little while and focused my attention on her.”

"Once you find out you have a little human growing inside of you, you learn to grow up super fast," Close said.

She focused on raising Jezayla and trying to make the relationship with Jezayla’s father work. However, after multiple attempts to raise their child together the couple split and Deanna became a single mother.

“You shouldn’t try and stay in an unhappy and unhealthy relationship just for the kids, because in the long run they’re going to be the ones that are unhappy and unhealthy,” Close said.

In 2014 Close decided to enroll at WKU to pursue a four-year degree. That same year, Deanna met her fiancé, Carl Vollmerhausen, 33, through an online dating site. After a couple months together she became pregnant with their son William. “We hit it off super-duper quick,” Close said. “It was like it was meant to be.”

Vollmerhausen assumed most of the financial responsibility for the family so that Deanna could be a full-time student and focus on her studies.

“He wants me to be successful,” Close said. “So he’s done the majority of the work and provided for us financially so that I could do this for us, because he knows that the investment that he’s making now into my education will pay off in the future.”

Having to provide for children and pay tuition can be extremely difficult for some families, especially in recent years. Higher education costs have increased. According to a report from the College Board in 2018, in a comparison of tuition rates in the 2008-09 and 2018-19 school years, the average tuition rose 26 percent at private nonprofit four-year colleges, 35.3 percent at public four-year colleges, and 34 percent at public two-year colleges.

Source: (https://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/tuition-fees-room-and-board-over-time#menu)

Likewise, there has also been an increase in the cost of raising children. According to a 2016 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report, the average cost of raising a child born in 2015 is $233,610. This is an increase of over $25,000 since 1990, according to a 24/7 Wall St. article in 2011 that estimated the previous years' costs for raising children using past USDA statistics.

Sources: (https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2017/01/13/cost-raising-child) (https://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl?cost1=233%2C610&year1=201501&year2=201801) (https://247wallst.com/investing/2011/06/24/the-fifty-year-soaring-cost-to-raise-a-child/) (https://www.cnpp.usda.gov/tools/CRC_Calculator/default.aspx)

However, Close and Vollmerhausen face even more challenges beyond financial ones. Vollmerhausen currently lives in Michigan with his father because it is easier for him to find work connections there compared to Bowling Green. The distance has been difficult on Close and the kids, but nightly video chats and occasional visits make it easier on them.

“It has its pros and its cons,” Close said. “I do want him home, but you gotta do what you gotta do. You gotta make sacrifices to make sure you can take care of your family.”

Despite the many obstacles she had to overcome, Close graduated on December 15, 2018, with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in neuroscience after only nine semesters at WKU. She was awarded the Ogden College Student Achievement Award for “a student that overcame adversity and persisted to graduation and achieved at a high level,” and she gave a speech to her fellow graduates.

“Overcoming life’s challenges and showing resilience in the face of adversity make the attainment of success much more rewarding and the life we choose to lead much more fulfilling,” Close said during her graduation speech.

It has been a challenge for Close these past few years while completing her undergraduate degree and raising her two children. “You take on a lot of different roles and I think the main thing people wonder is how I can balance it all, and truthfully I don’t,” Close said. “I just prioritize.”

Luckily for Close, she has a good support system between her fiancé and mother. Her mother, Linda McCormick, has always provided child care for her without charge. “She’s always been there for me and I love her for that,” Close said.

While some students who are also parents, like Close, receive assistance from their families and significant others, there are many who do not. “It’s tough as it is with a support system, so I couldn’t even imagine without one,” Close said.

Single parents attending college are 22.8 percent less likely to graduate compared to all other students and 12.6 percent less likely to graduate compared to married students with children, according to a 2014 Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) report.

Source: (https://iwpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/C451-5.pdf)

However, without some form of higher education these parents are likely to be paid significantly less than people who have achieved a college degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people who have a high school education will earn a median weekly salary of $712 while those with an associate’s degree will earn a median of $836 weekly and those with a bachelor’s degree will earn a median of $1,173 weekly.

Source: (https://www.bls.gov/emp/chart-unemployment-earnings-education.htm)

With the odds seemingly stacked against lower-income families and parents seeking higher education, some may see the future for these groups as bleak. However, according to a Pew Research Center article published in 2017, only about one-in-five Americans think the American dream is out of reach for them. Even if these families have not achieved their goals yet, 46 percent of U.S. adults believe their families are on their way to achieving the American dream, according to Pew.

This would indicate that despite the many hurdles these families and parents face, the ideal life may still be within reach.

“I saw myself in a situation and I didn’t like it so I did something about it,” Close said.
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Kathryn Ziesig
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