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Student balances classes and a child

Helena Guan

When freshwoman Heather Jones answers the door to her unit in the Underwood Apartments, it is immediately obvious that she is not the only one who lives there. Squashy stuffed animals and colorful plastic toys are scattered across the floor and a baby’s car carrier sits unoccupied in the center of the room. A swing and bouncer reside near the kitchen door.

Eleven-month-old Nina Simone toddles up from behind her mother, the blue plastic handle of a toy vacuum clutched in her tiny fist. She is an animated little girl, with a mop of curly dark hair, big brown eyes and a white cotton onesie that has come unsnapped at the bottom so that the back hangs down like a tail. Tottering about on legs that have only known how to walk for a couple of months, she greets visitors with a stream of babble that will soon start to form her first words.

Watching Nina enjoy her new mobility, Jones can hardly believe that her daughter is almost a year old. Since giving birth on May 7 of last year, Jones has done what few eighteen-year-olds in her position could: she has effectively balanced her roles as student, employee and mother and, with the right support, has made valuable contributions to the Mills community.

“She has to be very organized and motivated to manage her daughter’s care and supervision, her studies, her job and free time whenever she can fit that in,” said Health Services Director Cynthia Turner, one of Jones’ supervisors in the Division of Student Life.

A bright and talented student, Jones maintained a 3.7 GPA in high school while pursuing her love of dance, in school and out. Always a high achiever, she never stopped dreaming big about her future. She wanted to attend Spellman College until she learned there were no family housing options available there, so when she was accepted at Mills, she knew that Nina would make the journey from Chicago to California with her.

Though it is far from home, attending Mills allows the pair to be close to Nina’s father, who attends UC Berkeley. Jones said that in addition to his help, she has received incredible support – including lots of babysitting – from the Mills community.

Health Programs Director Erica Browne, Jones’ direct supervisor, laughs when recalling an early instance of what she termed “mommy-training.”

“One day Heather had to do some work in Rothwell and I was watching Nina in the main office, sans bottle, pacifier or diaper bag,” Browne said. “I remember Nina being quite through with me and crying at the top of her lungs. I was waiting for someone to come knocking down the door any second! Heather returned shortly, took Nina, made a bottle, changed her diaper and went right back to work. Quite impressive!”

Fast mommy action is a normal part of Jones’ daily routine, though things are somewhat easier now that Nina has started attending day care.

Even so, Jones says meeting all of Nina’s needs as well as her own isn’t an easy task.

“I have lack of energy daily,” Jones said. “When I do have a moment to myself, it’s like, do I do work, or do I take a breather and really get in chill mode? It’s hard free time is not really free.because there’s still things I have to do that’s pertinent to Nina.”

These pertinent things include constant feeding and changing, preparing each day’s diaper bag and spending quality mother-daughter time together on that floor full of toys. Because taking care of Nina has to come first, homework often falls to the bottom of Jones’ list.

Balancing school, work and motherhood is no easy task, and Jones says she wouldn’t be able to make it through each day without one special person.

“My mom – I talk to her every day. There’s no way I would be here if I didn’t talk to her every day because she’d say, ‘Heather, focus. There is an end to it.’ She’s extremely helpful.”

Jones has also learned that while the decisions she makes now affect her daughter as well as herself, she still needs to pay attention to her own physical and emotional needs as well as Nina’s.

Jones prepares to leave the apartment for a meeting; Nina will stay behind with her aunt, who is visiting.

Nina follows Jones to the door and begins to fuss when she realizes she won’t be going along on the outing. Jones looks briefly over her shoulder and smiles, reflecting on something else she’s learned that’s helped her succeed.

“We are a team you know, a unit. But I have to take care of me too,” she said.