Storyteller: St. Charles mom finishes college while working two jobs, putting three kids through college
BY MIKE DANAHEY email@example.com June 3, 2012 12:24PM
Updated: June 4, 2012 10:04PM
Wendy Mahren of St. Charles recently graduated from Southern New Hampshire University without once having set foot on campus.
Not only is Mahren among the growing number of people earning diplomas online, but she also is a 58-year-old married mother of three grown children, who works a full-time and a part-time job.
“I did it for myself, for my family and to show I am still viable with a lot to contribute,” Mahren said of her business degree in finance with an emphasis on economics.
Mahren started college 10 years ago, when her oldest daughter, Kaite, now 27, enrolled at Elgin Community College. The timing was such that she had just started a new job with Chase Card Services in Elgin in the fraud department, and the company assists with paying for classes related to work.
For about 25 years, Mahren and her sister Holly (Wiedmeyer) had been helping run the family businesses, Mack’s Golden Pheasant in Elmhurst and then Mack’s Silver Pheasant in St. Charles.
“We were third generation restaurant people, but in October, 1999 we decided to close the business,” Mahren said.
For a time, Mahren worked with her husband, Jim, “a concrete guy,” building custom homes throughout the Fox River Valley. That endeavor ended after the dot-com bubble burst, then the aftermath of 9-11, both of which contributed to the collapse of the high-end market.
So her husband took a job at a construction supply house, and Mahren started at Chase.
“We always made it clear to our three kids that they would be going to college. I regretted not going, though I did go to the college of hard knocks,” Mahren said.
Her night shift made it possible to take classes at ECC during the day, just like her daughter.
“I had a bright yellow Honda Prelude, and (as a prank) Kaite would move the car while I was in class without telling me. It took me about a month to figure out what she was doing,” Mahren recalled.
Mahren took three-and-a-half years to get an associate’s degree, while Kaite headed to Northern Illinois University for a bachelor’s in education, then a master’s at the University of Dayton, the city in which she now teaches English at a middle school.
Mahren took a break from her studies, and about four years ago she started a new position as a risk and control analyst on the day shift. Around the same time, the recession started, and her husband lost his job.
So, to help make ends meet, Mahren took her part-time job, which she still has and which now involves selling shoes about 14 hours a week at the Carson’s in St. Charles. She also decided to get her bachelor’s degree.
“I knew a bricks and mortar school would be out of the question. So I researched online universities, ruled out the for-profit schools, and found Southern New Hampshire,” she said.
The program is set up with classes offered in intensified 8-week sessions, with work including reading, writing papers, required participation in online message boards, and even virtual group projects.
“For those, I often found it was best to pick up the phone to call and to delegate responsibilities,” Mahren said. “If you can’t type and don’t have good writing skills, this type of program wouldn’t be for you.”
Mahren found calculus the toughest subject to master online. For help in certain subjects she would turn to online lectures available through the university, YouTube tutorials and even her kids.
With so much on her plate, texting and Skype helped Mahren keep in touch with her family. Studying sometimes involved reading aloud on trips to visit Kaite in Dayton, daughter Sherlyn (now 25 and working as a financial analyst in Costa Rica) up at Marquette in Milwaukee and to see son James (now 22) in Chicago, where he has a year to go on his accountancy degree.
“I always brought my laptop. A nice thing about online university is you can literally take your class anywhere,” Mahren said.
During a good portion of this time frame, Mahren’s husband was out of work for three-and-a-half years before landing a job last August driving a school bus for children with special needs.
It took Mahren three-and-a-half years to finish her program this May at SNHU, where she graduated summa cum laude, despite having a self-diagnosed case of senioritis. Now she is thinking about pursuing an MBA.
“It’s like I tell my kids: Learn something new every day. Do your best. And I love you,” Mahren said.