Education is a group effort in Maria Solis's household. She holds her two sons, Mark (17) and Mike (14), accountable for their schoolwork -- and vice versa.
"I created a calendar we all contribute to," Solis said. "Everybody has to put in their tests, finals, quizzes, other activities and family events. Since we don't know what everybody's classwork schedule is, we can have that time and say, 'How was that test? How do you think you did? You need to be studying. So and so has a final.' It's about respect and being involved in each other's education. It's all of us helping each other. It feels good."
Solis is enrolled in the online Bachelor of General Studies program with an emphasis in early childhood education and communication at Arkansas State University. She will graduate in December 2018.
In addition to making sure she is organized while managing school, motherhood and a full-time job, the calendar has strengthened the bond she has with her sons.
"My kids have been 100 percent supportive from the beginning," she said. "My 14-year-old helped me do PowerPoint. When I was doing public speaking, he'd say, 'Mom, you're doing too many fillers. Mom, you need to cut back on this word.'
"It's really cool because when he sees me do schoolwork, he will say, 'That's going to be so easy when I go to college because I already have firsthand experience. Right, mom?' I say, 'Yeah. When you do it, you're going to say, 'If my mom can do it, I can do it.'"
Mark, a senior in high school, plans to attend the University of Arkansas beginning in 2018. When he brought home an application to join the school's Upward Bound program in the fall of 2013, one of the questions helped motivate Solis to return to school.
"It said, 'Which degree do your parents have?'" explained Solis, who has two associate degrees. "It sparked something in me. His dad told him, 'You don't have to go to college. You can just get some sort of certification.' Mark's response was, 'I'm my mom's son. Since I was little bitty, I remember college has been an expectation. It's not if I want to -- it's a must. If she can do it, I have to do it.'"
Meant to Be
Solis was set to quit her job at the Arkansas Department of Human Services and focus solely on school when a new opportunity arose.
"I met the supervisor I work for now," Solis said. "She came into my office and said, 'My person just quit on me,' and she was talking to my coworker about the position. I said, 'Early education? Child care? What?' She said, 'The job is opening.'"
The fact that Solis was preparing to enroll in the Associate of Applied Sciences in Early Childhood Education program at Northwest Arkansas Community College before moving on to A-State made her an even more attractive candidate for the job, which she landed. She has worked for the Arkansas Department of Human Services since 2007.
"Before I got hired, I told my supervisor, 'I'm going back to school. Is that going to be a problem?'" Solis said. "She asked what I was getting a degree in. When I told her, she said, 'Oh, my gosh, that's wonderful. What we want you guys to do is advocate to people and give them those tools and those skills. We support that 100 percent.' So, it worked out. I'm in the perfect place for the perfect job."
Although Solis feels strongly that she will have several more career options open once she graduates, she has no intention of moving on. Solis will also be the first person in her family to earn a bachelor's degree.
"I'm very happy where I am," she said. "I love my job -- especially with me going to school and how supportive my supervisors and coworkers have been. I want to grow, but I'm happy. My ultimate goal if something were to change is I would possibly want to work more with our providers. I want our providers, where our tiny babies are, to provide quality care."
Solis also graduated with an Associate of Childhood Development from East Los Angeles Community College in 1998. She is a former preschool teacher who worked in a Head Start program. She also worked as a cosmetologist instructor for three years before moving to Arkansas.
"At that time, when I first moved to Arkansas, I was going to be a stay-at-home mom," she said. "People told me, 'You've done too much. You've helped everybody else. Now, you need to focus on your kids.' That only lasted seven days. I decided, 'No, I want to work.' One of my cousins said, 'Why don't you come with me so that you can interpret Spanish for me at the Department of Human Services office?' And that is when I knew where I needed to be -- helping families."
Life, Work Skills
Solis has found the communications courses she has taken in the online Bachelor of Arts in General Studies program the most beneficial so far.
"Those courses have taught me so much and reinforced a lot of things that come naturally to me, like to have a lot of empathy for people, because of how I was raised," she said. "For example, the communication part of why we sometimes have a double standard when it comes to our family versus a friend.
"It has to do with how emotionally invested we are in the relationship. I have really loved that part about communications. Even though it's all about talking, there are different ways we communicate -- verbally, physically and even emotionally."
Of course, that communication also goes back to her kids and the school calendar she created.
"When my boys have soccer activities and they are in the calendar, I know what I need to get done before the weekend," she said. "I want to be present for as many of their school activities as their sport activities. We want to make sure we don't miss anything from each other."
The results of that open communication, camaraderie and mutual respect have allowed all three of them to be successful.
"It was so much all about them before, and I was taking care of so much that it makes you think, 'How did we do all of that when I was doing everything myself?'" she said. "My older son will say, 'I'm going to get takeout because I know mom has this assignment or test.' He'll text my son. We have group texts now. Before, it was all individual. Now, we are all in the know. It made all of us be engaged in each other's lives a little bit more."
Living the Dream
In the next five years, Solis should have a bachelor's degree, a son graduating from college, a son preparing for college, and a job she loves. She hopes to continue to make her community, Springdale, Arkansas, a better place to live.
"I want our legislators, our senators -- our entire government -- to see how important early childhood education is," Solis said. "If our government could see that if we close that educational gap, it is going to help in the future. The more money we invest in early childhood education, the more money we will get at the end."
She is glad A-State online had the program she wanted -- it's helping make her dream of a bachelor's degree a reality while still being able to work full time and spend time with her children.
"I can do this in two years if I do this online, because I can take 12, 15 or 18 hours," Solis said. "Ultimately, that's what did it for me. I could still do my role in my job, and I could still have the mother role and not miss any activities.
"I could literally say, 'I'm going to do my schoolwork Monday through Wednesday and leave my weekends open for my kids and whatever it is I'm doing.' That flexibility has been awesome. I'm graduating a whole semester early because planning it out really works."
Solis said she hopes to attend graduation, although she only wants to go if both of her sons can be there, too. When Mark starts college, she is confident he will be up to the challenge because he has learned some serious organizational skills throughout this experience.
"You really need a lot of time management," she said. "That's really important. If you are a student coming out of high school, your teacher is not going to say, 'Hey, don't forget to do this by Wednesday.' You have to follow your calendar, so you have to be very self-motivated. It's going to be hard, but what isn't hard? At the end of the day, it's going to be so worth it."
Learn more about the A-State online Bachelor of General Studies program.