November 4, 2003

Student Juggles Courses, Kid

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Next time you complain about all the papers you have due and the three prelims you have in one week, consider juggling a Cornell course load while raising a child. Is this even possible with odds stacked so unfavorably against you? In her first three years at Cornell, Thea Stewart ’04 has proven it’s more than possible.

In her senior year at Newfield High School, Stewart became pregnant. Her first semester at Cornell, Stewart lived in the Latino Living Center while pregnant with her child. During winter break of her freshmen year, Stewart delivered a baby girl who weighed eight pounds, four ounces on Jan. 9, 2001. She named her first-born daughter Amari. Since then, Stewart, who is currently in her senior year at Cornell, has managed to raise a healthy, vivacious daughter without having to take any time off from college.

“Everyone thought that she would take the spring ’01 semester off, but she didn’t. She took care of her child and took a full load of classes,” said Obioma Ndubizu ’04, one of Stewart’s closest friends. Stewart entered Cornell as a textile and apparel major, but she found it difficult to juggle parental duties and the long lab hours. She later changed her major to human development.

“Being a human development major, I’ve learned so much about [Amari’s] development and how I can be a better parent,” Stewart said. Amari, who attends Ithaca Childcare Community Center, is now two and a half. Stewart and Amari live in Hasbrouck Apartments, a family friendly apartment complex. Though Amari’s father visits his daughter weekly, Thea is Amari’s primary caregiver. “Cornell does not make it easy. They don’t offer childcare on campus,” Stewart said.

Thea credits her survival in Cornell’s rigorous curriculum to her spiritual faith and her cohesive support network. She was raised in Newfield, NY — only 15 minutes away — and her family still resides in the area. In fact, her father Ricky Stewart works in Teagle Hall as a computer/technology services manager for the athletic and PE departments. Both her mother and sister are seniors at Tompkins County Community College, meaning all three will graduate this spring.

“My family, especially my parents and friends have been there for various reasons, whether it’s to baby-sit, give me advice on techniques to raise her [Amari], or just to pat me on the back to say I’m doing a good job, or they are proud of me, it was all vital,” Stewart said.

In addition to family support, many friends at Cornell have supported to her. “Verdene Lee has helped tremendously acting as an advisor at times, professor, and friend,” Stewart said.

Stewart is currently taking 16 hours of credit and, despite the pressures of motherhood, has managed to maintain respectable grades.

“Thea has managed to perform well academically despite her major responsibilities of caring for a child as well as working at least 10-12 hours per semester,” said Verdene Lee, associate director of Admission, Student and Career Services in the College of Human Ecology.

Lee has known Stewart ever since she started at Cornell during the six-week Committee on Special Educational Projects Summer Program. “She is a remarkable young woman and I truly admire her strength and perseverance,” Lee said.

Stewart also met Ndubizu during COSEP. “Her parents, friends and I try to help her as much as we can by baby-sitting while she goes to review sessions or prelims, but she has always taken full responsibility for her child,” Ndubizu said.

Ndubizu and Stewart lived together their sophomore year. “I watched her work and budget her finances to include daycare bills, diapers, baby food and other expenses that most college students do not have to worry about. She was forced to be responsible at an earlier age that most, and she has definitely stepped up to the plate,” Ndubizu said. Stewart also credits her faith for her ability to persevere. She attends First Assembly of God, at 197 Bostwick Road.

“My father has always exemplified this extreme faith that I have always wanted to obtain, but with my growing and strengthening faith, I know that there were definitely times when I could have easily thrown in towel, but the thought that God will not give me anything I cannot handle, was always resounding,” Stewart said.

She has also made time for extracurricular activities like the Cornell Design League. Stewart will be designing a full clothing line for the league which she will name after Amari with the subtitle: “My Motivation, My Inspiration, My Most Divine Creation.”

“She has not let her ‘special’ circumstance stop her from participating in extracurricular activities,” Ndubizu said.

Stewart is also involved in the Minority Undergraduate Law Society, CU Image, Cornell Design League and Minority ILR Student Organization, and works as a student supervisor in CIT’s public computer labs.

After Stewart graduates, she plans on either participating in AmeriCorp’s Teach for America program or pursuing graduate work in the Cornell Institute of Public Affairs next year. She eventually plans going to law school.

“Over the years, I have learned that Thea is a very strong and ambitious woman who would not let anything get keep her from reaching her goals,” Ndubizu said.

How many students will be able to say that the memories of their first-born are tied to the memories of their college years? One of Stewart’s fondest memories at Cornell is being awakened in the morning by Amari.

“Amari would say ‘Mommy, I love you.’ And that’s how I would wake up,” Stewart said.

Archived article by Jonathan Square