Never too late: Single mom pursues a graduate degree

As her daughter starts her freshman year of high school, Bettina Walker will be starting her second year in the molecular biology master’s program at The University of Tulsa.

In spite of having her undergraduate degree in pre-med and a master’s in executive leadership, she wasn’t done with school. “I didn’t feel fulfilled in my career. I decided that I wanted to go back,” Walker said. “I applied to TU and told myself that if I got accepted, I would quit my job and relocate to Tulsa.” She left her career at the Social Security office in Chicago and moved with her daughter to Tulsa. Almost one year later, she’s tackling virology, more specifically, viruses in potatoes and soybeans. “I chose virology because I am interested in the viral diseases that affect both plants and humans,” she explained.

When deciding on a university, TU stood out as a place where Walker could continue her education and Tulsa as a community where she could raise her teenage daughter. “I wanted to be somewhere where I could have a one-on-one relationship with professors as opposed to being just a number,” Walker said. TU has an average class size of 20 students. Being a single mother while being a teacher’s assistant and conducting researching has been tough, but her passion and the support system of her professors and family keeps her motivated.

“When nontraditional students like Bettina come to the graduate school, I know that it is important for them to find a space that is both welcoming and understanding of their needs,” said Student Success Coach Nadia Hall, who recently transferred from TU’s Graduate School.  “The first day Bettina walked through my door, I knew she had a fire for continuing her education and setting a positive example for other women aspiring to make amazing changes in their lives. She came to a city that was totally new for her, and she did it with confidence and grace. She immediately made TU and the city of Tulsa her home. In just a year, she became involved in the community and various graduate student events.”

As a single mom, Walker is grateful for the support of her professors and fellow students.

“The professors are amazing. They go out of their way to help students and make them feel accepted no matter their situation,” she described.

Walker also finds time to focus on areas aside from her studies and her family. Recently, she was elected president of BioGrads, vice president of the Graduate Student Association and secretary of RAW writing club and poetry group.

Motherhood

When it comes time for homework, she and her daughter get it done together. Walker was told that it would be tough being a single mom and going back to school and it is. With so many commitments, “I have to find ways to balance motherhood and my education,” she stated. After studying, the two will watch movies, bowl and even play musical instruments together. While Walker is busy in the lab, her daughter spends her time taking care of a family of turtles in the Oliphant Hall sanctuary. Some professors have even invited Walker’s daughter to sit in one of their classes during the summer.

“As a single mom, the most important factor for me was getting a great support system to help offset some of the tasks of motherhood. I have found that and more as a student at TU,” she stated.

No limits

Walker’s experiences have shaped her aspirations and cemented her dedication to achieving her goals.

Growing up, Walker lived in the Robert Taylor Homes, a public housing project located on the south side of Chicago. Drugs and violence were prevalent, but Walkers says those “things I have encountered have made me who I am today.”

Undeterred by her surroundings, a passion for education came to Walker at a young age. “I was in kindergarten by 3 years old,” she explained. She was valedictorian in her grade school class and was ranked in the top 10% of her high school. Walker was the first of six children in her family to graduate high school. “I chose to push myself through,” she said. Now, as a single mother getting her doctoral degree, Walker sets an example for her daughter.

“Bettina is a self-motivated student pursuing a lifelong dream,” said Harrington Wells, professor of biological science. “I am honored to help her reach her career goal.”

Following graduation, Walker plans to enroll in a post-doctoral program or pursue a career with the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency or Department of Agriculture.

Whichever paths she chooses, Walker is set to fulfill her aspirations to balance the roles of mother and researcher. “It is never too late to pursue your dreams, yet the will to do so starts from within by setting short-term goals that lead to lifelong achievements,” she said.

TU supports nontraditional students from all backgrounds. To learn more, visit the TU Graduate School.