LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
It's commencement season, a time for stories of proud people tossing their caps in the air - people like Michaela LeCompte. She's graduating this weekend from Montana State University. It's her third time trying for a college degree, and she got it as a 29-year-old single mom with three little kids. She joins us now from Billings. Welcome to the program, and congratulations.
MICHAELA LECOMPTE: Thank you, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I wanted to talk to you after seeing your story in the Billings Gazette because, you know, we often gloss over the details of the single-mom-goes-back-to-school stories, and the details are still so fresh for you. So let's start with your story. You first started trying to go to college in 2008, right after getting your GED. What happened?
LECOMPTE: I went to a college that had very large classes. And I realized, whoa, like, there's something more wrong with me than I thought. And I wasn't passing any classes. So it just did not work out.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What did you realize was challenging you?
LECOMPTE: Well, I couldn't stay focused. And, you know, when you get that label when you're a child, like, you have attention deficit disorder. And back then, I just didn't - I didn't really know anybody with learning disabilities in college. And so I just felt like this is, you know, jumping into the deep end.
I didn't like that I couldn't engage with professors, like, because that's how I grew up barely making it - was just really get the teachers laughing so they wouldn't be upset that I didn't understand what they were talking about.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So in the summer of 2015, when you decided it was time to go back to college for the third time, it must have been really hard having children and going to school.
LECOMPTE: It was. I have a lot of people who say that, too, like, who don't - who are traditional students. And they're saying, you know, I could barely do this as a traditional student. How are you doing this? And I said, you know, I wouldn't have been as successful if I did not have those three little people looking at me. Like, setting that example was even more important.
And so I had to really figure out how to really help their needs emotionally and still go to school. I don't know how many times I had to write a paper with one of my children on my lap crying because they want more attention from me. And I'm desperately trying to focus on this paper to get it done or this math equation, and here my children are like, no, Mom, Mom, Mom.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You had a model for this, though. Your parents were teen parents. And your mom actually went back to school when you were a kid.
LECOMPTE: Yes. She did. My dad was always right there rooting her on like, look at her. Look at what she's doing - like, that example for you guys. And we were like, yes, we see it; we see you. And even though I had struggles as a single parent and somebody with a learning disability, I knew there's still a way. I just didn't know what that way was.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are a lot of nontraditional college students like you, a lot of parents thinking about going back to school. What would you want them to know?
LECOMPTE: When I meet those people, because I meet them often, and they're in my own life - I have many friends who say, well, this - my child is this, or the funds - I just can't. I can't even. I'm a poor single parent, or I'm just poor in general. And I - and that would be my message to them is, do not let that label define what we can accomplish.
And utilize resources that are provided for you because as soon as I opened that door to those resources, it changed up the whole game for me because I realized there was, on campus, a team that would fight for me. In Indian Country, we're very proud people. So it's really hard to say, hey, help me. Don't be afraid to ask for that help.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does your graduation mean for your family?
LECOMPTE: To my family, it means - we all gravitate towards jobs of helping people. We're public servants. My sister's a first grade teacher in a Title I school. She gets emotional in saying, you are proof that the children that I teach have that chance - that even though they are poor or that they are a minority or that they have a learning disability, that they can make it. The work really does pay off.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what do you plan to do now that you graduated?
LECOMPTE: I want to go into the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Currently, we only have one person to talk to when it comes to public relations for all of our reservations in the United States. But the thing people don't understand is that we're all so different - all of our tribes. We just believe in different things. And it's not even a position that I could even give a title. But even if that means I'm just, like, pushing paper and making copies, just slowly make my way up.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Michaela LeCompte. She graduates from Montana State University this weekend, cum laude, with a degree in public relations. Thank you so much, and congratulations again.
LECOMPTE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.