When Tyra Martens was 16, she arrived in Ontario with her one-year-old in one hand and a suitcase in the other. She left everything behind in Alberta, landing in the tiny village of Ridgeway in Fort Erie, Ont., where she knew no one. At first, her options to continue her education looked limited, but she was determined to finish high school and earn the grades to get into university.
Today, at 22, Martens has a second child and a Bachelor of Management and Organizational Studies (BMOS) degree.
Martens could still recall when a caseworker with the Ontario Work’s Learning, Earning and Parenting (LEAP) program gave what seemed like her only option for education years ago: attend a segregated high school for teen mothers that offered a day care and a pathway to college.
“At first, I was pretty disappointed,” she said. “I didn’t want to go to college, I wanted to go to university. I felt defeated. But, the thing about me is, I make things happen.”
She went back to the caseworker with a proposal.
“I asked if I kept my grades at admissions level for university, and stayed on track, if she would please let me go to a mainstream high school and get my credits for university.”
She got her wish, and kept her word, attending Ridgeway Crystal Beach High School, making the grades, and many sacrifices.
“I really had to stay focused because it was easy to get sidetracked. I was the same age as everyone else and going through the same things in life, but I had a child. It took a lot of discipline.”
When it came time to choose a university, Western stood out for its family residence option and for the unique, interdisciplinary approach of the BMOS program.
“I had to grow up quickly when I had my son and didn’t have time to figure out what I liked, so committing to one specific degree gave me a lot of anxiety. I chose the BMOS program because it felt open enough for me to do a lot of things as I was growing and becoming someone other than a mom.”
Managing her studies, an internship and motherhood was a constant “mental battle” for Martens.
“My entire educational experience has been a struggle of balancing priorities,” she said. “It was hard to say ‘no,’ when my son asked me to play. You can’t rationalize with a three-year-old — and even as I finished, (with) a six-year-old — that I was doing this so I didn’t have to work three jobs in the future to keep us afloat. When I made time, there was a voice in my head telling me, ‘You have a paper due, you have an exam, you have work to do.’”
The pandemic brought a whole new set of pressures.
“Everything was shutting down, and I was all alone. My summer term was online, so my plan was to head back to Alberta temporarily, stay with parents and pocket some money before coming back to London.”
Back home, she reconnected with an old friend and now partner. By August, she discovered she was pregnant, just as she was learning school would remain online.
“I really struggled to cope as everything surfaced. But I reminded myself I had been through harder stuff and could make it through this last little bit.”
Her first trimester was difficult. She was sick and exhausted. At 14 weeks, genetic testing revealed her baby carried the gene for open spina bifida, a worry she carried while writing exams and until he was born.
“I was very burnt out, very discouraged, very pregnant. My spouse was working far out of town on the oil rigs, so I didn’t have anyone with me. I was balancing my son, school and work. I felt like I was racing to the finish line, fighting against nature.”
Yet with characteristic grit, she carried on, finishing all her assignments and exams, before having a healthy baby boy two weeks later.
Her efforts didn’t go unnoticed, impressing her labour relations professor, Johanna Weststar.
“Tyra’s situation would have been demanding at the best of times. I can’t imagine how stressful it would have been during the pandemic. Yet she persevered, always prepared and engaged in our evening Zoom classes – sometimes after settling her little one for bed, sometimes managing with him in the background,” Weststar said.
Martens is grateful for the ongoing support she received from Weststar and other faculty members.
“I reached out to some professors when I graduated to thank them for letting me bring my son to office hours and understanding when I had to miss a lecture when he was sick,” she said.
Martens said she might pursue law one day, after she builds on the banking career she started as a student. But first, she’s taking her full maternity leave.
“Now that I’m finished, I finally feel there’s no voice telling me I need to be somewhere. I can be present now and really enjoy my kids.”