BOZEMAN — A mother of six who re-enrolled in college the year after her oldest daughter began college soon will achieve a long-term goal: earning a bachelor’s degree.
Athena Hall will graduate Dec. 17 from Montana State University with a bachelor of arts in liberal studies – quaternity, which is an online degree completion program offered through the MSU College of Letters and Science. Quaternity is an option where students explore four different, but interconnected, concepts of knowledge in subject areas of social sciences, natural sciences, fine arts and humanities.
Hall, whose children are now 23, 21, 18, 16, 15 and 9, said it is satisfying to achieve her goal.
“This is something I’ve always wanted to do,” she said. “I didn’t expect to go back to school when I did, but it has been important to show my kids that I can do these things. I just wanted them to know they could (go to college), too. It’s important for them, and for me, to see that I can finish it.”
Hall, 39, and her husband, Mark, married in 1992, and they both earned GED diplomas. Athena started taking college courses at the University of Great Falls when she was 17, but after the Halls’ second child was born, she set aside her education to become a stay-at-home mom and home school their growing family.
After the Halls’ fifth child was born, Mark served two tours of duty with the National Guard in Iraq. He came back from Iraq in 2011 with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, he said – injuries that left him unable to work full-time. In addition to caring for their six children and helping Mark recover, Athena began working in 2013.
At 36, she also decided to return to college. Using credits from the University of Great Falls and Great Falls College MSU, she completed two associate degrees in 2014. But, concerned she would lose momentum if she took a break, she rolled right into coursework for a bachelor’s degree from MSU.
Most of the classes Hall has taken for the bachelor’s degree have been delivered online, but she said she has driven to Bozeman from Great Falls about once a week for class. The greatest challenge surrounding her return to college has been balancing her family obligations with schoolwork, Hall said, but it helps that her kids are supportive, and she manages by staying up late to complete schoolwork while her family sleeps. Juggling her part-time job – a contract position where Hall manages religious education programming for Malmstrom Air Force Base’s chapel – can also be challenging, she said, but she appreciates the flexibility that comes with the position.
A TRiO Scholar at MSU, Hall said she has also greatly benefitted from the services offered by the TRiO office. TRiO Student Support Services – which launched at MSU in 2015 – is funded by a $1.1 million U.S. Department of Education TRIO grant. The program provides students with tutoring, a career coach, financial literacy training, mentoring, study skills training and many other support services offered through the Allen Yarnell Center for Student Success.
Hall said that the TRiO program has helped her manage her obligations by giving her tools to succeed academically, financially, socially and emotionally. She calls TRiO at MSU when she needs help, stops by the TRiO office when she’s on campus and participates in TRiO events, she said
“It’s almost like having a second adviser, but it’s somebody who’s not so focused on what your plan looks like, but how you’re doing now,” she added.
Julian Collins, the director of TRiO at MSU, said Hall has demonstrated great persistence and dedication.
“Athena showed a lot of potential in what she wants to do with her career and what she’s doing already,” Collins said. “We wanted to make sure that we were able to help her with some of the needs she had while not on campus and pursuing a degree.
“It’s gone exceptionally well,” he added.
Jordy Hendrikx, director of the liberal studies program at MSU, said Hall’s drive and motivation are “exemplary.”
“The whole liberal studies degree completion team is thrilled to see her achieve her goals,” Hendrikx said. “The online degree completion program has been designed specifically with students like Athena in mind, that want to complete their degree in their own time, from their own place."
With her bachelor’s degree in hand, Hall plans to pursue a master’s degree in history. She would then like to teach while she pursues a doctorate in socio-cultural anthropology.
For his part, her husband said he is impressed by her humble determination – both to their family and to her education.
“Due to Athena’s dedication to her family and myself, I have been able to recover from my physical injuries, and make significant ground with my [traumatic brain injury] and PTSD to the point that I have been able to go to college through the VA at [Great Falls College MSU],” he wrote earlier this year in a letter to Collins.
“Athena’s story is so much more than she would ever say out loud,” he added. “I am certain she will continue on to her doctorate and has so much in store for her life.”
Contact: Athena Hall, firstname.lastname@example.org; or Julian Collins, director, MSU TRiO Student Support Services, (406) 994-7480 or email@example.com