Today, at around 3PM, Syreeta Martin will walk across the stage at the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia, where she will accept her Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from Temple University. Tomorrow she will celebrate her 24th birthday, and the beginning of a new chapter! Life wasn't always this mapped out however. In the spirit of Mother's Day and in celebration of Black mothers everywhere, EBONY.com is proud to highlight the success story of a teen mom who beat the odds. (And who makes us all really proud.)
EBONY: Just 4 years ago, you weren’t so sure how or when this moment would happen. How does it feel to know that you’ve accomplished what you set out to?
SM: It feels good. I’m happy I can say that! I mean, I first got pregnant at 16 then at 20. I felt if I failed, my daughters were going to suffer as a result. So they were always my motivation.
EBONY: What was your biggest hurdle obtaining your degree while raising two little ones?
SM: Over the last four years being in college, one thing I always had to constantly question is was it worth it. I mean looking at the debt that I knew I was going to come out with and having the girls and the time that school and work required me to be away from them, I had to make a really a conscious decision to know that we would have to live a certain way. Pretty much, [we’d be] living in poverty until I got this degree.
EBONY: But the girls kept you going right?
SM: Definitely, I got pregnant at 16 with Arionna. I ended up graduating high school a year early and took a year off, worked, got accepted into Temple, came to Philly and when I came, it was with a 16-month old.
EBONY: Bring me to that raw moment when you found out you were pregnant. Take me through the emotions.
SM: I was living with my mom of course and she was at work. My best friend Kelly was [at my house]. I got the Clear Blue pregnancy test because they just tell you pregnant or not digitally. I went to take it and when I came out, I put it on a napkin. I had it on the island in the living room and as I walked back to the bathroom, I walked past it and I caught a glimpse and it said “pregnant” clear as day. I just kind of busted a 180 and just started running toward the front door screaming “No,no,no!”. I just wanted to get away from the result. I didn’t even want to see that reality.
I ended up falling down in front of the door crying and my best friend at that time was standing by the test. She ran over and sat next to me and she was like, “it’s going to be okay”.
Eventually, I asked my sister if she would tell my mother because I couldn’t. She was like, “Okay, I’ll tell her," So I locked myself in my room that night and I put a chair up against the door, went to the other side of the room and sat in the corner and kneeled down. I was just sitting waiting for my mom to get home.
EBONY: What happened when she told your mother? What did your mother do?
SM: She walked in her room and she slammed the door and she didn’t come back out. I was sitting there for hours and I eventually just took the chair away from the door, unlocked it went to sleep. Soon, I felt somebody grab me up from behind and I was just like “Oh my God, she’s about to whip my ass!”
But instead, she asked, “Do you have a plan?” I said, “Yeah, I have a plan, I’m going to school.” She told me I had to go to school and go to college. From that point on, that’s what we’re working towards.
EBONY: Did you feel more like this actually happened to me or I let this happen?
SM: It was judgmental. Completely judgmental because I always excelled in academics; I always did well. My mom never had to worry about me. But it was a judgmental thing because my sister had gotten pregnant young and it was kind of like a generational curse in my family.
EBONY: How did you tell you daughter's father?
SM: I called him and I asked him where he was and he was at home and I was like I’m about to come around. He was like what’s wrong and I was like we need to talk in person. He was like “Uh, alright," Usually what that meant was that I was breaking up with him. [Laughs] We were off and on. I rode over there and I told him and he was like, "Well, we are about to have a baby. He was completely supportive. So throughout the pregnancy he was there going to doctor’s appointments. He was always there.
EBONY: So you young lovers dispelled the myth that Black men aren’t present in their children’s lives?
SM: Yeah I would say so. He did that, that’s him as a person. I mean it was rough though, and he didn’t always do what he should’ve been doing—which is why I left.
EBONY: What was your reality during the first year of parenting Arionna?
SM: I took a year off after high school graduation, living in Delaware. So, I was working at Bank of America, a hair salon and the baby would go with her father. I am 17 by this time. I started noticing that my baby didn’t know me. I’m picking her up late from his house and bring her back to my moms. As soon as I take her she’s crying with me all night and I saw her struggling to get adjusted and I said I can’t live that type of life where my child doesn’t know who I am. That hurt me.
EBONY: So fast-forward to your first year at Temple. Arionna is here and she’s living with you on campus. How does this structure of your life completely differ?
SM: Once I found out I got accepted to Temple, I knew things were about to change. And I know he thought “we” were about to go to Temple together because I got an apartment on campus. So he had made a comment basically like us being in Philly and I was like…(rolls eyes at the thought). That’s when I was like okay you have to really figure out if this is what you want. I broke up with him in July. I left for temple in August.
EBONY: Emotionally, did you and Arionna bond more when you two moved to Temple?
SM:I went from having the support of family, where my mom was there, her dad, his sister, his brother, his step mom, our friends, etc. You know I went from this support system to being in Philly and having nobody.
EBONY: Did you see a shift how she reacted? I mean she was one, but did the move affect her?
SM: I do remember her asking for her dad a lot. "Mommy where is dad, Mommy where is dad, Mom when is dad is coming?" He was still in Delaware at that time. So he was only getting her on the weekends. He didn’t have a car. He was off and on with jobs. So he wasn’t really stable. I’m barely working; I’m studying for class, doing homework. So there was definitely a shift in our family dynamic. I felt his shortcomings were starting to be become magnified now. Because now I need him in a great capacity. This is a time where I need you more than ever and you’re not delivering.
And then that’s when I a lot of this stress started coming in, the financial issues and not really having money. It got to the point where it was either she eats or I eat, that’s not a choice, my daughter is going to eat. So then at that point I’m stressing, I’m losing hair, I’m losing weight. My mom is like, “What is going on and I’m like nothing, school this and that. I not telling her how serious it is in Philly at this point.
EBONY: So you actually went through a point where you didn’t have?
I didn’t have it; at that point I was still prideful. I wasn’t getting on Welfare. Welfare was not an option to me.
EBONY: Why not though?
I wasn’t going to be a welfare mom; I was not going to be a stigma. I wasn’t going to be that Black mother with a baby on welfare.
EBONY: Would it have been a stigma though or would it have been a better option for the time being?
It didn’t matter, I was too proud for that.
EBONY: But you eventually got on?
SM: Yes, I didn’t have a choice. I remember the day I went to the place. I was in the car on the phone with my mom, and she was just telling me, “this isn’t about you anymore”. So I eventually got out of the car and went inside.
EBONY: Then at 20, while at Temple you got pregnant again with your second daughter, Gabrielle.
SM: Right, but by then, I knew I had what it takes to get through it. I had her and kept it moving in school.
EBONY: Looking back at what you’ve been through and where you are now, are you excited about this next chapter?
I'm very excited! I'm also nervous as hell but I know what I've overcome and I know the word 'No' will forever be my greatest motivation. Business-wise, no one tells me 'No' and expects me to settle for it. I will accomplish the goals that I set out to. I guess it's the Taurus in me.
EBONY: What are your future plans after you graduate?
SM: I'm paying all of my experiences and blessings forward. I'm working to help young men and women who face the same obstacles (and probably even harder ones) than I've had to. My primary goal is to start my own non-profit organization that services non-traditional and student parents. In addition to that I plan to get more involved in the non-profit sector, own a few businesses, continue to freelance and volunteer in my community.