ALUMNI: Lisa Sledge pays it forward to single moms

Lisa Sledge’s legal career started with a Google search. Newly divorced and struggling to make ends meet, the mother of two left behind her career as an English teacher to search for an occupation that would help her to better provide for her children.

When a connection pointed her to a job opening as a litigation legal assistant at Salt Lake City-based law firm Kirton McConkie, Sledge hoped it might be a good fit. But first, a minor detail: she had to search the word litigation in Google to figure out the type of work she would be doing.

“I actually had to look up the word “litigation”,” Sledge recounted. “I realized, “Oh, they sue people. I guess I can do that.’”

Fast forward six years and Sledge has come a long way from her days as a mom praying for child support to arrive on time so she could pay bills.  While once-upon-a-time she didn’t know the term litigation, today she is an inspiring 2019 graduate of the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law whose road to success didn’t come without a few speed bumps.

Some of those life lessons are what drove Sledge in March 2020 to incorporate a nonprofit called Freedom for Resilient Women (FRW) as the COVID-19 pandemic began to rage around the world.

The organization’s mission is to increase the graduation rate of students who are single mothers and to help single mother graduates achieve financial independence. So far, the non-profit has created a social media platform and mentorship series to support single mother students from the time that they first consider returning to school, through their time enrolled in courses, and beyond graduation until they achieve their financial goals, Sledge said.

Freedom for Resilient Women officially launches on Feb.5 with a $1 million fundraising goal aimed at helping women who are disproportionately impacted by the recent economic downturn. At the heart of the nonprofit’s mission is a desire to ease the disproportionate effect the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on single mothers attending school.

“When the pandemic hit, I couldn’t sleep at night, because I couldn’t stop thinking about, what if this would have happened a year earlier,” said Sledge, who is now a contract analyst at Workday in Salt Lake City.

She worried about fellow single moms and how they’d make it through. For those juggling higher education on top of shifting homeschooling and work demands, she wanted to help.

“I started thinking about, what do I wish that I had when I was as a single mother in school and as a single mother who recently graduated? What can I offer that really you don’t find anywhere else?” said Sledge.

“You have to focus so intensely as a student and as a single mother. You don’t have time for friends. You don’t have time for anything except for school and your children. I want to give single moms a place where they can gather. I also want people to have easy access to mentors.”

A demographic in need of support

The new organization led by Sledge will have no shortage of a community open to services.  In the United States, nearly 1.7 million undergraduates alone are single mother students, she said.

According to a 2019 report from the Washington-D.C. based Institute for Women’s Policy Research, only 8 percent of single mothers graduate from college with a degree or certificate within 6 years of enrolling. Other studies, published by the Hechinger Report, a national nonprofit newsroom that focuses on education issues, have pointed out that students who are parents were struggling to pay rent and buy food lonog before the coronavirus became a public crisis. For single mothers who are also students, the pandemic piled more challenges on top of existing hardships.

The workload of mothers —and the disproportionate burden placed on caretakers during the crisis —have been well-documented as COVID-19 continues to uproot daily life.

According to a report by the National Women’s Law Center, of 1 million workers older than 20 who left the workforce in September, 865,000 of them were women. Other research suggests there were more than 2 million fewer women in the labor force in October than there were in February 2020, an exit believed to be influenced by job loss and childcare shortages brought on by the pandemic.

“When daily survival is top of mind, staying on top of coursework can easily slide,” Sledge noted. She hopes a new community, created by Freedom for Resilient Women, will become a support network among single mother peers as well as a way for them to find informal mentors and make professional connections.  Sledge’s nonprofit will support women across the nation who are pursuing any type of degree in higher education —not only students at the University of Utah, an institution where students already have access to great support services such as the U Law Office for Student Affairs, Women’s Resource Center and other channels.

Sledge emphasized that the nonprofit will focus on financial aid for rent, utilities, internet, childcare, and awards for student loan repayment. Access to the social media platform and mentorship will come with a modest subscription fee to help offset costs and to take away from the stigma of single moms asking for help. With a small payment from users, there’s dignity in seeking a service instead of asking for a handout, Sledge said.

A goal to give back

Helping women succeed is personal to Sledge. In the fall of 2016, after encouragement from her colleagues at Kirton McConkie led her to take the Law School Admissions Test and apply to the SJ Quinney College of law, Sledge found herself swept up in a whirlwind that landed her at her first day of law school.

As her peers at the College of Law introduced themselves and described how they’d known they’d one day be lawyers since birth, Sledge’s path to law school was closer to acting on a whim. She took the LSAT two weeks after finalizing a contentious divorce that had lasted for months and left her emotionally depleted as she tried to get back on her feet.

“The whole time I was in school, all three years I thought, ‘I hope I’m smart enough to be here.’ It was a challenging, exciting experience. But it was scary and it was hard,” said Sledge.

The grueling pace of law school presented unique challenges for Sledge, whose children were ages 4 and 6 when she started. She sought out mentorship from professors Louisa Heiny and Bill Richards, who met with her regularly to go over notes and outlining as well as to make sure she was in a good headspace for the rigors of school.

Heiny, who volunteered her expertise on a series of videos about how to take notes and study for the nonprofit’s mentorship series, said Sledge’s perseverance through law school made her stand out among peers.

“The word that most describes Lisa is grit. She came to law school with little confidence but a lot of ability. I had her as a student in three classes over her three years at SJQ and watched her grow and develop. She ended up receiving the Outstanding Achievement Award in one of my writing classes,” said Heiny.

“It wasn’t costless. She was dealing with the stress and workload of law school, but simultaneously worried how she would feed the kids that week or pay rent or whether her decision to go to law school had been the right choice for her kids. I know she had immense support from family, friends, and her church.”

The College of Law community embraced her children along the way.

There were days when Sledge couldn’t find daycare, so her kids came with her to class. They’d often draw pictures to hand out to the class and professors at the end of the lecture. A civil procedure review for finals one year meant Sledge listened while putting together a My Little Pony puzzle at the same time. Classmates and professors high-fived her kids in the hallway, making them feel like superstars.

She didn’t sleep much, putting in time outlining and reviewing long after her kids had gone to bed. Money was tight and her kids became accustomed to “pajama parties at the law school” where they stayed with their mom so she could access Internet to study, a luxury she didn’t have at home. A family study room at the College of Law became a lifeline and administrators also found an empty fourth-floor office that Sledge temporarily could use to study while her children napped.

As Sledge made it through one day at a time, her confidence grew. On the day she passed the Utah Bar Exam, she burst into tears.

“That was the moment when I finally knew I was smart enough and I knew that I hadn’t made the biggest mistake of my life in dragging my kids through three years of law school,” said Sledge. “I was sobbing.”

Now, she wants to help other single moms make it to their own moments of redemption.

Sledge knows the $1 million fundraising campaign for a new nonprofit may seem audacious to some, but she also knows what determination and uniting people through a common cause can do.

She is aided with her new organization by her College of Law classmate and single mother, Adrienne Ence, who is now a family law attorney, and the corporate secretary for Freedom for Resilient Women.

Sledge said she’s grateful to the U for all the support she received and is ready for her chapter to give back.

“We think the University of Utah is the best school on the planet. I wouldn’t have made it at any other school. I don’t know that I would find as much love and support at any other school,” said Sledge.  “And my kids knew they were loved by the S.J. Quinney College of Law too.”