Single Moms in Arizona Can Get Free Higher Education Through This Program

Leslie Ybarra Zambada and her daughter (Photo courtesy of Leslie Ybarra Zambada)

By Jessica Swarner

February 28, 2023

Coconino Community College has a goal to help 30 to 40 women move through the program, which offers 11 career tracks. 

Karen Montgomery learned about the Pathways for Single Moms program while she was coming up on the end of her sentence last year at Perryville prison in Goodyear. 

She applied right after hearing a presentation about how she could qualify for free higher education and was quickly accepted. 

An old photo of Karen Montgomery and her children (Photo courtesy of Karen Montgomery)

“Three days after I got out [of Perryville], I knew I was going to be starting school,” Montgomery said. 

The mom of three, who now works at the Cambria Hotel in downtown Phoenix, began pursuing a database development certification through Mesa Community College in November. She expects to complete it by the end of the year and hopes to apply the skills she learns at the hotel. 

An old photo of Karen Montgomery’s children (photo courtesy of Karen Montgomery)

“I suggest this program for anybody who’s trying to do anything better,” Montgomery said. 

An Expanding Program

Pathways for Single Moms began in southern Arizona in 2020 and later expanded into the central part of the state. 

Now the program, run by the Women’s Foundation for the State of Arizona, is partnering with Coconino Community College to launch the program in the northern part of the state. 

The college has a goal to help 30 to 40 women move through the program, which offers 11 career tracks. 

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Women accepted into the program don’t have to pay tuition, are provided free child care if needed, and receive a stipend to help cover transportation, supplies, and other school-related expenses. 

After the moms complete their education, they can receive additional coaching on building a resume, dressing professionally, interviewing, and managing personal finances. 

“The wraparound support design and holistic approach of Pathways Program for Single Moms is truly a best practice model with a track record of success,” Tony Williams, the college’s vice president of student services, said in a press release.

Making a Living Wage

Leslie Ybarra Zambada was trying to support herself and her three kids while making minimum wage. But after enrolling in the Pathways for Single Moms program, she was able to find a better job, and now makes tens of thousands of dollars more per year. 

“I went from being able to barely get by to just, I don’t know, it just feels like so much less stress, just being able to be financially stable,” Ybarra Zambada said. 

Leslie Ybarra Zambada and her son (Photo courtesy of Leslie Ybarra Zambada)

The Phoenix native was involved with another program called Dress for Success Phoenix when she found out about the Pathways program. The Women’s Foundation for the State of Arizona partnered with Dress for Success Phoenix last October to expand access in central Arizona.

Ybarra Zambada applied and is now pursuing a small business management certification through Glendale Community College, which will take about six months to complete. 

While trying to find a higher-paying job, Ybarra Zambada said Wal-Mart reached out to her about a potential job, but the company representative said she was missing college experience. Ybarra Zambada was able to follow up with the company and show them she was pursuing the certification—and after three interviews, she got the job. 

“A lot of that opportunity came from me being able to go through school and me being able to go back and tell them, ‘Hey, it’s something that I don’t have yet, but I will be having it soon,’” Ybarra Zambada said. 

She said she had a great experience with the Pathways program and her new job, where she has been for three months, still feels “unreal” sometimes. 

“I’m very thankful for everybody involved,” she said, “and this has been a huge blessing for me, honestly.” 

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  • Jessica Swarner

    Jessica Swarner is the community editor for The Copper Courier. She is an ASU alumna and previously worked at KTAR News 92.3 FM in Phoenix.

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