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Mothers at Booth Prove That Being a Mom, Getting an MBA Can Go Hand in Hand

mother's dayWhat’s harder than juggling the frenetic pace of classes, clubs, recruiting and studying that fills the two years of an MBA program at a top-tier school like the University of Chicago Booth School of Business? Doing it as a single mom. And yet, there are moms who do just that, and do it well.

Sofía Vargas and Natalie Wilson are co-chairs of Mothers at Booth, a student club whose name says it all. Vargas, 25, has a three-year-old daughter named Gabriela. Natalie, 28, has a five-year-old daughter Gabrielle. The two Gabbys play together often as their moms hit the books.

“Booth was one of the only schools I looked at that had a specific group geared toward mothers,” says Wilson. When she asked about resources for parents at other schools, she was referred to partners’ clubs—and while undoubtedly valuable to their members, she found that these groups usually served the female partners of men who were working toward their MBAs. “It is a very different experience when it’s the mom who is going to school,” Wilson notes.

Indeed, especially when it’s the mom who is also raising a child on her own, as is the case for both Wilson and Vargas. “I just really loved that Booth saw the difference, and saw the value in having a group specifically for moms,” says Wilson.

As co-chairs of Mothers at Booth, Vargas and Wilson are working to plan a series of events, including a Mother’s Day brunch later this month. (They opted not to schedule it on Mother’s Day, but a week later, recognizing that moms would probably want to spend the actual day with their families.)

They are also hoping to draw successful Booth alumnae who are moms back to campus to share their experiences balancing family life and work. Another forum they hope to host will focus on HR issues of particular concern to moms—paid medical leave, whether or not an employer offers a place for breastfeeding mothers to pump, the difference in healthcare costs for individuals versus families. “There is just so much I didn’t know before having my daughter that I didn’t factor into the equation of what kind of salary I would need,” Wilson says. Events like these are designed to serve not only students who are currently moms, but also those who hope to become moms in the future.

In addition to co-chairing Mothers at Booth, Wilson also co-chairs two other student groups, Net Impact and the African-American MBA Association (AAMBAA), and interns part time at a private equity firm in the suburbs outside of Chicago. Vargas, for her part, is the co-founder of two companies, one a chain of organic grocery stores in Mexico, and the other, a nonprofit that provides early childhood education to children in the slums of India.

Long, Full Days

So just how do they juggle classes and coursework, club and other extracurricular commitments, recruiting and being a mom? “You have to be very organized,” says Vargas. A typical day involves waking around 6 a.m. to shower and dress before waking her daughter, leaving the house by 7 to drop her off at daycare, arriving at school by 8 to prepare for 8:30 a.m. classes, squeezing a couple of meetings and/or calls into her lunch break and more class from 1:30 until 4:30—or study on the afternoons when she doesn’t have class. At 4:30 she leaves campus to pick up her daughter, feed her dinner, play together, bathe her and put her to bed before cramming in another four hours or so of study. At the very end of the day, around midnight, she’ll sometimes watch an episode of Homeland, if she has the energy. “My classmates know that I am unavailable from 5 to 8 in the evenings, and on the weekends I don’t work,” she says. “That works for them—and the rest of time I am super-efficient.”

Wilson’s day is much the same. She fits in some early morning study time before waking her daughter to get her ready for school. She stays on campus most days from 8 to 4:30 going from class to group meetings, and a terrific babysitter two evenings a week allows her to take one evening class and have another night devoted to study. But in the other evening hours and weekends that she spends with her daughter, she tries to stay unplugged and really focus on having quality time together. And she stays up late, often until two or three in the morning, doing more work after Gabrielle has gone to sleep. “My friends just call me ‘Nocturnal Nat,’” she says. She acknowledges that she probably doesn’t get quite as much sleep as she needs, but there will be time for that later, she says.

Flexible Curriculum

Both moms credit the extremely flexible curriculum at Booth for making it possible to be MBA students and single moms at the same time. “I love it, because you can pick whatever you want to take,” says Vargas. “I can’t take evening classes between 6 and 9, but the curriculum is varied and often the same classes are offered both in the morning and the evening.” Wilson, who was an undergrad business student at Wharton, was also drawn to the fact that she wouldn’t have to spend time retaking core business classes that she’d already completed.

Understanding classmates has been another key factor in allowing both women to thrive at Booth. “The thing that has surprised me most is how much some of my classmates really want to get to know my daughter,” says Wilson. She frequently brings her Gabby to campus events on Friday afternoons, where she runs around and has a great time. “There are some classmates who know her better than they know me,” Wilson says.

“I was really apprehensive about how flexible some people would be or how understanding they would be of my experience,” Wilson remembers. Instead, teammates will often propose doing a Google Hangout in the evenings rather than a group meeting, recognizing that it’s easier for her, she says. Or they’ll all head to her apartment, where they can study together while her daughter sleeps.

Setting Limits

For Vargas, one of the most challenging aspects of her time at business school so far has also proven one of the most rewarding. “I think the hardest thing, especially at the beginning, was to be clear with my group mates that my daughter was my greatest priority without making it sound like a limitation,” she says. But over time she has learned how to do exactly that.

“It has been so rewarding to realize that I have the right to put some limits and prioritize my life and my time with my daughter,” she says. Prior to business school, she worked as a consultant for McKinsey, where she intends to return when she graduates. “Before when I was working, it was hard to balance my two lives—at work and at home with my daughter. In my MBA it has been very surprising how welcoming people have been to the idea and how understanding they have been. I realize now that I can organize my life better and set clear limits, and people will respect them.”

Both moms concede that they may not be having the same business school experience that some of their classmates without children or families are. “There are limitations on my social life,” Vargas says. “If I wanted to go out more I would go out more, but I don’t think I am in the same state of mind as some of my fellow classmates. I’m OK with that.”

Without someone she can leave her daughter with for a weekend or a week away, Wilson has missed out on some of the opportunities for travel that her fellow classmates have had, but she’s okay with that, too. “I might not walk away from here having been to 10 different countries, but I will have the connections and career development I need.”

Being a mom in a top-tier MBA program requires determination, lots of hard work and some sacrifice—but Wilson and Vargas prove that it is possible. “You have to have the will, be very organized and not limit yourself,” says Vargas, “but there are a lot of women like us out there, and the MBA environment—at least at Booth—is very welcoming to moms.”

Those of us here at Clear Admit wish Vargas and Wilson—and all of the other moms working toward their MBAs—a very happy Mother’s Day.

Learn more about Mothers at Booth.