Mom and daughter share college experience

PhotoHilary (left) and Jenn Swan look over some notes in their Spanish class at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The mother and daughter are enrolled in the same Spanish class.

Story and photos by Emily Nohr, NewsNetNebraska

Jenn and Hilary Swan have a lot in common.

The pair attends the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. They’re study buddies and sit next to each other in Spanish, the one course they share.

But they’re closer than friends — they are mother and daughter.

Twenty-two-year-old Hilary and her 49-year-old mom, Jenn, have been taking classes together since May when Jenn signed up for two summer session Spanish courses.

This fall, Jenn enrolled as a full-time student. She’s studying fine art with an emphasis in graphic design. Hilary, who is in her fourth year at UNL, is studying political science and global security.

They know their situation is different than most students on campus.

UNL doesn’t keep track of how many parents and children attend school at the same time. But Aaron Chambers, the pair’s Spanish professor, said he has never had a parent and child in a class before.

Other students often have something to say about the mother and daughter being in class together.

The first day they walked into Spanish class several months ago, they got some funny looks.

“‘Are you two sisters?’ is what a lot of people asked,” Hilary said with a smile.

She quickly corrected them.

“Nope. She’s just my mom.”

* * * *

Studying at UNL isn’t Jenn’s first experience at college.

After graduating from high school in Wyoming, Jenn moved to South Dakota and enrolled at Black Hills State University. But she wasn’t ready for college, she said. Instead of attending classes, Jenn hit the ski slopes during the week and socialized at night and on weekends.

“That was my priority,” she said.

Just a semester into classes, she dropped out.

Through the years, Jenn worked as an artist and photographer. But she never lost her desire to learn.

By the time she was married and already mom to Hilary, her only child, Jenn decided to try classes again, this time at the University of Wyoming.

Being a mom and taking classes wasn’t easy. Often, she’d lug a 6-year-old Hilary along to the classroom.

“There was a time I brought Hilary to an enormous gerontology lecture class with 300 people in it,” she said. “I didn’t raise my hand, but the professor said, ‘Yes?’ I looked down and Hilary had her hand up. She wanted to contribute to conversation.”

But that stint taking classes ended, too. And she never graduated.

It took the economic recession and a divorce to get back in the classroom, she said. And the third time at school has been positive.

“I love new. I love different,” she said. “I love to learn.”

Like her mom, Hilary bounced around colleges after graduating in 2008 from Grand Island Northwest High School. She started at Central Community College in Grand Island. After a year, she moved to Lincoln to try UNL. But it wasn’t quite what she envisioned, so she visited a culinary school on a weekend break.

Then Hilary thought long and hard about what she should do. Finally, she decided she’d stick out UNL for the remainder of the year.

She enrolled in several political science classes, hoping they would spark her interest.

They did.

Soon, Hilary and Jenn found themselves signing up for the same Spanish course.

“Why not?” they thought.

* * * *

As fall approached, Hilary had worried that students wouldn’t accept her mom. Their summer classes had been smaller, and they’d developed a close group of mutual friends. So they were relieved when several of those friends decided to take the same Spanish course this fall.

Other students, however, appeared to be worried about Hilary, assuming she would dislike the situation.

“Someone once said to me, ‘Your relationship with your mom is really weird. You guys hang out and like each other,’” Hilary said. “I said, ‘Well, what’s wrong with you and your mom?’”

In Jenn’s other classes, students avoided sitting by her for weeks. Still today, she gets discouraged when she doesn’t see other non-traditional, older students in her classes.

“I look around campus to see if there’s any older people who aren’t professors,” she said.

But most days, she doesn’t mind. She’s found a support system with some classmates.

“There was one day I was really struggling in class with an oral presentation,” she said. “When I was done, everyone clapped for me. It was awesome.”

* * * *

Jenn’s biggest worry about going back to school was making sure she didn’t affect her daughter’s class work and routine.

“I wanted to be really mindful that I wasn’t affecting (Hilary’s) college experience,” she said.

Hilary has never felt that way. In fact, there are few things she doesn’t like about her mom taking classes, too. She loves sharing similar stories and experiences from her day.

“I’ll be like, ‘Did you see that guy dressed up as Scooby Doo walking around campus today?’ And she’ll be like, ‘I saw that guy, too!’” she said.

Having Hilary in school makes Jenn more accountable, she said. The two often study together.

“We have the same work ethic and we’re serious students, but we can slack together like no other,” Jenn said, laughing.

The pair likes to have mother-daughter pedicure parties and make dinner occasionally during the week when neither of them are working at their part-time jobs. They live on opposite sides of Lincoln, but share custody of a 13-year-old mutt named Milly.

Their guilty pleasure is watching Jersey Shore together.

In Hilary’s apartment hangs a plaque her mom gave her. It reads, “I’d rather do nothing with you, that anything with anybody else.”

That saying sums up their relationship, Jenn said.

“I do love her, but I like her, too.”