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Savana Paciulli participates in a Smith College interterm class, “Physical Conditioning-Self-Paced Fitness”. As a full-time student at Smith College, Savana has to juggle being a full-time single mom and caring for Colton while completing her schoolwork.

‘I Need to Know My Kid Is OK’: Bolstered by family support, a young mother succeeds against long odds in college — and becomes an advocate for change

About This Project

This photo essay is part of a yearlong Chronicle visual series that highlights the challenges facing first-generation students and others. The series is part of the Different Voices of Student Success project, which is supported by the Ascendium Education Group.

The photo essay was created by the photographer Kayana Szymczak, with narrative by Graham Vyse, a staff reporter. Erica Lusk, the senior photo and media editor, edited the photographs. Carmen Mendoza, the senior web producer, and Luna Laliberte, the editorial-events coordinator, coordinated interviews.

When Savana Paciulli enrolled at Smith College, in Northampton, Mass., in 2022, it was the latest in a string of successes. She’d just earned her associate degree at nearby Holyoke Community College, graduating as valedictorian with a 4.0 GPA. She’d been instrumental in creating a first-in-the-region “child watch” program HCC had recently launched, which provides free supervision for the young children of student-parents while they are on campus. She’d done all that — and much more — while raising her own son, the then 3-year-old Colton, as a single mother, through two grueling years of remote learning.

Savana Paciulli and her son Colton Wilson prepare dinner together before Savana sits down to complete school work that she received an extension on for the prior school semester.
Savana Paciulli and her son, Colton Wilson, prepare dinner together before she sits down to complete her schoolwork.

But Paciulli, 30, has traveled an unusually long, uncommonly hard road to those achievements. She’s struggled throughout her life with her mental health — including complex PTSD — and what she describes as “severe” ADHD, which led her to drop out of HCC when, a decade ago, she first attended it. She still marvels that she got through college during the pandemic, because she couldn’t afford child care and her family members, who had always helped out, could not because of health risks. Now she’s borrowing $20,000 a year in federal student loans so that Colton can go to Smith’s Center for Early Childhood Education at Fort Hill while she’s in class.

Savana Paciulli walks her son Colton Wilson into his school, the Smith College Center for Early Childhood Education. Savana is currently taking out loans to pay for Colton’s tuition at this school. As a student parent advocate, Savana is petitioning Smith College to provide student parents with the same 25 percent discount on tuition at the school that they provide to Smith faculty and staff.
Paciulli walks Colton to his school, Smith College’s Center for Early Childhood Education.

“For me to be successful here, I need to know my kid is OK,” Paciulli says. “I don’t have an alternative. There’s another preschool in the area, but it’s only for 10 hours a week.” Her new goal is to work with Smith — while she’s taking courses in mathematical statistics and studio arts — to “build solidarity across faculty and student-parents” for “free, consistent, safe, and reliable child care,” much as she did on her old campus. In the meantime, she has petitioned Smith to give student-parents a 25-percent discount at the early-childhood center, which is what the college offers full-time faculty members and administrators. It’s one of many ways she hopes to contribute to the college — and ultimately its community — in the years ahead.

Unlike the vast majority of Smithies, Paciulli is a western Massachusetts native. She grew up in Springfield, Holyoke, and Amherst, where she graduated from the regional high school in 2011. She and her brother were raised by their mother, Melissa Paciulli, who was a single parent for many years, as well as the first in her family to go to college. Incidentally, Melissa is still pursuing higher education, working toward a Ph.D. in transportation engineering with an interest in studying teenagers with ADHD who are learning to drive. When Savana was 10, her mother began dating Doug Hall, who became a stepfather figure, although he and Melissa have never married.

Savana Paciulli and her mother Melissa Paciulli look at a ring that was a gift from Melissa to Savana. Melissa bought an emerald when she was pregnant with Savana, planning to give it to her on a special occasion. She gave it to Savana on her 30th birthday, and took Savana to a jeweler to design a ring.
Paciulli and her mother, Melissa Paciulli, look at a ring that was a gift from Melissa to Savana. Melissa bought a sapphire, Savana’s birthstone, when she was pregnant with Savana, planning to give it to her on a special occasion. She gave it to Savana on her 30th birthday, and took Savana to a jeweler to design a ring.

Paciulli says of her mom, “For my whole life, she’s been a huge advocate of education.” She has fond memories of her mother talking extensively — and on occasion, maybe almost excessively — about college as in her future. “She told me, ‘You’d love a women’s college.’ I was like, ‘I’m not going to a women’s college.’”

Teenage rebelliousness may partly explain why Paciulli didn’t initially follow the path her mother suggested, but she also had exceptional educational challenges that began long before she — just barely — finished high school. She’d received her ADHD diagnosis in elementary school and, consequently, had a 504 plan to accommodate her disability, but she struggled academically, as well as with deepening depression and anxiety. She had trouble sleeping at night — and staying at school during the day. She had medication but wasn’t able to take it consistently or responsibly. Despite always liking some subjects, including math and art, she’d often skip other classes.

Savana Paciulli paints a mural on her son Colton’s new bedroom wall, while Colton watches and reads a book.  Savana is moving from her apartment in Northampton, MA into the basement apartment of her parents home in Amherst, MA.  She feels that she needs to be close to her family for their support while she attends Smith College as a full-time student and raises Colton as a single mom.
Paciulli paints a mural on her son Colton’s new bedroom wall, while Colton watches and reads a book. Paciulli is moving from her apartment in Northampton, Mass., into the basement apartment of her parents’ home in Amherst, Mass. She feels that she needs to be close to her family for support while she attends Smith College as a full-time student and raises Colton as a single mom.

With that as a prelude, Paciulli’s first attempt at community college ended after less than a semester. Her anxiety and depression were becoming overwhelming — sometimes she couldn’t even make it to class or campus events. “I literally had so much anxiety that I could pull into the parking lot but not go inside,” she says.

It took Paciulli half a dozen years to turn her life around, but with medication, therapy, support from her family, assistance from the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, Social Security Administration disability benefits, and no small amount of personal resolve, she ultimately did.

Savana Paciulli works on a school project, after having set her son Colton up with dinner and a show to watch on the couch. As a full-time student at Smith College, Savana has to juggle also being a full-time single mom and caring for Colton while completing her schoolwork.
Paciulli works on a school project after setting up her son, Colton, with dinner and a show to watch on the couch.

“I started to feel better,” she recalls. “I left the house more often, had some friends, and found some community. I tried here and there to do some part-time work. I was able to maintain a job doing painting. Then I met my son’s father and got pregnant.”

After giving birth to Colton, in April 2019, she began hearing her mother’s voice in her head again — maybe it was time to reconsider college. Colton’s father worked full time, she says, and she loved staying home with her son, “but I wanted to be able to give him an amazing life.”

Melissa Paciulli, helps her grandson Colton Wilson, prep vegetables for dinner. Melissa Paciulli, Colton, and her parents regularly have “Sunday dinner” together as a way to spend quality time with each other.
Melissa Paciulli, helps her grandson, Colton, prepare vegetables for dinner.

That fall, Paciulli returned to HCC, where her mother was then working as director of its STEM Starter Academy. Paciulli was accepted into the college’s National Science Foundation STEM Scholars Program, which provided her financial aid. “I figured out you could get paid to go to school, and then everything clicked,” she says with a smile. “I immediately started applying for extra scholarships and ways to supplement my income, because I couldn’t work.”

Savana Paciulli, her mother Melissa Paciulli, her stepdad Doug Hall (not in frame) and her son Colton Wilson have dinner together at her parents home. They regularly have “Sunday dinner” together as a way to spend quality time with each other.
Paciulli, her mother, Melissa, her stepdad, Doug Hall (not in frame), and Colton have dinner together at her parents’ home. They regularly share Sunday dinner as a way to spend quality time with one another.

Her life was still a lot to manage, but it was going well. She says her mother, stepfather, and grandmother would take turns watching Colton while she was in class, and Colton’s father would watch him in the evening for a few hours. Paciulli is quick to acknowledge that the help of her family and her ex (she is no longer in a relationship with Colton’s father) has been crucial.

Savana Paciulli arrives at her apartment with groceries. On this day, she needed to stop by her local grocery store after dropping her son Colton off at school, return home to make his lunch, and then deliver it to the school, before attending an interterm class in the afternoon.
Paciulli arrives at her apartment with groceries. After dropping Colton off at school, she ran to her local grocery store, returned home to make Colton’s lunch, and then planned to deliver it to the school before attending an inter-term class.

When Covid hit, virtually all of the stable structures around Paciulli and Colton collapsed. “My grandparents and my mom were immunocompromised,” she explains. “Nobody was seeing each other.” That left her home alone with her toddler, trying to steal enough time for schoolwork while he was sleeping or in the couple of hours a day he was with his father. “I don’t even know how I survived that, to be honest with you,” she says. “It was very isolating and sad.”

Savana Paciulli and her son Colton Wilson share a moment before he enters into his classroom at his school, the Smith College Center for Early Childhood Education. Savana is currently taking out loans to pay for Colton’s tuition at this school. As a student parent advocate, Savana is petitioning Smith College to provide student parents with the same 25% discount on tuition at the school that they provide to Smith faculty and staff.
Paciulli and Colton share a moment before he enters his classroom at school. Paciulli is taking out loans to pay his tuition. As a student-parent advocate, Paciulli is petitioning Smith College to provide student-parents with the same 25-percent discount on such tuition that it gives faculty and staff members.

Yet that period of hardship undeniably led to some of her most significant accomplishments. She founded HCC’s Neurodiversity Club with her classmate and friend, Avery Maltz, helping to build community among her fellow neurodiverse students navigating remote learning. She also joined another classmate, Carolina Peña Morena, in advocating for creating a free, on-campus “child watch” center. Paciulli wrote a personal testimonial as part of their proposal, describing how the existence of such a center would have benefited her, Colton, and other families like theirs. “Her testimony came from a very vulnerable place,” Peña Morena says. “It was very compelling, and it was a very important contribution.”

Savana Paciulli meets with fellow student and mentor Carolina Peña Morena in the Ada Comstock Scholars Lounge on the Smith College campus. Paciulli and Peña Moreno both transferred from Holyoke Community College to Smith College, and are both Ada Comstock Scholars. “The Ada Comstock Scholars Program enables women of nontraditional college age to complete a degree with flexible options for course loads, special academic advising, career counseling and housing.” Paciulli and Peña Moreno also worked together at Holyoke Community College to create a daycare center for student parents - Paciulli is drawing on that experience to try and do the same at Smith College.
Paciulli meets with fellow student Carolina Peña Morena in the Ada Comstock Scholars Lounge on the Smith College campus. Paciulli and Peña Moreno both transferred from Holyoke Community College and are both Ada Comstock Scholars. They worked together at HCC to create a child-watch center for student-parents, and Paciulli is drawing on that experience to try to do the same at Smith.

She and Colton attended the ribbon cutting for the new center during her last semester at HCC. Though they never benefited from the facility, Paciulli still gets emotional — and full of evident pride — when she talks about how her endeavors helped bring about “a game-changer” for other families like hers. “It was so amazing to actually see something come of it,” she says. All her struggles had led to something good.

Savana Paciulli tables for the Disabilty Justice Alliance during the Spring Semester Involvement Fair in the Julia McWilliams Child Campus Center at Smith College. Paciulli was diagnosed with ADHD as a child, and identifies as disabled.
Paciulli works a table for the Disability Justice Alliance during the Spring Semester Involvement Fair in the Julia McWilliams Child Campus Center at Smith College. Paciulli was diagnosed with ADHD as a child.

Peña Morena inspired Paciulli to believe in activism — and in her own ability to be an activist. Both women ended up transferring to Smith, after Paciulli decided — long after her mother first put the idea in her head — that she did want to be at a women’s college after all. Going to Smith was hugely validating, especially for someone who’d once feared she “couldn’t hack it” in higher education. “I did hack it — in a pandemic, while adjusting to remote learning, with a child,” she says.

Savana Paciulli participates in a Statistical and Data Sciences class at Smith College. Paciulli is a double major in Math and Studio Art.
Paciulli participates in a class on statistical and data sciences at Smith College. She is a double major in math and studio art.

Paciulli came to Smith as part of the Ada Comstock Scholars Program for nontraditional-age students. (Comstock, a Minnesotan who graduated from Smith in 1897, was a pioneer in women’s education, serving as the first dean of women at the University of Minnesota and the first full-time president of Radcliffe College, another women’s liberal-arts college, in Cambridge, Mass.)

Paciulli gushes about every part of her Smith experience — inspiring coursework, the great gym and mental-health center she uses, the ceramics club she’s joining this semester. It’s not that all her old problems disappeared — striving for good mental health and living well with her disability are an ongoing process — but she’s arrived at a good place, in multiple senses. She’s living an entirely different life from the one she lived not too long ago. Even though she hopes to improve the child-care options available at Smith, she has confidence in college leaders and optimism about making change.

Stepdad Doug Hall gives Savana Paciulli some tips during the “35mm Love” film photography workshop at Chris Marion’s studio in Springfield, Massachusetts. Hall gave Paciulli the workshop as a birthday gift, since they both love photography and could share it as an artistic activity together.
Paciulli’s stepdad, Doug Hall, gives her tips during a film-photography workshop at a local photographer’s studio in Springfield, Mass. Hall gave Paciulli the workshop as a birthday gift, since they both love photography and could share it as an artistic activity together.

She’s also getting back into advocacy for disabled students, focusing on the idea of “universal design” — that buildings, experiences, and environments can and should be shaped to meet everyone’s needs, and that more understanding is needed of the different ways students live and learn. Paciulli says the notion that they should simply have to “suck it up and survive in this world” is outdated. “I wouldn’t be where I am had my professors — and other people — not been flexible and accommodating and not made me feel small.”

Savana Paciulli and her stepdad Doug Hall move Savana’s mattress as they pack her Northampton apartment to move her into the basement apartment of her parent’s home in Amherst. Savana feels that she needs to be close to her family for their support while she attends Smith College as a full-time student and raises Colton as a single mom. She relies greatly on her friends, family, and community to provide the support she needs to succeed as a student and parent.
Paciulli and Hall move her mattress as they pack up her Northampton apartment. She relies on her friends, family, and community to provide the support she needs to succeed as a student and parent.

Paciulli’s goals are anything but small. She’d like to get her Ph.D. in mathematics and work on innovative ways to teach the subject to students who’ve struggled with it. As she looks toward graduating next year, she’s focused on a project that would combine the passion for human rights she’s developed on campus with her desire to create nearby accessible and affordable housing that’s also clean and safe.

L-R: Stepdad Doug Hall, Savana Paciulli, friend Avery Maltz, and friend Tania Pulitz cheers with soda after packing up Savana’s Northampton apartment to move into the basement apartment of her parent’s home in Amherst. Savana feels that she needs to be close to her family for their support while she attends Smith College as a full-time student and raises Colton as a single mom. She relies greatly on her friends, family, and community to provide the support she needs to succeed as a student and parent.
Left to right: Hall, friend Avery Maltz, Paciulli, and friend Tania Pulitz toast with soda after the move.

“What I really want to do is build community living,” she explains. Recalling the isolation of living alone and parenting a small child during the pandemic, she says, “that’s just not how people are supposed to live.” Her idea is to create a nonprofit, supported by energy and housing grants, that offers a rent-to-own program with tiny homes. With that and all of her other work, she hopes to help more people find a home — and feel at home — in communities that helped her find her way.

“I always feel like it’s my duty to leave a trail — a path through the forest,” she says. “What about people who don’t have parents to go to or have someone to watch their kids? There has to be something better in place.”

Savana Paciulli poses for a portrait with a display of pieces that highlight her work from her installation art and digital media classes, which capture the development of her artistic voice.
Paciulli with a display of pieces that highlight her work from her installation-art and digital-media classes.