Iowa State University custodian and single mom will earn bachelor's degree Saturday

AMES, Iowa -- With an uncharacteristic look of sheer terror on her face, Chris Matteo dashed through the halls of Iowa State University's Communications Building in a frantic search for her misplaced notebook. It contained the study guide for her approaching final in The History of Mass Communications. Turns out she'd left the notes in the first floor women's restroom --- when she was cleaning it.

Matteo graduates Saturday from Iowa State with a degree in liberal studies. She also works full-time as an ISU custodian. And part-time as a waitress. And she's rehabbing a 100-year old house in Boone. Did we mention she's a single mother of two teen-age boys?

"I like to stay busy," Matteo said.

After her divorce in 2006, she "didn't know what to do with herself" on the weeks that her ex-husband had custody of sons Tony and Brandon. Apparently working full time as a secretary, part time as a waitress/bartender/grill cook, part time as a community service supervisor and full time as a mom, wasn't enough.

"I made a list of everything I wanted to do and the first thing was to finish my degree," she said.

From school and three jobs to one job and two babies

Matteo attended Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) after graduating from Boone High School in 1986. She worked three jobs and paid for everything with cash, so she wouldn't have student loans. Her goal was to attend Drake University Law School. After being admitted to Drake, however, Matteo learned at the last minute that she was ineligible for student aid because her father had claimed her on his income tax. Not wanting to incur debt, she went to work as a customer service representative at Meredith Corp. during the day, and a bartender at night.

By this time, she was dating her future husband. They became engaged, moved to Ankeny and married. After the birth of their first son in 1992, Matteo continued at Meredith. The young family moved to Boone, bought a house and their second son was born in 1993.

"With two babies under the age of 2, I wasn't about to commute to Des Moines, so I quit Meredith, even though they had offered me a promotion," she said.

Finding comparable jobs in Boone that would cover the rising cost of daycare for two babies became an issue. So, for the next seven years, Matteo operated a daycare in her home.

"I probably had more fun with that than anything I've done," she said. "I watched three kids of my friends. I tried to do fun things and bake for them every day."

It was well worth it, she says, because "the five kids grew up like brothers and sisters and are still really close."

Hitting a brick wall

Matteo went back to work outside the home as a secretary and office coordinator for an obstetrician-gynecologist in Boone. Four-and-a-half years later, she became the secretary for Sacred Heart Parish. She and her husband bought a fixer-upper on seven acres of timber along the Des Moines River. They poured money into remodeling and building a large addition. Meanwhile, they owned seven rental properties that needed constant tending.

About that time the marriage began to fall apart. The debt piled high and bankruptcy loomed. She worked two-and-a-half jobs, trying to stay ahead of the bills. In 2006, she ended the marriage, sold the rentals and lost her beautiful home. Matteo juggled the responsibilities of caring for two kids going through divorce while working extra hours. As she looked for better-paying jobs, Matteo repeatedly hit the brick wall of no college degree.

"I ended up with jobs I never thought I'd have," she said.

Time management

Three years ago, Matteo returned to school, taking two classes per semester to earn the 72 credits needed for her bachelor's degree. All it took was sacrifice, hard work and long hours - nothing new for her.

She cobbled together long-distance online classes and night classes, fitting school in to her already hectic schedule. In 2008, when ISU hired Matteo to work the early shift as custodian, she was able to take afternoon classes on campus.

For the past two years, she's gone to bed at 8 p.m., awakened at 2:30 a.m., clocked in at ISU at 4 a.m. and out at 12:30 p.m. She studies on work breaks ("I can read a chapter a week during breaks.") and heads to classes at 1 p.m. On weekends, she works at the Tic Toc Restaurant.

"Doing custodial work is a stress release," she said. "Working at the restaurant is my social time."

Anything is possible

Although it's been tough on the kids, Matteo says "it's all worked out." Her oldest son attends DMACC, while the younger one plays football and wrestles at Boone High and also takes advanced classes at DMACC.

"I'm probably a pretty good role model for the kids," she laughed.

Matteo looks forward to working on her house -- "a mission style fixer-upper with beautiful woodwork and floors." At the moment, she and friends are re-doing the kitchen.

"The fridge is in the living room, the dishwasher is in the dining room and the stove is in the kitchen. It makes cooking meals a challenge," she laughed.

Beyond "having a life" again, "keeping busy" (that's a given), and someday "taking the kids to Europe," Matteo's possibilities are wide open.

"I'm not afraid to try anything."