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Hunter Pinke, with his mom, Katie and younger sisters, on a Fall 2017 "Hawk Walk" prior to a UND football game at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D. (Katie Pinke/ Agweek)

A formula-fed baby raised by a teen mom can achieve college academic success

This past week, our son, a sophomore at the University of North Dakota studying civil engineering and playing football, was named to the 2017 Big Sky Conference Fall All-Academic Team. I think pop culture calls the fact I'm sharing this accomplishment a "mom brag" since it has already been written as news.

It takes a village to help one kid land on the all-academic team. I'm proud of the 48 student-athletes from UND who were recognized in the sports of cross country, football, soccer and volleyball. Seventeen of them are Hunter's teammates, and three are his roommates.

Nineteen years ago, I transferred to UND with Hunter, then two years old, in tow. I wasn't married. He had been a formula-fed baby, fed mostly by my mom, not me. The statistics were stacked against us, though we weren't aware of that at the time.

I had mom guilt. I wasn't the stay-at-home, breastfeeding mom I thought I should be. I didn't have a wedding ring on my finger like most moms at his preschool. I drove a car with 150,000 miles, my checking account was often overdrawn, and I deposited plastic bags of cash from my waitressing job into the bank in Aneta, N.D., where my family lived. I will never be able to thank my parents, our former small town banker and scores of others enough for helping me survive those years.

I worked most weekends, and Hunter would spend time with my younger siblings, parents, grandparents and uncle. Their positive influences continue in his life today.

I earned my bachelor's degree when Hunter was 4 years old, graduating with academic honors. I had $14,000 of student loan debt, but a college degree brought us closer to financial freedom, opened doors that led to a career with a salary and benefits and allowed me to buy our first home two years later in Fargo, N.D.

Hunter experienced some upheaval, loss and change in his childhood. But like me, he was surrounded by support and love. I was determined our circumstances would not define us as victims or statistics when he was a young child. We would redefine what teen motherhood looks like. Hunter's work ethic and drive have been the keys to his success.

Together as a family, we accomplished big goals with our village surrounding us. I learned to own and respect labels of my past like "teen mom" or "formula-fed baby." I also learned statistics stacked against us do not solely define our journey.

From the outside looking in, our life might look comfortable today. We have strong family relationships. Hunter graduated valedictorian in a class of 18 students from a rural North Dakota high school in 2016. He was a multi-sport athlete with accolades. He earned athletic and academic scholarships for an in-state Division I opportunity I never imagined possible when I was a struggling single mom.

Despite the odds stacked against him, our son is now on the all-academic team alongside 589 other student-athletes who were recognized across all Big Sky member institutions, the most in conference history.

I am unapologetically proud of our son — for the journey we've traveled as a family and the promising future ahead with a focus on academics. I'm proud of our daughters and numerous other kids I do my best to encourage and cheer on. There's a lot that goes into defining success, which makes it worth recognizing in little and big ways. Encourage and build up a child this week. Don't be bashful. When you see a kid working hard to achieve his or her goals, recognize them and cheer them on.

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