Career Stories

Stephanie Land’s Story of Pursuing an Education and Her Dream

New York Times bestselling author of Maid and Class Stephanie Land credit Erika Peterman
March 28, 2024


Going back to school for anyone at any age isn’t easy – but when you’re fighting an uphill battle as a young, single mother living on the poverty line, it might seem impossible.

It’s hard to believe that was the reality for Stephanie Land – now a New York Times bestselling author – when she decided to go back to college in 2008 and, eventually, university.

“When I did decide to go back [to school], it was 2008. We were kind of at the beginning of the great recession and there weren’t a lot of jobs available and I needed to work within daycare hours at a professional job like an administrative assistant but I had no experience to get a job like that because I had worked in restaurants and coffee shops,” says Stephanie, who was a guest of The Pivot Point Speaker Series on Career Building and Resilience.

After six years working as a cleaner to pay the bills, Stephanie was able to use student loans and grants to move to Montana in 2014 where she worked towards a Bachelor of Arts in English and creative writing from the University of Montana. While she says she “dabbled in college throughout her 20s” with a creative writing class here and there, she only started to take her studies seriously in her mid-20s when she realized that in order to get a job that coincided with daycare hours, she needed some form of higher education.

“I couldn’t find a job, so I figured I needed to get a degree to qualify for positions that I could do while my child was in daycare.”

A New Chapter in Her Life

The same year Stephanie decided to return to school, she had fled domestic violence from her abusive partner and moved to a homeless shelter with her then nine-month-old daughter. The first line of her debut book Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive (2019) documents that time in her life: “My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter.” The book was based on an elaboration of an article that she wrote for Vox in 2015.

Maid, which debuted at number three on The New York Times Best Seller list, was adapted to a 10-episode limited series Maid for the streaming service Netflix, starring Margaret Qualley, Andie MacDowell, and Nick Robinson in 2021.

Stephanie says she knew she always wanted to be a writer since the fourth grade but being able to do that full time is something that doesn’t come easy. However, she still managed to find a way.

“It’s very expensive to write about your life, because you need the space and creative time to be able to do that,” she says. “For a lot of people, they’re working all the time and struggle to find the time to write at all.”

Stephanie’s approach to writing was challenging herself to write 10 minutes a day. She never imagined that people would be interested in reading this “really weird story about cleaning other people’s houses.”

“Apparently people are interested in knowing what other people’s houses look like,” she says.

Prior to her success that followed from the Vox article that Stephanie describes as “going viral”, Stephanie recounts the challenges she faced while earning her degree in her second book, Class, which picks up about one-and-a-half years after Maid ended.

“[In Class], I focused the story on my senior year of college and my daughter’s first year of school in kindergarten,” says Stephanie. “That was my Britney Spears year – if I can get through that year, I can get through anything. I was juggling three or four huge things in addition to many small things.”

Overcoming One Challenge After Another

One of her bigger challenges was being kicked off the food stamp program because she was not working enough “required hours” despite being in university full time. Stephanie was working 15 hours a week as a house cleaner and attending classes as a full-time student.

“That’s the part of my story that makes me most angry is how food stamps work in the US,” says Stephanie. “Once your child is over six, they are considered an able-bodied adult without independence because they’re in school full-time but school is only six hours a day.”

That’s something Stephanie says she really struggled with. “Basically the government was telling me, ‘You’re not working enough to eat.’ There’s so much dignity that you lose and so much value as a human being.”

Another big barrier for Stephanie like many people pursuing post-secondary education, was finances.

“In my early 20s it was hard to commit primarily because of cost,” she says. “My parents weren’t able to help out with school.”

Despite these challenges, what got Stephanie through was that going back to school was a way to get her and her daughter out of grinding poverty. Before she went to university, she attended online university college classes, which worked well with her schedule cleaning during the day and allowed her to not have to worry about childcare in the evening.

“Learning online worked really well with me working full time during the day,” says Stephanie. “I could do it after my daughter went to sleep.”

Even though going back to school and pursuing an English degree was the only way out for Stephanie, she couldn’t help at times struggling with the idea that she was basically getting a “fancy” art degree.

“I can’t tell you how many times I heard how useless my degree was,” she says. “I felt like I was doing something wrong and selfish. I had to fight against that mindset.”

But out of all the reasons she decided to pursue higher education, one stood out on top.

“I wanted to be an example for my daughter and show her no matter how hard it is, she could do it too.”

It’s Never Too Late

If you’re like Stephanie and thinking about going back to school to go after your dream job or starting a new career, it’s never too late.

Even if you’re thinking about upskilling to stay competitive in the job market, whatever your reason for pursuing continuing education, any challenges you might be facing are never insurmountable.