Now, with support from the Single Parents Program at Champlain College, the 34-year-old from Shelburne is finishing a degree in health information technology and is excited about her future.
"It's helped me get my degree. With three kids, being divorced, doing it myself, it's given me the opportunity to do it online," she said.
Not only does Champlain - a small private college with more than 2,000 students - help with eligible single parents' tuition, it also provides support from case workers and an emergency fund to cover expenses like books, car repairs, heating bills and winter coats.
The program provides single parents a step out of poverty or an abusive relationship and positive modeling for children, who get to see their parents doing homework beside them, said program director Carol Moran-Brown.
More than 500 single parents, mostly women, have graduated from the program since its inception in 1987. There are 53 single parents enrolled now.
Garrison, whose children are aged 5, 6 and 8, said that support from her adviser, Felicia Messuri, helped her overcome challenges that many single parents face. She is preparing to find a job after she graduates in May.
"Many single parents have a sense of being alone in their circumstance but Felicia made me realize it didn't have to be that way," she said. "She empowered me to speak up and together we were able to find solutions to all of the challenges that came up along the journey."
Champlain invests more $500,000 a year to cover counseling staff, scholarships, an emergency fund, and holiday sponsorships, including providing gifts to single parent families who can't afford them, said spokesman Stephen Mease. The school raises an additional $225,000 from donors annually for scholarships and the emergency fund.
Daniel Hurley, associate vice president for government relations at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities based in Washington, called it a smart program that will help Vermont deal with a projected decline in the number of high school graduates in the state.
"Anything that states, colleges and universities can do to facilitate college entry and success by nontraditional populations such as single parents and low-income (people) is a very smart move for the state both economically and socially," he said.
Scholarships range from $4,000 to $19,000 a year depending on how many classes a student takes and whether they are a continuing education student taking courses online or a traditional student, Mease said.
Champlain hosts events with other single parents in its dining hall, and an annual Christmas party with a visit by Santa, who hands out gifts to the children.
"It's such a good program," said Jessica L'Esperance who enrolled last semester and attended this year's party with her 7-year-old daughter. "I can do all of it online which is extremely helpful because I'm a single mom and I work full time."