Helen Qualls has learned something in six quarters at Salt Lake Community College. For starters, she's learned enough about being a secretary to graduate with a one-year certificate in information processing. And she won a $1,000 scholarship from Professional Secretaries International. The money and the vote of confidence, Qualls says, have convinced her to go on for another year and an associate degree.

The most important thing she's learned, though, is that "a person doesn't make it without moral support" and that she can find that support even in the cool professional world of work.Qualls is a single mother. She has five children, ranging in ages from 6 to 14.

She's luckier than most, she knows, because she receives child support regularly. Still, she never planned on life turning out quite like this. She wanted an education, but not a career. And she didn't want to work while her children were young. "Leaving Samantha (the youngest) was the hardest part.

"But," she says, "it's going to take a lot to support this family."

So, knowing she needed to work, Qualls decided, "I can either be successful or just pinch-hit."

She went to the library and did some research. "Everything I read said the demand for word processors was only going to increase."

She applied through the state for Job Training Partnership Act money for tuition. She got it. "I felt like I earned it just filling out the forms. I knew if I could do this I could handle college," she says.

Then she started at Salt Lake Community College. "It's hard when you go back to school, and I felt kind of dumb."

Qualls struggled with an English class. She discovered, to her surprise, that her teachers wanted her to succeed as much as she did. "They kept saying, `We'll find a way to help you.'

"Motherhood is very important to me. But most of my teachers have been female. They've been willing to help me. They also care about their families, as well as being very professional.

"They talked to me on a personal level."

She worked hard, studying for computer classes while running a home and helping her children with their homework, too.

She found another unexpected source of moral support in the junior Qualls. "We relate a lot because we are all in school. They help with the housework. We all get ready and go at the same time in the morning," Qualls said.

The day she was to get her award from the professional secretaries, Qualls' daughter Heather developed appendicitis. The group's officers put her first on the program and wrote her a note later to thank her for coming in the midst of an emergency. To Qualls it was another example of professional people being human beings.

"Like I said, the work world is new to me. When I see intelligent women, educated, hard-working, yet really caring about families, it makes me think, `I can do that.' "

At SLCC, she's come to know other single mothers, less fortunate than she. If they have to depend on public assistance, Qualls says, all their money goes for child care. She wishes it were easier for those women to "get not just a skill but an education."

She says, "I am encouraging my girls to be educated along with having a family.

"It's exciting to feel I'm important. That's what school has done for me."

In a year when she graduates again - this time with an associate degree - Qualls hopes to take her up-to-the-minute word processing skills to a large corporation. Eventually she'd like to work with people as well as with computers. Perhaps in a personnel department, she says, she could give back some of the encouragement and understanding she's been given.