This guest blog post is authored by Ashlee Hernandez, a 2021 alumni of Cal Poly’s Higher Education Counseling and Student Affairs graduate program and former student parent. The article was written in connection with IWPR’s Student Parent Success Initiative.

Every semester, I pleaded with my professors to release me early from class so I could run to the on-campus child care center before it became dark. To get our parking spot, I needed to walk a mile off-campus where the roads were poorly lit, and it was even harder to see when it rained.

I was a student parent caring for my 18-month-old child, and I had no other alternative but to live an hour from campus because students with dependents were prohibited from living in university housing.

I often felt invisible being forced to walk off-campus in the dark, rushing to pick up my child for the evening. If only my instructors knew what it took for me to attend class each morning: waking up at 5:00 a.m., making breakfast and packing lunches, dropping off a crying toddler at the campus child care center, parking off-campus, and finally making it to class. I persisted despite of these challenges. In fact, these moments propelled me to ensure that these inequities would not be inherited by future students who were also parents.

Too often, student parents are overlooked in higher education settings, where it is assumed that all students are free of caregiving responsibilities. Notably, at predominately white institutions, the organizational culture pushes student parents to believe they must navigate caregiving-related conflicts on their own and assimilate to the traditional student identity. The diverse, intersectional experiences of students with children—combined with the lack of holistic care support—create compounding challenges for student parents, making us less likely to finish college.

On my campus, I only met other student parents informally; there wasn’t any standardized way of tracking students with young children on our campus. Luckily, through an internship with Cal Poly and mentorship under Dr. Tina Cheuk, I had the opportunity to form the Students with Dependents Initiative with a group of students and staff committed to advocating for improved policies and practices that prioritize the needs of students with caregiving duties. Since the initiative launched, we have amended a 50-year-old class attendance policy that provides student parents the opportunity to make up missed classwork when their dependents are sick. We advocated for priority registration so student parents can schedule classes around their parenting duties. And, we guaranteed access to parking permits for all student parents. These small wins have led us to an even bigger success.

This spring, the Board of Directors at Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) passed Resolution #21-04, calling for the systematic data collection of student parents across our 23-campus institution, the largest four-year public university system in the nation serving nearly half a million students. Our student-led team relied on key research from IWPR in advancing this policy. As I write this, the resolution is on its way to Chancellor Castro’s desk for review and signature.

This data will allow university leaders to create policies that better reflect the lived realities of our diverse student populations, including supporting retention and graduation rates and building communities that allow student parents to thrive both on- and off-campus. If the university would have had this data on-hand just a few years ago, student parents with young children like me would not have had to face these additional hurdles simply trying to get to and from class.

Ashlee Hernandez is a 2021 alumni of Cal Poly’s Higher Education Counseling and Student Affairs graduate program. During her time with California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, she worked to build a robust and active Student with Dependents program, led a comprehensive institutional needs-assessment on behalf of pregnant and parenting students, and secured institutional and state grant funding for their basic needs. She was also awarded the CSU Sally Casanova Fellowship for advancing research on students with dependents retention.