More than one in five college students are parents, but student parents are often under-recognized on college campuses. This blog post is the second in a series highlighting the experiences of student parents, including the challenges they face, and the resources and supports that help them succeed. Find other IWPR resources on student parents at the Student Parent Success Initiative page on IWPR.org.
By Cecilia Contreras-Mendez
Washington State University in Vancouver, Washington
June 2019 graduate of Clark Community College
Majors: Dual bachelor’s degrees in Public Affairs and Social Sciences with minors in Spanish, Sociology, Criminal Justice, and Political Science. I received my associate’s degree in Arts and transferred to my current institution with a Direct Transfer Agreement.
Number of Children and age: I have one child, Raul Jose Barasa Jr., who is 13 ½ years old.
Why I enrolled in school
In the beginning of 2008, I was laid off from my full-time job during the housing
recession. Forced to live off unemployment checks of about $850 a month, my rent was more than 80% of my income. I had one option for a better life– seek higher education. Making a choice I thought I’d never make, I decided that community college was my best shot at providing a proper life for my child. Being a single mom, I got lucky with the job I had, and I knew I would never make that much money again without a college degree. In September 2008, I enrolled at the community college as a first-generation college student, single mom, and woman of color.
As a single mother, I didn’t have much choice after losing my job. There was no child support coming in and I knew I had to set an example for my boy. Things needed to change, and I knew I could accomplish my goals. I knew my options and I took a chance, and it was one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life. Losing my job allowed me to return to school and showed me my true potential and my calling in life.
First off, pursuing higher education allows me to set an example for my child and second, it allows me to seek a better life for my family. I grew up in poverty raised by a single immigrant mother with little to no education herself. Education was key for me to break the cycle of poverty. My son’s life was dependent on my actions and my choices, so I had to choose wisely.
“My son’s life was dependent on my actions and my choices, so I had to choose wisely.”
Higher education wasn’t my priority after graduating high school with my 6 month old son, but I knew if I could do it back then, then why not now. Education is an opportunity to better myself and secure a better future for my son and we can only lead by example!
Balancing school, parenting, and life
For about 11 years now, I have been going to school on and off, having left and returned to school five different times. On top of being a single mom and going to school full-time, I’ve also had to deal with some medical issues. It was a challenge, but I had to make the sacrifice and hold on. I wasn’t about to give up on my son or my education just because life got hard, and I wasn’t going to let anything get in my way. I was the only reliable and stable parent my child had and school was our only income.
Being a student and a parent is a roller coaster ride! We had our ups and we had our downs. My son knew we were a team, and something had to give – in my situation, it was my home. Being a parent was a full-time job, being a student was my second full-time job, and doing it all alone while life threw rocks at me was a challenge. My car broke down multiple times leaving me to rely on public transportation in the rain, snow, heat, and all in between. Financial aid just wasn’t enough to fix life’s little emergencies.
Financial aid just wasn’t enough to fix life’s little emergencies.
Every student parent has their own motivation, their own strengths, their own story, and most importantly their own way to parent their child. We all experience life differently but my experience was rough in the beginning when my child was younger. As he grew older it got easier, until I needed to go to night classes. I was shocked that there wasn’t child care at night for my child while I was in school. That really stood out to me and was a challenge because I didn’t feel like the college officials thought about student parents when they scheduled these night classes into their program.
I didn’t feel like the college officials thought about student parents when they scheduled these night classes into their program.
As a student parent, there was little to no help with finding scholarships and determining what major or what degree I should be pursuing. When I first started, I felt alone and confused as I didn’t really have parents to guide me nor did I know any of the school’s resources. They are getting better these days but it’s still quite confusing when you are a student with little to no knowledge of the higher education system.
Supports and resources that have helped me balance school and parenting
When my child was younger, the biggest help I got as a single student parent were the Head Start program and child care center on my community college’s campus. Those resources were life savers! Honestly, Washington State’s SNAP food assistance program isn’t geared to help full-time student parents; if we go to school full-time, they still want us to work at least 20 hours a week just to get food benefits. For some it’s possible, but what about the parents with multiple children? How are we supposed to spend time with our kids as we are trying to get educated if we also have to meet these work requirements? We get penalized for trying to go to school. It would be great if we had better options for food assistance or for help with food resources. It is hard to go to school full time and finish fast in order to get our careers rolling when we have strict guidelines about how much we need to work, just because we are trying to feed our kids.
The costs and benefits of going to school for me and my family
Education is important to me, you just need to find a balance for life to run smoothly. As I learned to balance life, having a toddler, and juggling school, time-management was my friend.
Financial aid never seemed like enough to last us the whole quarter. In my case, I had to appeal to the Financial Aid Office to continue receiving funds and towards the end I ended up paying for half of my degree out of pocket. That was hard, but a sacrifice I was willing to make for my family’s future.
When I couldn’t afford to pay for my tuition, I made the impossible possible. If I had to sell the couch I sat on, I would in an effort to pay for my tuition. That’s how much my education meant to me. My son saw me make these sacrifices to get educated and the cost was heavy and very difficult at times. I shed lots of tears and prayed many prayers but never gave up! My son has always come first in my life and he makes it worthwhile at the end of the day! My son is my hero, my motivation, my strength, my reason to strive, and the reason I do everything I do! He looks up to me and supports my educational decisions and works just as hard at school too! What kind of mother would I be if I did not teach him how important education is?
When I couldn’t afford to pay for my tuition, I made the impossible possible. If I had to sell the couch I sat on, I would in an effort to pay for my tuition. That’s how much my education meant to me. My son saw me make these sacrifices to get educated and the cost was heavy and very difficult at times
Hopes for after graduation
I want to practice law at a non-profit organization that helps all people. Particularly, I’d like to be working on issues around social inequality, poverty, and immigration. I want to be a voice for those who have been silenced and seek justice. I want to be that lawyer that the people can trust and reach out to. Ideally, I would love to work with justice-involved and impacted youth to help guide them towards a second chance in life. The more people I can help, the more my sacrifice will be worth it.
The more people I can help, the more my sacrifice will be worth it.
One thing that others might be surprised to know
I am a single student parent who is disabled and battling six auto-immune diseases and disorders. I want my leadership skills to define me, not my disability. Just because our bodies are differently abled doesn’t mean that we can’t learn or be educated just like everyone else. Battling against my own body, I have persevered and triumphed over every obstacle I encounter.
Policy change at your institution that could better support student parents’ success
My community college could have offered child care at night. Since most of my classes were only offered at night, I really struggled to find care for my son, and was forced to change my major because of it.
Since most of my classes were only offered at night, I really struggled to find care for my son
On the financial aid side, I was only given 2 or 3 appeals to reinstate my funds after losing my aid due to my medical conditions. This was very difficult, and I was forced to pay out of pocket for more than half of my degree. There should be more opportunities and supports for students like me to be successful.
My community college had excellent staff members that offered free workshops to ensure our success. Staff also had fun events throughout the year that helped take the pressure off of school to give us some fun on campus. These school events gave me hope and gave me something to look forward to in between classes and quarters. Staff members went above and beyond to make sure I received the services I qualified for, like accommodations through disability services and tutoring.
Policy change that could better support student parents’ success
At the national level – I would say changes are needed with services like the SNAP food assistance program. If we go to school full-time and have multiple children, we shouldn’t be required or forced to work in addition to already holding one full-time job as single parents. It is very difficult for those who have multiple children and sometimes in the end it is not worth losing time with them. We work half the day and go to school most of the day in an effort to feed and support our children – leaving us to question, when do we get time to see our kids?
At other levels – Having child care at night and in the evening would benefit a lot of students who are parents. After-school and summer programs shouldn’t be cut because some of us depend on those programs for our school-aged children. There needs to be more funding for these programs.
The benefits of investing in student parents
If we had more support for both child care and/or scholarships, we would have more educated student parents, allowing children to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Offering the resources that many student parents seek but can’t find could relieve a lot of stress and give us piece of mind.
In the end, we would invest in our children and have a more well-rounded society surrounding us. When investing in any type of educational programs for parents and/or their children, we are essentially saving money if we, as student parents, guide our children to follow in our footsteps and seek higher education. As student parents teach their children that education is key, we are able to shine light into their soul and once we light that fire, who knows where it will go or what they will achieve.