More than one in five college students are parents, but student parents are often under-recognized on college campuses. This blog post is the first 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 Naomi Ambriz
University of New Mexico
Ph.D. program in American Studies
Parent of a 21 month old child
Why I enrolled in school
Going to graduate school, much less pursuing a Ph.D., was something I never envisioned for myself. I struggled as an undergraduate and left the university after my first semester. Seven years later, I finally returned and completed my bachelor’s degree. I was raised in South Central Los Angeles by first-generation immigrant parents, and for my family, education has always been a route out of poverty. Influenced by a strong and caring mother and four sisters, education for me is not only upward mobility, but is what allows me to discover and explore a world beyond the one right in front of me. Being the fifth child of seven, I was expected to get at least a bachelor’s degree since four of my siblings had received theirs. It was not until I started working for the University of California that my trajectory towards graduate school began. Working and supporting students and faculty at a research university not only gave me insight into how academia works, but showed me how academic institutions can serve as spaces to challenge and interrogate systems of oppression. I also personally witnessed the impact that education and mentoring had on students and the community as a founding member of the Social Justice Initiative.
Education for me is not only upward mobility, but is what allows me to discover and explore a world beyond the one right in front of me.
What it’s like being a student parent
Being a student and having the added responsibility of caring for a child often reminds me not to take time for granted. Although I have set deadlines for my research work, I have to be flexible when unpredictable things happen. For example, sometimes I need to take time off when my son gets sick. The other important thing is to remind myself to have fun and do some self-care (whether that is doing yoga or taking a bath while my son sleeps) to recharge. As student parents, it is easy to forget to take care of ourselves, especially while caring for others on top of daily survival pressures. The financial costs of graduate school, including not having a decent salary, have been an added stress. Fortunately, student loans and fellowships have been enormously helpful during the past few years. I’ve also been grateful for work outside of my Ph.D. research. For example, working at the Women’s Resource Center has helped offset my living costs. At the same time, working there means I get to do work that I am devoted to. This upcoming academic year, my role at the Women’s Resource Center will be the Student Parent Advocate. I hope to not only advocate for student parents on campus, but to create greater visibility for other student parents who find themselves feeling isolated at the university.
As student parents, it is easy to forget to take care of ourselves, especially while caring for others on top of daily survival pressures.
Balancing school, parenting, and life
Finding a balance between parenting, school, and other life commitments has been an ongoing process. I had my son during my third year of graduate school. Becoming a mother while taking and teaching classes was a challenge. My son was born in early November, a month before the end of the semester, which made it even more difficult. Luckily, my professors gave me extensions for my finals and I graded student’s final papers while my son slept. Although some days are easier than others, having the adequate community support is essential. Having access to a daycare, professors that are understanding and willing to accommodate my schedule, and community members offering to babysit, has greatly facilitated child rearing and my professional development. Not to sound cliché but it really does take a village to raise a child. I also try to use my time wisely. For example, to fit in exercise, I bike and run to drop-off and pick-up my son from daycare. When he’s taking his afternoon nap, I catch up on schoolwork. I make sure to dedicate the later part of the day to him.
Supports and resources that have helped me balance school and parenting
My son is enrolled half time at the campus daycare, which is not only very accessible, but affords me peace of mind because I know that he is being well taken care of. I’m in the comprehensive exam stage of my Ph.D., which means that I no longer have classes to attend. I use the hours that my son is at daycare to focus on my research project. In addition, working at the Women’s Resource Center allows me to stay informed and connected with the campus community, particularly other student parents in similar situations. Partnering with other student parents to have study sessions while our children play has also been rewarding. The Lobo Parenting Cubs, a student parent organization which focuses on creating community and networking opportunities for student parents, have dedicated space on campus with computers, printers, and space for children to play. The children’s campus also offers a study room and extended childcare as well, which I often use.
Supports that would be helpful to college success
One thing that I currently lack access to is family housing for students because of limited space. My monthly rent takes up a big portion of my budget and having a place that was more affordable and closer to campus would be ideal. In addition, not being able to afford a babysitter is also challenging. Although I am lucky to have a community member offer her time to babysit for me one day a week, I could definitely use a more frequent babysitter at home so that I can work. My family resides in another state, which makes it very difficult to ask them to babysit.
It would also be wonderful if my school could allocate scholarships to student parents and provide accessible childcare (right now, there is a 1,500 person waitlist). Currently, in my student advocate position, I am working with both the children’s campus (daycare) and the financial aid department to distribute a survey to student parents in hopes of better serving their needs. We’re also inviting university administrators to student parent events in hopes of creating more visibility towards a family friendly university. In fact, I recently learned that our university has a high percentage of student parents; about 1 in 4 students are parents. I believe that we need to change the narrative and stigma around student parenting and make universities more welcoming to student parents. The reality is that many of our student parents are struggling and bringing awareness to this reality is essential. I believe that it is the university’s responsibility and mission to provide adequate resources and opportunities. The last few years, the University of New Mexico has seen a decrease in enrollment from local students. If more resources were implemented to encourage students and student parents to enroll, in particular, have decent incentives that retain and graduate students from the university in a timely manner without accruing so much debt, perhaps more New Mexicans would come to UNM.
The costs and benefits of going to school for me and my family
Being able to do something I love, such as research and working with students, is something that I don’t take for granted. According to the statistics, 1.6 percent of Latinas pursue a Ph.D. in the U.S. This means that I am not only fortunate to be pursuing a doctorate degree, but that I have a responsibility to keep paving the path for those that come behind me, just as the ones that came before me have done. In terms of costs, yes, I’m in debt with loans (even after having paid all my undergrad loans!), but I know that the time and flexibility I get to have raising my son, especially as a single parent, is invaluable. Nourishing and influencing his upbringing doesn’t compare to my monetary loss. Luckily, I get assistance from the state with food and my graduate assistantships and extra job appointments help pay rent and other living expenses. In the end, when I complete my Ph.D., I envision myself making a decent salary and recovering from the monetary losses.
I have a responsibility to keep paving the path for those that come behind me, just as the ones that came before me have done.
Hopes for after graduation
Ideally, I would like to get a postdoc and/or tenure track position at a university or community college since I would like to continue teaching and conducting research. It is hard not to see myself connected to a university in one way or another; I really enjoy teaching and research.
One thing that others might be surprised to know
I am an intimate partner violence survivor and lost my mother to cancer 14 years ago.
Policy change that could better support student parents’ success
Provide automatic financial support for incoming students parents, offer subsidized loans or a pardon for student loans for graduate student parents that have to take on debt in order to pursue a graduate degree. In a utopian society, debt free education would make it much easier to balance school and family.
The benefits of investing in student parents
Investing in someone’s education is the best investment because it helps to make our communities and society a better place. In other words, education not only benefits the individual but society as a whole. If student parents were less stressed about child care and financial burdens, because they had more supports, these students could dedicate more of their energy towards graduating on time and therefore join the workforce. Put simply, when we invest in education today, we invest in future generations as well.
When we invest in education today, we invest in future generations as well.