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Kids and the Classroom: The balancing act of being a student and a parent

BY DYLAN CINTI

Published February 21, 2011

Students across the University face pressure every day — pressure to do well on a test, to start a research paper and to cram for that upcoming midterm. For some University students, academic pressures often fade into the periphery. That’s because these students are also parents. Whether they’re dashing back from class to change a diaper or coming unprepared to a job interview after a sleepless night attending to a baby, every day is a challenge for a student parent.

John Zehnpfennig

John Zehnpfennig was deployed to Iraq seven months after his daughter was born.

Back in 2006, as the infant was progressively learning to crawl, walk and talk, Zehnpfennig was searching the grounds of a war zone for explosive devices to disarm.

Five years later, the 33-year-old Zehnpfennig — a captain in the United States Army Corps of Engineers — finds himself in very different territory as he pursues a master's degree in electrical engineering at the University. The transition from active duty to academia was one that Zehnpfennig said he made for the sake of his family.

Since marrying his wife Becky in 2004, Zehnpfennig has had two children — 5-year-old daughter Haley and 2-year-old son Joda — in addition to helping raise his 11-year-old stepson Brendan.

As Zehnpfennig pointed out, the alternative to his current academic track would have been continued military service — a job filled with risks, uncertainties and, worst of all, separation from his family.

Zehnpfennig said he knew what he was getting into when he enrolled as an undergraduate at The United States Military Academy at West Point. He realized the dangers attached to joining the army and the prospect of being deployed to a war zone at any moment.

Zehnpfennig said when he got the call to deploy to Iraq seven months after the birth of his daughter, he was given less than a week’s notice to get ready to ship off. For Zehnpfennig, leaving his infant daughter was especially difficult.

“That was the hardest part,” he said. “I left and she wasn’t crawling yet, and when I got back she was walking and talking. I missed all those major developmental stages.”

By the time Zehnpfennig enrolled at the University — becoming what he called a “grandpa of the grad students” — his wife had given birth to their son Joda.

Zehnpfennig said it was a difficult time. Not only was he adjusting to a new place and an expanded family, but he was reentering school. Additionally, because Becky works fulltime as a nurse, the couple had to find daycare for their two young children.

They enrolled Haley at the University’s Northwood Community Child Development Center — a program Zehnpfennig said helped relieve some of the burden of parenting.

Nevertheless, Zehnpfennig said balancing schoolwork and parenthood is still cumbersome.

“I’m up with Joda at 5:30 every day, playing with him non-stop and making him breakfast,” Zehnpfennig said. “Then my daughter will get up.”

From there, it’s into the shower and into the car — Joda needs to be at daycare by 8:30 a.m.

Zehnpfennig then makes his way down to Central Campus for his first class, which starts at 9 a.m.

“If it weren’t for Michigan time, I would be late for class every day,” Zehnpfennig said.

After class, Zehnpfennig is off to the lab to do research. Since starting at the University, Zehnpfennig said he has had two academic papers published and has a third under review.

After doing research and attending classes until 5 p.m., Zehnpfennig gets in the car to pick up his kids from daycare.

“Around 5 p.m. it’s like Fred Flintstone riding down the brontosaurus. I had to run over and get my daughter … then I have to go to Dexter to get my other kid,” he said.

With the kids in the car, they head home so Zehnpfennig can cook dinner and give them baths. Becky usually doesn’t get home before midnight.

“When it comes to the other grad students, they’re like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you have kids (and) you’re researching,’” Zehnpfennig said.

Though Zehnpfennig said his colleagues are mostly supportive and understanding, there are times when he feels like his life as a parent isn’t considered.

Once, Zehnpfennig’s daughter was sick and had to be admitted to the University hospital. Because Haley’s illness happened to coincide with the exam period, Zehnpfennig asked his professors for retakes, but one of his professors denied his request.

So on the third day his daughter was in the hospital, Zehnpfennig took the exam with the rest of the class. He aced it.

Despite its difficulties, Zehnpfennig said he’s appreciated his time balancing parenthood and being a student and has been grateful for the opportunities the University offers.

“The big payoff is that I get to spend time with the kids, and they’ll also see that there’s importance in education,” Zehnpfennig said.

Despite his desire to settle down with his family, Zehnpfennig feels the prospect of deployment constantly looming over him.

According to Zehnpfennig, if he gets anything less than a B- at the University, he’ll immediately be deployed for 18 months. If he fails an army-administered fitness test, it’s the same consequence — immediate deployment. However, Zehnpfennig is determined to avoid this. Though he’s committed to service, he doesn’t want that service to take him away from his family again.

His commitment is to following the “academic track” — a career trajectory that won’t include impromptu trips to war zones.

“I chose this path so I could be with my family,” Zehnpfennig said.

Nicole Morack

Nicole Morack met her boyfriend during her freshman year at the University, when they both worked in the Dining Hall at Bursley Residence Hall. They gradually fell into a serious and committed relationship.

Seven months later Morack was pregnant — but it wasn’t something they had planned on. It was the start of her sophomore year and she was 19.

Morack gave birth to her daughter Jennifer in July 2007, the summer after her sophomore year. Jennifer is now 3 and a half years old and attends a University-sponsored daycare program while her mother — who graduated from LSA in 2009 with a degree in sociology — pursues a master's degree in the School of Social Work, from which she expects to graduate this spring.

When she found out she was pregnant, it came as a huge shock to her and her boyfriend, Morack said.

Luckily, Morack said she felt close enough to her boyfriend to tell him the news immediately and not withhold any of her complex feelings.

“We were comfortable with each other,” Morack said of their relationship, which had been going on for eight months when she got pregnant.

Morack said their easygoing rapport enabled them to have an honest and forthright conversation about her pregnancy.

“There was conversation about what to do about it,” Morack said. “There was some deciding back and forth about if we were actually going to keep her.”

Ultimately, as Morack put it, they decided to keep her and "work around it.”

Though they reached a decision together, they knew that working around the pregnancy wouldn’t be easy — especially for Morack.

“I was finally getting into the swing of college … and then I had to grapple with being pregnant,” Morack said.

News of her pregnancy met with a cold reception by her family. Morack said it was difficult for her mother, who took several months to get used to the idea of her daughter being an expectant mother.

“My mom was pretty shocked and upset,” Morack said, adding that she eventually came around when Morack’s pregnancy began to show.

As she worked to garner the support of her mother, Morack was also facing an equally daunting task: how to continue with school. Morack said dropping out or postponing her education was never an option.

“I knew I just wanted to continue on because getting my masters in social work was my plan all along,” Morack said.

According to Morack, her professors and GSIs were understanding during the first months of her pregnancy. If there was a class she couldn’t attend or a paper she missed, Morack said her teachers would find a way to accommodate her.

“I talked to a couple of GSIs and let them know about the situation, and they were supportive,” Morack said.

As Morack’s pregnancy became more visible, she said she noticed a difference in the way she was treated. People in the hall would either stop and stare or avoid looking at her. Morack sensed that people were talking about her behind her back, but they never approached her.

Morack added that her Resident Adviser came up to her and acknowledged her pregnancy; however, that wasn’t until March, toward the very end of her second trimester.

“She came up to me and said, ‘Oh, just so you know, I noticed and some other girls in the hall noticed that you’re pregnant,’ ” Morack said with a laugh.

But Morack said that being pregnant was easy compared to actually having the baby.

Morack gave birth to Jennifer with her boyfriend and family by her side. After couple months of resting at home, Morack prepared to re-enter the University — this time with a baby on board.

Morack and her boyfriend moved into the Northwood Apartments on North Campus in an apartment unit designed for family housing.

“It was definitely strange to get used to it being just me, (my boyfriend) and the baby,” Morack said.

Because they didn’t want to enroll their two-month-old in daycare, Morack and her boyfriend planned their academic schedules so that one of them would be with Jennifer at all times.

While the time with her daughter was gratifying, it also took a physical and emotional toll.

“On the days I wasn’t in class I would basically just hang out with her,” Morack said. “I didn’t get much sleep because she would be up at night. It’s like having two full-time jobs.”

Because she had to focus on academics and parenthood, Morack said she missed out on many basic student activities, like going to parties and making friends in the classroom.

“I didn’t really grow my social group on campus,” Morack said of her time as an undergraduate. “It was really weird to be like, ‘Uh, I have a kid, I can’t really hang out.’ ”

Now that she’s a graduate student, however, Morack said she has found and befriended a group of fellow students who also have children — and these people have provided a firm network of support.

“Being in grad school and being involved in different parent groups … has been really great,” Morack said.

In graduate school, Morack said she wasn’t just “the girl with the kid” anymore.

Morack said having a daughter at the University has been an illuminating experience and one that’s fundamentally shaped her time as an undergraduate and graduate student.

Looking to the future, Morack said she’d like to find a way to apply her social work degree to low-income families and childcare — a career choice influenced by having a child.

“I’ve always had the interest of working with families, but I’ve had an interest more in early childhood as a result of having my daughter,” Morack said.

Preeta John

Preeta John's baby arrived on the most important day of her summer internship — the day she was set to give a cumulative presentation.

Luckily for John, a graduate student in the Ross School of Business, the delivery didn’t happen until after the presentation was over.

“I actually had to go to the hospital three hours after I was done with my presentation,” John said.

Since giving birth to her daughter Tara in July, life couldn’t be more hectic for John as she balances classes, group work, her impending graduation and motherhood — not to mention finding a job.

Nevertheless, John said she’s optimistic about her life and future, despite its daunting challenges.

“I know what I’m capable of doing,” John said. “I know how much I can multi-task while still remaining successful at the things that are most important to me.”

According to John, the past few years of her life have been an extended exercise in effective multitasking.

John moved to the United States from India in 2006. She attended an architecture program at the University of Cincinnati before deciding to switch to business. She began attending the Ross School of Business in fall 2009, focusing her studies on market retail.

By then she had met her husband — a University post-doctoral graduate who works at a sales biotech firm — and they decided to start a family.

For John, time was of the essence.

“We wanted to have a kid even before I started (business) school,” John said. “It didn’t work out at that time, (so) we just didn’t stop trying after that.”

For John, nothing would get in the way of starting a family — not even the notoriously rigorous two-year business program she just started.

“I was more nervous about waiting two years and not knowing when we were going to start a family,” John said, “So I think it’s just something I decided I would work out … on a moment-by-moment basis.”

John became pregnant shortly thereafter, and quickly began experiencing the difficulties of being an expectant parent and full-time student.

“You feel tired and sick, and you’re hungry all the time,” John said.

Though these effects are common among pregnant women, John had the added burden of having to deal with them in classes.

“I found myself controlling the nausea by constantly eating, so I had to eat in classes,” John said. “I just didn’t have an option.”

She was also forced to cut down on some classes due to fatigue and a period of bed rest.

John added that her classmates and people working on projects with her were understanding and accommodating.

“My teammates were very sympathetic and gave me tips and helped me know what to expect,” John said.

But as John pointed out, it’s not possible for Business students to have a light work load, and by summer she had scored a big internship at Sears, Roebuck & Co. in Chicago. Adding to her pressures, this was during the third trimester of her pregnancy.

The internship was cut short when she gave birth to Tara in July.

“That was the end of my internship,” John said with a smile.

John said adjusting to her fall semester with an additional member of the family wasn’t easy.

“I did not know what it would be like to look after a baby on a day-to-day basis,” John said.

Fortunately, John’s mother travelled from India to help raise Tara. Five months later, her mother left and John’s in-laws moved in. John said without their continual assistance, she wouldn’t have been able to handle class and raising a child.

“I would have had to skip out of (material) that’s critical to your performance in class,” John said. “I don’t think it would have been feasible to do that.”

Even with the assistance of relatives, John found the balance difficult.

In addition to taking five classes and studying frequently, she had to start preparing for serious job interviews — a prospect made more formidable by her lack of sleep.

As John explained, attending to Tara meant only getting an average of four hours of sleep a night.

“I did have to sleep a lot less,” John said. “I had to be there for the baby, who was not sleeping through the night.”

Come morning, John would get up for class at 8 a.m. and be gone until 8 p.m., when she came home in time to give Tara a bath, feed her and clean her bottles before going off to study until she felt like she “was about to drop.”

“It was exhausting to do, but I just pushed myself to do it,” John said.

John ultimately didn’t perform well in the first round of job interviews. She said her poor performance was largely a result of the mental and physical stresses of being a new mom.

“I didn’t have the time to prepare for (the interviews) effectively or fully be there mentally,” John said. “I was trying to do everything and something had to give.”

But John said the sacrifices she has made for Tara have been worth it because of the strong bond she has with her daughter.

“She’s able to crawl now, and she comes straight at me when I walk in the door,” John said. “That’s very gratifying to know she values that relationship that much.”

And despite the obstacles she’s faced as a new mom, she said she’s excited and up to future multitasking.

“That’s one thing the Business School really teaches you about,” John said. “It teaches you to allocate time and to pick what’s most important.”

John will need that ability moving forward — especially since she’s expecting a second child this July.