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


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.