Student parents comprise a largely invisible population at the University of Michigan, despite hundreds of us being enrolled in undergraduate, professional and graduate programs. When the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the closure of childcare centers and K-12 schools, we were left to our own devices to figure out how to complete coursework, teach remotely, conduct research and make progress on our dissertations while simultaneously caring for and educating our own children. With no access to childcare, our academic progress has taken a serious hit. Here are our stories.
Analidis Ochoa, a Ph.D. candidate in the joint program in Social Work and Sociology, wrote: “I have always been a student parent; I actually don’t know what it’s like to pursue higher education without children. I completed my BA in four years while raising an infant/toddler and working part-time. I completed my master’s degree while raising two children and now as a doctoral candidate and mother of three, I have thus far met all program milestones on time. Being a student parent has always been challenging, but access to full-day childcare and aftercare for my older children have allowed me to attend classes, while also fulfilling my responsibilities as a GSI and GSRA. Yet, my ability to make academic progress has been severely hampered since the pandemic prompted school closures and my role shifted to that of a full-time caregiver. With K-12 education taking place virtually in the fall, I will be forced to become a full-time instructor to my 5 and 9-year-old daughters, and tutor to my 14-year-old. My program’s expectation that I complete my dissertation prospectus, while also increasing my number of publications this year will now be nearly impossible to achieve. Without added support and flexibility, I am concerned about my ability to complete my Ph.D. program.”
Lauren Benjamin, an ABD Ph.D. Candidate in Comparative Literature and English Language & Literature, wrote: “As a single parent and the primary caregiver of a preschooler, I’ve lost over four months of writing due to school closures. I fully expect to continue to work at reduced capacity for the foreseeable future, but I’m also one of the lucky ones: My departments have provided childcare funding and time-to-degree flexibility that most other departments have not. Still, leaving these important decisions up to the discretion of individual departments without University policy is a piecemeal approach that is unfair, inadequate and inequitable.”
Valerie Micol, a Ph.D. candidate in the Clinical Science program in the Department of Psychology, wrote: “This fall, I will be writing my dissertation, applying for a pre-doctoral internship match and working 12 hours weekly for a mental health clinical practicum. All of this is difficult enough in a pandemic, but I am also the primary caregiver of a 10-year-old who has been home full-time since the pandemic began and will continue to be home during the fall semester while I struggle to complete my dissertation, provide therapy to clients and tutor her in her 5th grade classwork. While I love both of my roles as a parent and a Ph.D. worker, I never would have imagined that I would have to do both simultaneously — without respite — during a global pandemic. I am thankful for the support I have received from my department and advisor, but it is painful to see other graduate students leave their programs over a lack of support from the University. I am also worried about meeting important deadlines for my research while ethically fulfilling my clinical practicum duties while being home full time with my daughter. Without access to childcare, I will be unable to progress as usual next year and will be completely unable to provide care to my clients.”
Most days we are plagued by a heaviness in the chest, a symptom of all the academic work undone. It’s not that we — as student parents — are avoiding the research and writing which is, after all, our job: We’re just too busy making lunches, organizing our children’s homework, playing games and managing the enormous task of keeping our kids safe and healthy during a pandemic. We are not alone, hundreds of student parents at the University of Michigan are in the same boat. Doing the work of a graduate student during a pandemic is difficult; doing it while parenting and facilitating virtual instruction is all but impossible. We are overworked spouses, single moms and heads of household and we are exhausted — not just by the chaos the pandemic has brought, but rather, by the University's expectation that student-parents continue to work as usual without access to childcare.
But these times are not usual, and to treat them as such only compounds the pain and frustration we feel attempting the impossible — fulfilling these multiple roles all at once. There is much the University can do to mitigate the stress and hardship experienced by student parents during these unprecedented times. Here are a few recommendations:
The University must amend Child Care Subsidy requirements to include coverage of non-licensed care expenses. Lack of access to childcare has severely hampered our academic progress; this has come as a result of K-12 school closures as well as limited access to childcare facilities. The Office of Financial Aid has approved use of Child Care Subsidy funds for licensed care, however, student parents are largely unable to access these funds because licensed care is scarce right now. Childcare centers for children ages five and under that are open have reduced classroom size and licensed care for school-aged children is virtually non-existent.
In addition, student parents residing with high-risk persons may not have the option of sending their child to a licensed provider. As the fall semester approaches, unless the University takes tangible steps to expand access to childcare funding that covers options currently available under pandemic terms, student parents risk stagnating progress toward their degree as they will struggle to attend synchronous classes, conduct GSI, GSRA and hourly work and/or conduct research. Emergency funds, including the CARES Act, are insufficient: In addition to parents routinely being denied these funds, emergency funding does not address the long-term crisis we currently face.
Further, the University must consider ways to extend funding to student parents who will inevitably take longer to finish their degrees due to COVID-19, especially without access to childcare funds. Administrators, department chairs and mentors must remain flexible in light of the unprecedented burden student parents currently face. Strategies may include funding opportunities like temporary research appointments or short-term departmental loans, but should also include revised timelines for milestones and dissertation progress.
The University must issue a statement of support to student parents and provide centralized guidelines that discuss how schools and departments should make decisions that mitigate the impact of COVID on student parents. To ensure equity, these important decisions should not rely on the sole discretion of individual departments.
The University has already made a commitment to supporting the needs of working parents but they have remained largely silent about the needs of student parents. Doing so undermines their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion: Women, non-traditional students, international students and single parents suffer disproportionately from this lack of support, and a silent minority is quietly exiting the University. Out of sheer exhaustion and for lack of support, our friends are taking leaves of absence to care for children while others leave academia entirely. As student parents, we deserve better. As a major research institution that prides itself on producing “Leaders and the Best,” the University of Michigan has a responsibility to support student parents as we strive to achieve academic excellence in all disciplines, from medicine to the social sciences. The University already holds the resources and ability to make meaningful changes to support student-caregivers — it is time they make the commitment and have the will to do so.
Lauren Benjamin is an ABD Ph.D. Candidate in Comparative Literature and English Language & Literature and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Valerie Micol is a Ph.D. candidate in the Clinical Science program in the Department of Psychology and can be reached at email@example.com. Analidis Ochoa is a Ph.D. candidate in the joint program in Social Work and Sociology and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.