Hidden Population: Undergraduate student parents advocate for more resources

Monday, January 6, 2020 - 11:16am

Alexandra Ellard, Lyss Shumaker and Kerrigan Fitzpatrick are student parents at the University of Michigan.

Alexandra Ellard, Lyss Shumaker and Kerrigan Fitzpatrick are student parents at the University of Michigan. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

Last winter, LSA student Alexandra Ellard had to miss 10 days of class. Due to extreme weather, many Metro Detroit area public schools and facilities were closed. This meant Ellard couldn’t take her almost 2-year-old son, Oliver, to day care, and the road conditions were too dangerous to bring him along on the 40-minute drive to campus. She had no choice but to stay home. 

Ellard, who will be graduating this May with a General Studies degree, reached out to her professors. A few of them allowed her to attend their classes remotely, through platforms such as BlueJeans, Skype or Google Chat. But others, she said, threatened to fail her. 

“There are no protective policies for undergraduate students that protect them from attendance discrepancies when it comes to not having dependent child care,” Ellard said. 

One of the professors who refused to accommodate Ellard taught a class on gender and organization, which Ellard needed to graduate on time. After appealing her case to the Organizational Studies department chair and talking to an ombudsman, she said she was finally allowed to pass the class. 

“I had to fight to pass the class, and she still gave me a D plus,” Ellard said. “You find yourself very often having to choose whether to be a good parent, or be a good student, and that I find to be a very huge problem.”

According to Ellard, whether a student parent is offered accommodations depends almost entirely on the professor. Some of her professors have been helpful, even allowing her to bring her son to class when child care was unavailable, whereas others have not been as receptive. 

“I’ve had professors hold Oliver during class so that I could stay,” Ellard said. “I’ve had other professors tell me that Michigan is for the leaders and best and when I became a parent I forfeited that opportunity.”

Sociology professor Barbara Anderson, who is collaborating with the University of Michigan’s Center for the Education of Women+ on issues surrounding student parents, said professors may not understand the situation student parents are in. 

“Some faculty see it as their choice to be parents, and I don’t think that’s the right way to think about it, and I don’t think it’s helpful,” Anderson said. 

The University does not maintain statistics on the number of student parents on campus — many choose to not self-report, Ellard said, and the most recent survey information that is publicly available is from 2005. The Center for the Education of Women+ has estimated student parents make up about 1.5 percent of the student body, with the majority at the graduate level, according to CEW+ Director Tiffany Marra. 

Nationally, student parents make up a significant population of college students, representing more than 1 in every 5 undergraduates. About 70 percent of those student parents are mothers. Of the 3.8 million undergraduate student parents in the country, approximately 17 percent attend public, 4-year universities like the University of Michigan. 

“Certainly there’s a large enough population, at the undergraduate level, even, where it shouldn’t be ignored,” Marra said.

Marra said student parents face large-scale, systemic challenges on campus, and their lack of visibility influences the way the University allocates its resources and offers support. 

“There seems to be a perception on campus that students here, their life is committed to just school, and that they don’t have responsibility outside of school, which just isn’t true for students with children,” Marra said. “They’re a hidden population. Being hidden, people don’t think about you first. They expect you to accommodate to the system that’s been built for the majority.”

According to Anderson, the University has been reluctant to take action on behalf of student parents, in part because the administration has little idea how many student parents attend the University and hasn’t taken many steps to find out. 

“They want evidence-based programs, which is a good idea in general, but they don’t know how many there are and they aren’t being very innovative in finding out how many there are, so it’s kind of like you run around in a circle,” Anderson said. “They need to think about it more seriously.”

Anderson added the University has been active with its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts but tends to talk about identities students hold as separate from one another. 

“A lot of the problems and challenges people face are all interconnected,” Anderson said. “They’re related to older students, they’re related to students who have gone back to school, they’re sometimes related to race, and they are related to low socioeconomic status. You can’t effectively talk about all these things in isolation.”

CEW+ works closely with student parents, offering confidential counseling and advocating for students with children. In supporting student parents, one issue CEW+ focuses on is affordability. For the last 50 years, the center has offered a scholarship to students who have gaps in their education or have dependent children. According to Marra, CEW+ gave out about half a million dollars through the scholarship last year, and expects to disburse $600,000 this coming year. She estimates more than 40 percent of qualified applicants receive the scholarship, with an average award of $7,000 each. 

LSA student Kerrigan Fitzpatrick, who will graduate in May with a degree in psychology and lives with her daughter in Ann Arbor, said she’s generally impressed by the University’s financial resources, though she is unable to account for her dependent child in her financial aid applications.

Fitzpatrick said one helpful scholarship is the Office of Financial Aid’s child care subsidy. With the high cost of child care in Ann Arbor, however, the subsidy doesn’t quite make ends meet. 

“It’s such a huge help, but the only thing is it covers half a semester’s worth of day care, and for a day care that’s the cheapest I found in Ann Arbor,” Fitzpatrick said. 

Child care is a central concern for student parents, and isn’t easy to find. Ellard noted the Towsley Children’s House on Central Campus has a two-year waitlist and gives preference to graduate students. She agreed the child care subsidy has been a big help with paying for day care for her son, though she said last semester the funds were delivered a month late. 

The Office of the Provost also allocates “emergency funds” to CEW+, which can be used to support student parents. Ellard said labeling these scholarships “emergency funds” on the Students with Children website is misleading, because many students might not realize it applies to them.

“The biggest problem is that financial aid for student parents is categorized as emergency aid,” Ellard said. “If I’m a freshman, and I’m a parent, I had a kid in high school, and I’m looking at that website, I’m not thinking that me having a child is an emergency.” 

In general, Ellard said it was challenging to find sources of financial aid through the University when she returned to school as a student parent.

“It was damn near impossible to get financial aid without making an unbelievable amount of phone calls and asking the same questions over and over and over again,” she said. “I’m really blessed to have parents who have helped support me and to have a boyfriend who can work and who has a degree and a full-time job, but I know there’s plenty of parents out there who don’t.”

The high cost of living in Ann Arbor can also present a challenge when it comes to supporting a family. Especially because child care is so expensive in Ann Arbor, Marra said many student parents may choose to live elsewhere and commute, adding stress to their academic lives. 

“Now they’re a commuter, as well as a student with a kid, which is now two challenges that can get in the way of their academic success,” she said. 

For student parents who do live in Ann Arbor, typical student housing often isn’t the best fit. Fitzpatrick, who found out she was pregnant between her sophomore and junior years, took a year and a half off, then found housing with three other women near Main Street after returning to school. She said the house was not an ideal environment for her young child.

Fitzpatrick now lives in family housing in Northwood, which she says is a better living situation for her daughter. Senior Associate Director for University Housing Amir Baghdadchi said Northwood IV and V offer family-friendly amenities such as multiple bedrooms, in-unit washers and dryers, school buses, playgrounds, community centers and close access to one of the University’s day care centers. One of the main benefits, he said, is a vibrant community of kids — there’s even trick-or-treating on Halloween.

“If you’re a kid, the action’s not at Stadium, you’re not going to do anything down there,” Baghdadchi said. “We want to make sure that from their point of view, it’s a rich, interesting experience.”

Though Fitzpatrick and her daughter have benefited from Northwood family housing, she said it’s difficult to pay her $1,200 monthly rent as a single mom. 

“It’s so nice, there’s kiddos running around, it’s so quiet, it’s an ideal family housing, but it’s so expensive,” Fitzpatrick said.

Finances aside, another major concern for student parents is balancing multiple commitments. LSA student Lyss Shumaker — who transferred to U-M in 2017, took time off for her pregnancy, and returned in 2018 when her daughter, Violet, was 9 weeks old — said she almost dropped out. 

“It was so difficult to balance being a new parent and being a full-time student,” Shumaker said. “I remember being up in the middle of the night with her because she was still a newborn, and I was just studying stats.”

Shumaker, who will graduate in May with a degree in psychology, said extracurricular meetings are difficult to schedule because she’s taking care of a young child with her own needs and an early bedtime.

“Sometimes it can be hard for other students to understand the extent of the responsibilities,” Shumaker said. “For example, if we have a project that we need to work on, it can be hard to be like, well I have a one-hour slot here.” 

In brainstorming ideas for how the University could better accommodate student parents, Ellard said it’s important to confront deep-seated misconceptions about what a successful Wolverine looks like. 

“I think it’s way more political than anything, I don’t think it really has to do with resources,” Ellard said. “I hate to say it, because I love U of M and I bleed maize and blue, but I really think it’s the stereotypical UMich snobbery of, ‘You have to be a certain type of person that goes here.’ They preach their diversity, but I feel like their diversity has a boundary.”

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Building a community for undergraduate student parents

In light of the lack of sufficient support described to The Daily by undergraduate student parents at the University of Michigan, students with children are advocating for their needs on campus, bolstered by the Center for the Education of Women+. 

LSA students Alexandra Ellard, Lyss Shumaker and Kerrigan Fitzpatrick are moving forward with advocacy on campus, building community among undergraduate student parents and pushing for greater support from the University.

As student parents themselves, Ellard, Shumaker and Fitzpatrick, alongside other student parents, are focusing on expanding available resources and making sure future student parents feel welcome on campus. They are working to establish a group for undergraduate students with children. 

Shumaker said during her first semester she felt as if she were the only student parent at U-M. 

“There was no network of other student parents that I could reach out to,” Shumaker said. “When I transferred in, my adviser gave me a list of lactation rooms on campus, but that was the extent of the University’s support of me as a student mom. At that time, I felt very isolated on campus.”

The budding student parent group had its first meeting at the end of last semester. Shumaker said she hopes student parents will be able to connect and advocate for their needs together.

“As we find each other in the dark corners of the University, we’re trying to build a community,” Shumaker said. “We had our first meet up a few weeks ago, and it was small, but one of the goals that we’re trying to accomplish is just, let’s start with the stories, let’s start with the experiences of student parents and see where the needs truly are.”

Unfortunately, Ellard said, it can be hard to recruit student parents to the group because many are hesitant to come forward, and CEW+ cannot reveal names since its counseling is confidential. 

“Because of the social stigma on campus about having children, and the fear of being treated differently by professors and administration, a lot of parents don’t identify as parents because they just don’t want people to know,” Ellard said. 

Ellard’s dream is to launch a nonprofit supporting student parents at U-M, since the University doesn’t have a center devoted to connecting student parents with resources. She noted Michigan State University does. Ellard plans to start identifying potential donors next semester. 

Fitzpatrick and Shumaker are also working to secure funding from optiMize for a project with two main goals: student parent advocacy and child care support. Shumaker said optiMize has been supportive of their ideas thus far. 

The first goal of the project is to create a document outlining what student parents can reasonably ask of their professors in terms of accomodations. According to Shumaker, her professors have generally been supportive, but there are no formal guidelines detailing what academic support student parents can ask for. There is a policy in place for graduate student parents.

“It’s really up to the whims of specific GSIs and professors,” Shumaker said. “We’re really banking on the kindness of humanity at this point.”

Ellard said one area where the lack of clear guidelines stands out is child care emergencies. There is a backup child care service through the University, but according to Sociology professor Barbara Anderson, that service is not as immediately available as students would like. Ellard said it is often impossible to know what to do if a day care is closed and a professor is not flexible, for instance. 

“I can’t attend class remotely, I’ve had professors tell me that my kid’s not allowed in class,” Ellard said. “What are my other choices, besides paying for a babysitter out of pocket, which most of us can’t afford?”

Anderson said not only do faculty need more information about student parents, but student parents might also be more willing to ask for help if there were a center — analogous to the University’s Services for Students with Disabilities — to mediate and support conversations with their professors.

CEW+ Director Tiffany Marra said it is useful for students to know what is within their rights to ask of professors. CEW+ will be offering advocacy training as part of its academic coaching program, which will be launched within the next month and targets nontraditional students.

The second part of Shumaker and Fitzpatrick’s plan is founding a drop-in day care center on campus. Fitzpatrick said this day care would be very useful in the case of emergencies or late-night events on campus. 

“Last winter semester, I was taking statistics, and the exams are from 7 to 9 at night,” Fitzpatrick said. “Having some kind of staff that could be there to watch our kiddos while we’re taking an exam like that, or if there’s a snow day and the day cares close but U-M is still open and we still have classes, somewhere we could take our kids.”

Supplementing the efforts of students, Marra and Anderson will be attending a conference this month through the Aspen Institute to learn about best practices for accommodating student parents. Anderson said they hope to gain a sense of the steps other institutions are taking.

Lastly, CEW+ and U-M student parents are discussing the possibility of allowing students with children to register for classes early. Shumaker said this would help student parents work out their schedules early on.  .

“One of the things that I wish U-M would allow student parents to do is have an early registration period so that we could legitimately figure out our schedules in a way that works for us,” Shumaker said. 

Marra said early registration for undergraduate student parents would not place significant strain on the University, since there aren’t too many students in that category. 

“Given their responsibilities outside of school and the small population we’re talking about, it seems like that would be a reasonable accommodation to make sure that they can get their kids to child care, that they can choose classes that fit within their schedule, that they can make their work schedule work as well,” Marra said. 

As student parents at the University organize and envision ways to facilitate their work-life balance and build community, Shumaker said one of the most important points is for student parents to connect with one another. 

“I wasn’t sure that I could be a good mom and also be a full-time student, but I have been able to,” Shumaker said. “If there are other student parents out there, just believe in your power, but also look for other people to partner with.”

In general, Ellard hopes the University’s culture will shift to be more accepting of student parents. 

“If Michigan is for the leaders and best, and single moms and parents in general are some of the hardest workers ever, why are we not making this more of an atmosphere where parents are welcome?” Ellard said.