Earning a Degree When you Have Kids
Building student-centered supports for student-parents
By Erica Hernandez, Faculty Innovation Fellow Candidate from Bowie State University
As I rush into class a minute late, quickly logging into the instructor computer station, I suddenly hear the unexpected sound of a toddler squealing in delight. This adorable visitor is the two year old daughter of one of my students. The student gets her daughter settled into watching a video while also getting her own notebook out for class. Today, this student-parent is trying her best to balance caring for her daughter with pursuing her own education to create a better future for her growing family. There are a myriad of challenges that student-parents must overcome to earn a degree. How might we help student-parents to attain their educational goals while also honoring the importance of their role as parents?
“The Faculty Innovation Fellows (FIF) program has provided a great community for feedback, ideas and encouragement for this project. One of the best pieces of advice came from a Faculty Innovation Coach: ‘try stuff’.”
Student-parents make up approximately one in five college students in the United States, for a total of 3.8 million students (Ascend & IWPR, 2020). Student-parents frequently face barriers to graduation such as a lack of institutional resources geared towards students with children, challenges balancing family and school responsibilities, and feeling isolated and different from other students. However, it’s not all bad news: many student-parents find supportive faculty and staff at their institutions. Student-parents report that they are motivated to graduate because they want to set a good example for their children and gain financial independence for their family (Ajayi et al., 2022). At Bowie State University, I found that there are many individual faculty and staff who are supportive but there are no institutionalized services for student-parents. I decided to focus on creating a set of institutional supports to increase student success while ensuring that student-parents feel seen and valued.
The Faculty Innovation Fellows (FIF) program has provided a great community for feedback, ideas and encouragement for this project. One of the best pieces of advice came from a Faculty Innovation Coach: “try stuff.” I started by reaching out to faculty and staff who support students with different types of special needs to find allies with the power and willingness to support student-parents. I found campus partners whose existing services, from tutoring to medical and disability accommodations, might be adapted to meet the needs of student-parents. From this, I started building support among colleagues to propose a Student-Parent Resource Center. In July 2022, I will apply for a federal CCAMPIS grant to provide financial support for student-parent childcare expenses while also providing wraparound support services using existing campus resources. I am also working with colleagues at different institutions to create a research hub to compile existing research about student-parent support services and educational outcomes.
“I realized that an effort to support student-parents will be more impactful if the voices of student-parents are included from the beginning stages of design.”
Another essential concept that I learned through FIF at the 2022 Silicon Valley Meetup was “co-creation”. I realized that an effort to support student-parents will be more impactful if the voices of student-parents are included from the beginning stages of design. I have been honored to work with University Innovation Fellows who are student-parents themselves. They are very effective advocates for positive change for student-parents, and their voices have guided this effort. The Fellows also connected me with other student-parents to launch the Student-Parent Association. This will provide an opportunity for student-parents to connect with other students like them, reduce isolation, and advocate for impactful positive change on campus.
Over my first year in the FIF program, my project has taken a three-pronged approach to supporting student-parents: proposing institutional supports, starting a research hub to consolidate national efforts, and launching a student-organization to amplify the voices of student-parents. My vision is that all student-parents feel seen, valued and supported as they attain their educational goals. Creating these supports at a Historically Black College / University (HBCU) like Bowie State University elevates HBCU’s as part of the national conversation about student-parents. Considering the millions of student-parents in the United States, finding an effective, scalable solution for increasing student success among student-parents will have a dramatic impact on the education and financial independence of both the student-parents and their children.
This article was featured in the latest edition of the journal, Change Forward, published by the University Innovation Fellows program. Read the journal online here.
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