October 19, 2007

Some students juggle papers, exams, diapers

During an O-Week ice breaker, third-year Jake Earl told his house that he was a father. An abrupt silence seized the chatty room. “What?” someone sitting across from Earl shouted. “You know. A baby, they’re about this big,” responded Earl. Earl says that confused and disbelieving reactions are typical. They are often followed by questions: who, where, why, and – do you have pictures?

Undergraduate pregnancy and parenthood at the U of C are hardly common; most people wandering campus with young children in tow are either babysitters or graduate school students. Yet, while the University, which does not keep track of such rare occurrences, cannot provide statistical figures for the number of undergraduate parents or for their class breakdown, the reality is that a minority population of undergraduate student parents– both mothers and fathers– exists.

According to Susan Art, dean of students in the College, in a given year, only a handful of U of C students take a leave of absence to give birth and care for a baby, although among those, almost all eventually return to earn their B.A.s. The student parents interviewed for this article take on full course loads, raising their children while juggling the pressures of classes and jobs, or make the difficult decision to leave their children at home with parents, traveling back and forth whenever possible.

Fourth-year Denise Hill, who had her son at the end of her second year and took two years off before coming back to finish her degree this fall, wakes up her fiancé, who works 10- to 12-hour days to support her and their son, at 6 a.m. She cleans their home, she gets herself ready for class, and readies her son for his day. Soon, her mother arrives, freeing up a few precious hours (Hill’s mother can only babysit in the morning) for morning classes. After school, Hill goes home, puts her son down for a nap, runs errands, makes dinner, washes dishes, and puts her son to bed. She gets to her homework around 10 p.m. and doesn’t go to bed until between one and three in the morning.

Emily, a fourth-year whose name has been changed because she requested anonymity, had her baby at the end of her third year, returning to campus in the fall to finish her studies, leaving her son with her parents. She calls her mother multiple times a day to check on her son, but still, the decision to come back to the University was trying. Transferring was not an option—she only had a year left.

“I came back partly knowing that if I don’t finish my education now, I won’t ever finish it,” said Emily.

In most cases, these pregnancies are accidental. As Emily put it, “no one in their right mind would choose to have a child in their 20s.”

For Hill, there was no question about whether she would have her son after she discovered her pregnancy. Her family, however, had mixed emotions.

“The emotions ran the gamut,” Hill said in an e-mail interview. “Any anger that we received was less about my being pregnant and more so about them letting go of little Denise. I was the baby in my family, not only in my immediate family, but in my extended family as well. I was like the baby sister even to my aunt and uncles, and what was hard for them wasn’t that I was pregnant, but that I was a young woman, who was now about to become a mother.”

Earl found out that his now ex-girlfriend, who was finishing her senior year of college, was pregnant when he was a senior in high school. His daughter, Sophie, and her mother live outside Atlanta. Knowing that he would be a father, Earl did not withdraw his application from the U of C. He knew early on that to study philosophy he would have to leave home. And while Earl has not swayed from his desire to study philosophy—he is also considering graduate school—the baby intensifies the pressure to succeed.

“I’m here, studying what I want to study, but Sophie ups the ante about everything—so if I were to flunk out and not make it here as an undergraduate, before it was ‘I flunked out. So what? I can start over.’ But the stakes are a lot higher now, there’s a lot more pressure to succeed,” said Earl, who works part-time, sending half his income home. During the summer, Earl goes home and works night jobs that allow him to spend most of the daylight hours with his daughter.

Even harder is the search for University-sponsored aid made available to undergraduate student parents. Many of the services are directed toward graduate students and are not widely advertised to the undergraduate population.

“The University is simply not prepared to handle this kind of thing,” Earl said. “I think it’s simply because you have families from high-income brackets. Students from high-income brackets usually come here, so [the University] doesn’t have the resources to deal with things that come along with low income, such as teen pregnancy. Maybe it’s not something the University has thought to look at because not a lot of its students have that experience.”

“Since there are so few undergraduates beginning families, we do not have formal programs in place in the College. However, there are many neighborhood programs (day care, support groups, and so forth) that we try to connect our students with,” Art said in an e-mail interview. Students also have the option of taking advantage of the University’s leave of absence policy.

Where financial aid is concerned, students like Earl who enroll as parents are considered dependents until the age of 24, and their eligibility for aid is considered based on the information provided by their parents. A student may, however, petition the Committee on College Aid for adjustments to the student budget to include child care costs, said Alicia Reyes, director of the Office of College Aid, in an e-mail.

The Family Resource Center on South University Avenue is one such resource. Funded by the University of Chicago’s Women’s Board and run by the Office of Graduate Affairs, the center opened its doors to student parents in the fall of 2006. The center features a playroom, a meeting room for parents, and a changing room with free diapers. The center also provides free clothing for young children and mothers-to-be.

“We saw the need for this among graduates and applied for a two-year grant,” Natalie Tilghman, sssistant director of the Office of Graduate Affairs said. “But you don’t have to be a graduate student to come.” The only requirement for parents seeking the services of the Family Resource Center is registered student status.

While the advertisement for the center has been directed toward graduate students, the center knows that there are some undergraduate student parents, and actively tries to alert them to the center’s existence by sending out e-mails, distributing fliers, and maintaining contact with academic advisers.

The center, which has a 300-member listhost and is visited by more than 500 graduate students and a handful of undergrads, offers low-cost weekly classes, a parenting discussion group, and other weekly family activities and parent education lectures.

“We try to facilitate community building and networking. Thirteen languages are spoken here, and some of our programming is funded by the Student Government,” Tilghman said.

For Hill, the Family Resource Center has been an invaluable outlet.

“Since I’ve been back the Family Resource Center has been huge,” said Hill. “It is good to be around other people who are going through what you’re going through. If I’m on campus late, or I have to come back to campus, I’ll take [my son] there, so he can play, or I’ll take him there and give him a snack.”

Regardless of the available resources, for Emily, the transition from undergraduate student to undergraduate student parent was a trying one.

“Being a student mother is kind of like being a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I have the title of being an undergrad student, but I don’t feel like an undergrad student,” Emily said.