November 21, 2006

Student-parents flock to family center

For those graduate students pulling double duty as parents, the U of C campus hasn’t always been the most accommodating to their young children’s needs. Now, nearly two months after the University opened the long-awaited Family Resource Center, student-parents are pleased to receive a helping hand.

Michael Anderson, a graduate student in music and father of 14-week-old Alex and 22-month-old Madison, has been involved with the formation of the Family Resource Center for about a year, a place he describes as “an oasis for student-parents.”

Anderson said the creation of the Center, which opened October 2 and is located on the second floor of University Church at East 57th Street and South University Avenue, has exceeded his expectation of what any university, much less the University of Chicago, could offer to student-parents.

“The money they’ve invested in actual toys and books is incredible, and that they’ve had parents themselves choose them is just so smart,” he said. “[My wife and I] didn’t know the possibilities….There are diapers available here, as well as changing and lactation stations—it’s just totally beyond the call of duty.”

The Center provides a host of free services, activities, and events for families. It houses a playroom stocked full of new books, toys, and furniture for infants and young children, and is open weekdays during the academic year. Various parent groups also use the playroom for weekly activities that range from toddler cooking classes to family playgroups and multicultural celebrations.

In addition, the Center offers a wide range of amenities, such as information kiosks on local schools, used books and baby clothes, places for parents to check their e-mail, and hot coffee.

Natalie Tilghman, assistant director of the Office of Graduate Affairs (OGA) and one of the Center’s main administrators, explained that the Center also helps facilitate alternative babysitting opportunities for student-parents.

“Many student-parents cannot afford traditional child-care options, but are able to watch one another’s children at the Center while one of them goes to the library or gym if the same favor is extended to them,” Tilghman said.

Becky Plant, whose husband is a postdoctoral student, takes her 14-month-old son Dylan to the Center almost every week.

“There aren’t that many places in Hyde Park to take kids,” Plant said. “We’ve met new people here, and I think it’s good for Dylan to mix with kids of different ages too.”

Initial plans for the Center spanned several years, entailing collaborative efforts between parents and administrators. In 2004, the OGA held a conference titled “Do Babies Matter?” The conference drew an unexpectedly large audience, including a few babies, and participants discussed research on women in academia and the career effects of starting a family.

“Based on overwhelming feedback from the workshop, it became apparent that something needed to be done to support the University’s 500------–600 student-parents. OGA took steps to meet some of these needs,” Tilghman said.

The OGA subsequently helped form the Student Parent Group (SPG), as well as a parent e-mail listserv and website. The SPG and the OGA also created a semi-weekly playgroup and worked in conjunction with students to create a babysitting cooperative and other family activities.

With the success of these activities, the OGA helped SPG apply for Registered Student Organization (RSO) status, which was granted in the spring of 2004. During the 2005–2006 academic year, OGA expanded services to student families by hosting free, weekly parent/child activities and a parent education lecture series.

In May 2006, the Women’s Board awarded the OGA a two-year grant totaling approximately $43,000, covering many of the costs associated with starting the Center.

“The Women’s Board was interested in this project because of its potential to make the academy a friendlier place for scholars with families, and women scholars in particular,” Tilghman said.