ADVANCING EQUITY AND INNOVATION IN HIGHER EDUCATION

Community, Care, and Advocacy: Discussions on Parenting While Earning a Degree

On the morning of Monday, March 25th, 2024 The Futures Initiative invited CUNY graduate students, faculty and staff to gather and have a frank, moving, and important conversation about the joys and challenges of earning a degree while being a parent. Panelists shared resources and personal narratives while participants opened up about their own struggles and received information that both validated and contextualized their own experiences. 

The event’s take-home message was clear: going to school while being a parent presents additional challenges and requires extra flexibility and resources that are not always provided on the institution level. However, there are many members of the CUNY community who are in the same boat and are willing to help and share resources in meaningful ways, all you have to do is ask.

The event opened with FI Executive Director, Adashima Oyo, saying a few words about the Futures Initiative and all that we do. She highlighted that our work extends across CUNY campuses and incorporates undergraduates as well as graduate students, faculty and staff. Dr. Oyo then introduced Senior Postdoctoral Research Associate, Dr. Christina Katopodis, who moderated the event. Dr. Katopodis opened with warm welcomes and introduced the panelists for the morning’s event, Dr. Arielle Shanok, Dr. Meredith Manze, Parisa Osmanovich, Estefany Gonzaga, and our very own Roderick Hurley.

What can the Wellness Center do for you?

Dr. Arielle Shanok, who has been serving the GC community for the past 14 years and is currently the Director of the CUNY Graduate Center’s Wellness Center and a licensed clinical psychologist, kicked off the panel with her presentation about the Wellness Center at the GC. She started on a positive note, highlighting that 5-10% of graduate students are parents and that it IS possible to do graduate school while being a parent.

Dr. Arielle Shanok shares a positive message on graduating while being a parent

She then highlighted the good, the bad, and the ugly of parenting in graduate school, emphasizing positives like children giving parents perspective when it comes to bumps in the graduate school journey, parents being better equipped to prioritize and be productive while accommodating their childrens’ schedules, and parents having more time with their children than people with traditional 9-5 jobs. She did not shy away from talking about the struggles though, highlighting the financial strain of supporting a family on a grad student budget, constantly juggling 3 full time jobs (parent, student, work), and parents not always being able to perform at their best with all that they have going on. Self-compassion was mentioned as the best strategy for coping with these struggles; allow yourself to be “good enough”, be realistic with goals and timelines (understanding that sometimes life will get in the way), and set boundaries and ask for help.

Dr. Shanok then went into some of the ‘help’ that parenting graduate students could receive from the Wellness Center, including short term individual counseling, couples counseling, group counseling, academic consultations, and more. The Wellness Center also offers a number of Academic Support Groups, like the Graduate Parent Academic Support Group, The Asian/Black/Latinx/First Generation/LGBTQIA+ Graduate Student Acadmic Support Groups, the Grief Support Group etc. She ended her presentation with a plug for a book that the Wellness Center is giving students for free entitled, Thriving in Graduate School. The book includes a wonderful chapter that “might make you cry, in a good way” about parenting as a grad student, so drop by the Wellness Center at the GC to grab a free copy. 

The Wellness Center at the Graduate Center is located at 365 5th Avenue, Suite 6422. You can contact them by phone at +1-212-817-7020 and by email at wellness@gc.cuny.edu.   

What does the research say?

Next Up, Dr. Meredith Manze, Associate Professor and Director of the Community Health and Health Policy PhD Program at the CUNY School of Public Health, spoke about her research looking into how to better support CUNY Parenting Students. Dr. Manze’s research, which has most recently been influenced by her experience teaching with children and watching her students go through school with children, addresses and explores the barriers facing parenting students while proposing strategies to better support them in their academic journey. A 2018 survey run by the Healthy CUNY initiative found that 14% of undergraduate students were parents, and of these 14%, most parents were females. Around 30% of parenting undergrads found that childcare interfered with their schooling, ~20% worried about food and housing security, and their mental and physical health, ~25% had an annual income under $20,000, while ~60% worked full time, and despite all these challenges and concerns, the mean GPA for this group was an impressive 3.21. 

Parenting students are continually expected to self-advocate and request accommodations for things like extended child care hours, food subsidies, assignment deadline extensions and other things. At some CUNY institutions, parenting resources operate in silos, leaving students virtually unaware of the resources and offerings available to them. Flexibility with seemingly strict campus policies (i.e., no childcare provided outside of class time, no kids on campus outside of the childcare center, etc.) was possible, but only to students who asked, and while most parents did not want to seem like a burden by asking for more accommodations, those decisions were ultimately in the hands of the people in positions of power (e.g., professors, childcare center staff and administrators, etc.). This culture of expecting parenting students to advocate for themselves in order to access resources and accommodations seems misaligned with the parenting student experience, in which a majority of parenting students may feel uncomfortable asking for accommodations because they see parenthood as their ‘burden’, something they may be judged for and something that only they themselves should have to deal with. 

Dr. Meredith Manze shares quotes from parenting student participants from her research.

Some recommendations that Dr. Manze and colleagues suggest CUNY implement to better support parenting students include systematically identifying parenting students to streamline available resources towards them, providing parenting student specific scholarships and programs, centralizing benefits, especially those that address food security and housing, presenting clear policies and information to reduce the burden on students to self-advocate, extending childcare hours and capacity, faculty being more accommodating, and including parenting students as research advisors in relevant research.

What do the personal experiences of parenting students tell us?

5th year doctoral student, Parisa Osmanovich, began the conversation with our parenting students by recounting her own experience of raising 4 children and being in graduate school during the Covid-19 pandemic. Her first child was born when she was starting her Master’s degree, and so she shared that she never really had the time to be a “full-time parent” (though, she admitted, you’re always a full-time parent). She continued on the theme of time by speaking about how gender, societal norms and expectations, and other societal judgements value people’s time differently. 

“Up until this last year, I’m in my 5th year of my PhD I’ve been teaching full-time since 2021, I was referred to as a non-working parent, like I had members of my family saying ‘Oh but you don’t work, you don’t work, and I don’t even know how to refer to that. If it were any one of our kids who was being spoken to that at school, we’d say that’s bullying”, Osmanovich recounted.

Even differences in the type of degree you’re pursuing as a parent may be perceived and valued differently. Whereas completing an undergraduate degree may be seen as necessary, completing a graduate degree may be perceived as ‘superfluous’. She highlighted that differences in the ages of a parenting student’s children can have a big impact as well. School aged children who you can say bye to at 9am and hello again at 3pm give parents a large chunk of time to work independently, however a lot of events in academia are planned outside of that 9-3 or 9-5 window, effectively excluding parents who would need to make extra arrangements to find childcare during those times. A number of logistical barriers related to childcare make pursuing a degree while parenting even more difficult, but having fellow parents and allies who are willing to pitch in and ‘move the needle forward’ in terms of alleviating the burdens of parenting, food and housing insecurity, and financial stress is crucial to making the academic playing field more equitable and diverse.

Dr. Christina Katopodis shares her experiences at the UWFF Panel. Left to Right: Dr. Meredith Manze, Estefany Gonzaga, Roderick Hurley, Christina Katopodis

Christina Katopodis chimed in with her own experience “as a teacher, being a parent helped me think about how to make accommodations for all of my students, not just my students who are parents. Thinking about accommodations in terms of the ‘Curb-Cut Effect’ where we cut the curb so that not just someone with a wheelchair can go on and off the sidewalk benefits, but someone who’s carrying packages, or a suitcase, or children- anyone, everyone benefits from the Curb-cut effect”. This example highlighted how enacting policies that benefit parenting students can have unintended positive consequences for non-parenting students as well. 

Assistant Director of FI and parenting PhD Student, Rod Hurley, spoke next about his experience being a father of 5 in graduate school. His daughter Genesis was present in the audience in support of her father, who talked first about only being able to start his school work at night after his kids were asleep and getting his writing done at 2 am. He talked about the unique struggle of being a male in this traditionally female-dominated parenting space and emphasized that sometimes fathers take on the role of being the primary caregiver. 

Gender roles and expectations can differ a lot, what people expect from a mother, what people expect from a father can differ a lot. Our experiences can differ a lot as well, as Parisa mentioned, so policies can only go so far- it’s about reaching out to people on an individual level,” Hurley mused. “The support that you get from your colleagues, from your professors and so on goes a long way to making [the academic journey] manageable and doable”.

Roderick Hurley explains what it’s like to be a father while earning your PhD

Estefany Gonzaga, CUNY Master’s Student & Parent, closed out the panel with a moving and passionate recounting of her own experiences as a mother of two restarting her academic journey at LaGuardia Community College back in 2012 after initially dropping out in 2007. “Foundations. Foundations. LaGuardia Community College is my foundation because when I was at LaGuardia I learned how to advocate for myself, I learned how to take advantage of the resources available for me. I met my mentor, who was also a single mom, and who was navigating college just like I was. […] For me that was really important knowing that there is a community of people to support you, especially someone you can relate to,”. 

Estefany Gonzaga recounts her time as a mother of two at LaGuardia Community College.

Her mentor pushed her to continue her education even after a death in the family threatened her stability and years later, after Estefany graduated from LaGuardia and started at Baruch College, she worked as a mentor in the Student Success Mentor program at LaGuardia and later in the CUNY Peer Leaders program, here at the Graduate Center. After meeting and mentoring so many CUNY students in a similar position to her, she created a video called ‘My Mom Has a Bookbag” to encourage other parenting students to continue on in their academic pursuits and to highlight the pride that their children feel towards them. “You’re their inspiration to keep succeeding. […] I just want to make sure that my children can see that [my academic journey] is much bigger and something for them to be inspired by”!

Estefany’s last anecdote brought back the theme of advocacy and community to wrap up the session. She talked about the time she had to present her ‘My Mom Has a Bookbag’ video for one of her classes at Baruch. She had run into some childcare issues and had to bring her children to class, but her professor was extremely understanding and accommodating and when Estefany was having a hard time getting onto campus with her children, her professor came down to the campus gate and advocated for her, insisting that campus security allow her and her children onto campus for her presentation. This was a pivotal moment for Estefany, who felt supported and understood the importance of advocating for her own students and for other parenting students in similar situations. 

The panel then opened up for questions and open discussion and the idea of building community shone through as one of the most important things a parenting student could do in support of their academic journey. 

This is America, so like, build your own village, you know, DIY, find those people in your life that you want close to you while you’re raising kids,” Arielle Shanok began, “set up safety nets everywhere you can and support networks and people who are going to cheer you on when you feel like you’re a terrible parent or a terrible student”.

Parisa Osmanovich built on this and highlighted the importance of finding and doing little things that bring you joy in your tedious day-to-day tasks. “Whether it’s folding a mountain of laundry or taking a crying baby for a walk, those are things that I have to do all the time, and yet, something that would have given me a little push in doing those things would have been listening to music. But because I felt so disjointed from who I used to be before I was a parent, I put this wall up between myself and music. I didn’t even sing for years and I was a singer, I went to a performing arts high school!”

Meredith Manze and Estefany Gonzaga emphasized the importance of advocating for yourself as a parenting student because sometimes the availability of resources or the policies around parenting are not clear at the institution level, but you’ll never know what’s there unless you ask.

A member of the audience then opened up about feeling like they were constantly disappointing every person in their academic journey and the struggles of asking for extensions on deadlines, feeling exhausted, not producing their best work and feeling like their entire identity is being a parent. This emotional and personal remark struck a chord with everyone in the room, and the immediate outpouring of support that came from not only the panelists, but from other participants in the room and on Zoom filled the room with a palpable feeling of care and compassion.

Admire yourself. Excuse the language, but you’re a bad*ss, you’re doing amazing and you’re doing things that a lot of folks wish they had the opportunity to do. Just acknowledge that power that you have within you and if you need to ask for those extensions, ask for them. You’re on the journey, stay on that journey, but remember to stay in touch with yourself. You got this!“ – Estefany Gonzaga.    

Watch the whole UWFF Parenting Event [HERE].

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