Frustrated with lack of support, graduate student parents search for solution
March 6, 2015
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Matilda Stubbs faces struggles that many single parents deal with.
The 31-year-old juggles caring for her toddler son, working multiple jobs and managing a tight budget. Stubbs and her son qualify for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, which is similar to food stamps, and are currently searching for a good childcare program.
But unlike other single parents, Stubbs is also a student in Northwestern’s doctoral program. A seventh-year anthropology student, Stubbs is on track to graduate in 2016. She has a host of jobs: consulting for the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching, mentoring as a graduate fellow in the Brady Scholars Program in Ethics and Civil Life, teaching a class through the School of Professional Studies and, on top of everything else, working on a dissertation. Last quarter, she said, she also taught classes at Loyola University Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“I’m the only single parent that I’m aware of in my department currently,” she said. “Since I’ve been here I’m the only mother in my department that’s the provider or the breadwinner.”
Being a student parent has a specific set of challenges, Stubbs said. Childcare, health insurance and spaces for breast pumping are “key” to providing adequate resources for pregnant or parenting students – all things, Stubbs said, many student parents feel the University does not do enough to change.
A change in policy
In its 2011-2012 annual report, NU’s Graduate Leadership Council, a student-comprised group, surveyed graduate students. Almost 14 percent of the survey’s respondents were parents or are planning to be parents during their time at the University.
Starting Jan. 1, University leave benefits expanded to allow staff members whose partners have recently given birth 10 to 12 weeks of paid leave. Before the policy change, only mothers who had just given birth were allowed leave, which totaled only six to eight weeks. The new policy also gives four weeks of paid leave to staff members who have recently adopted children.
The University was recently awarded a Seal of Distinction from the WorldatWork Alliance for Work-Life Progress for improvement in its policy for supporting its employees and their families.
“This honor is a ringing endorsement of what many of us already know about Northwestern: It’s a wonderful place to work,” said Pamela Beemer, vice president for human resources, in a news release Wednesday. “When talented individuals are supported in their work-life needs, they are more able to be fully productive and perform at their highest levels.”
Currently, The Graduate School policy grants a six-week “academic accommodation period” — but only to graduate student mothers who have recently given birth. For women supported by funding like fellowships or teaching assistantships at the time of childbirth, the leave is paid.
Stubbs said it isn’t enough. She referenced public universities that view graduate students as employees and said NU should follow suit.
“I pay employment taxes to Northwestern,” she said. “I pay the IRS. I get sent a W-2 from Northwestern. They contend that we are this hybrid category and that we’re not employees … If I have to pay taxes then I’m not exempt from the political and economic responsibilities of being a staff member.”
Taking change into their own hands
Frustrated with unchanging policies and a lack of resources, a group of graduate student parents decided to take action and form the NU Student Parent Alliance last year. A fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the School of Communication, Robin Hoecker said she and others created the group to lobby the University, rather than just their individual departments, for more support for student parents. Although the group is happy the University is being recognized for its progress with policies for faculty and staff, “we remain disappointed that these benefits are not being extended to all members of the Northwestern community,” the alliance said in a news release Thursday.
Hoecker, 34, has a six-month-old daughter and an employed spouse. She said the group met with Graduate School officials in December, but to no avail.
The group comprises a variety of students. Some are single, in relationships or married. Others are international students who face additional financial difficulty when deciding whether to bring their children to the United States. Still others are not even parents yet, Hoecker said, but “recognize it’s a problem.”
“They are thinking about kids and recognize that it may not affect them now, but it may in the future,” she said. “It’s been a learning experience for me, hearing their stories and seeing the issues they face, a lot of things I never would have thought about.”
The main issues student parents are concerned with are well-documented on the Student Parent Alliance’s website, which features anonymous testimonies by student parents about their experiences. Hoecker has also written on the subject, most recently in an article in The Huffington Post.
Currently, Hoecker said, the University has five advertised lactation spaces on the Evanston Campus and two on the Chicago Campus available for nursing mothers to pump breast milk, although there are other unofficial locations. Nursing mothers have to pump at least a few times during the workday, and Hoecker said the relative lack of rooms is inconvenient at best and embarrassing at worst, when inability to reach a room results in leakage. In contrast, Stanford University, of comparable size to NU, has 27 advertised lactation spaces.
Although finding lactation rooms wasn’t a huge problem for her, Stubbs said her health insurance company would not approve a breast pump for her and she was forced to use a hand-me-down.
Stubbs’ situation brings up additional issues of insurance. According to the Student Parent Alliance website, with the cost to add a dependent to a plan under Aetna Student Health, the NU-sponsored student health insurance, coverage can be difficult for student parents to shoulder.
“When I had my son, I was forced to have medical coverage go through Aetna … just to physically birth my son,” Stubbs said. “Of course since my income is very inconsistent, I have to redistribute, I have to budget, I have to predict, ‘I’m going to make this much.’”
Finally, Hoecker said, the difficulty to find quality, affordable childcare has been an obstacle. NU currently recommends several childcare facilities in Evanston for parenting students, but does not have an on-campus childcare option on either campus. Often, student parents rely on others within their own community to watch their children while they’re attending class or working.
“The amount of stress that people are under … I think it is a major problem just wondering about how you can afford childcare in Illinois, one of the most childcare expensive states,” she said. “There’s a major lack of childcare in Evanston. It’s really expensive and if you’re living on a very small stipend it’s very hard to make ends meet.”
Not ‘part of the culture’
Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, and under the 1972 federal law this includes pregnant and parenting students.
In an email to The Daily, Title IX Coordinator Joan Slavin said NU’s Policy on Discrimination and Harassment, which includes similar guidelines to Title IX, is publicly available to all members of the NU community. On behalf of Lori Anne Henderson, director of work and life resources in the human resources department, Slavin said the University has “invested significant resources in making quality, affordable childcare available to students, staff and faculty.”
According to Slavin, 60 graduate students use the University’s recommended childcare programs near both campuses, and one-third of them receive childcare subsidies from NU.
“At present, there are mothers’ rooms throughout the campus, and there is a plan to incorporate them into any new construction on campus,” Slavin wrote on Henderson’s behalf.
As of Thursday evening, a Graduate School representative could not be reached for comment.
Beyond the obvious physical challenges of being a student parent, Hoecker said, there lies a deeper problem: a lack of institutional understanding or support. That, coupled with women’s fear they won’t be taken as seriously within academia if they have children, makes discussing parenthood not “part of the culture” of graduate school, she said.
“You’re not supposed to talk about parenting,” she said. “We’re here to focus on research … If you’re worried about who’s going to look after your kids and how you’re going to pay all your bills that month, it makes it hard to focus on your research.”
Students, parents — but not employees
However, NU’s student parents have developed a camaraderie. Brooke Foucault Welles, who graduated with a Ph.D. from the School of Communication in 2012, said she and other student parents took turns looking after one another’s children. Through programs organized by The Graduate School, such as monthly outings for student parents and their families, she said it was easier to find a network to share information that is often not made clear to students.
Looking forward, Hoecker said the Student Parent Alliance plans to hold meetings with relevant departments, including Human Resources, the Office of the Provost, the Women’s Center and the Division of Student Affairs. She said student parents will give a presentation that addresses the group’s grievances and propose solutions.
Ultimately, Stubbs said, the issues come down to a dissonance between many graduate students’ status as employees of the University and the resources accessible to them.
“It’s disappointing to feel I’m a partial member of the campus community,” she said. “We’re not treated 100 percent like students or 100 percent like employees. I think that blurs a lot of lines, including what we should have access to when we’re in our childbearing years.”