Renee Bennett, 30, says she recently watched on helplessly as doctors investigated her 2-year-old son, Taekyung. If it was a cold, Bennett knew how to handle it; a little Tylenol would combat the typical ills a child would get.
But this time, doctors eventually figured out that her son had a virus called gastroenteritis, which is an infection marked by diarrhea, cramps, nausea, vomiting and fever. He also had respiratory issues and thrush.
“You can become extremely overwhelmed, and it’s easier to nitpick at all the things you see yourself doing wrong,” says Bennett, a senior interdisciplinary studies major with a concentration in psychology and studio arts.
During this ordeal, Bennett says she did not see her 8-year-old daughter Jaidyn for a week. She missed a week’s worth of classes; assignments that would need to be made up. She is trying her best, she says, even if she feels like she is doing nothing right.
Bennett is a student and a parent, and she is not alone on campus. The university does not have data on how many others are in the same situation, but national studies show the number is climbing. Many of the student-parents at Southern said their duties are not 9 to 5 jobs, where they could check out at the end of the day.
There are nearly 5 million undergraduate students who are student-parents in the United States, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy, which advocates for low-income citizens.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, the number of student-parents in the United States climbed by 1.1 million, or 30 percent, from 3.7 million in 2004 to 4.8 million
In the New England area, the number of student-parents increased 20.3 percent between 2004–2012. The number that were attending in 2012 was 145,739, which comprises 17.8 percent of the college population in this region.
Bennett says her children come first, which means her higher education is, unfortunately, sometimes forced to be neglected out of necessity. Luckily, she says, all her professors have been understanding and willing to be flexible with her.
“That provided a little bit of a relief,” says Bennett. “They were very accepting that I would have the paperwork for them.”
Bennett says due to school policy the possibly of dropping out of school was part of her reality.
“The most challenging aspect is most definitely not having that extra person support and be there, to kinda counteract for when I’m not at my best,” Bennett says. “Of course, childcare is extremely expensive, not guaranteed and that also puts a kink into whether or not I get to classes on time or if I can get to classes at all.”
Bennett spoke about her children’s fathers not being part of their lives, and her life as a single mom. She says she is reliant on a Veteran Affairs’ stipend, but it is often delayed to where it does not arrive in time. She says the VA does not have any specific services targeted at student-parents, and they do have a reimbursement program but has found it to be ineffective in her case.
“You can’t reimburse something that you can’t pay for in the first place,” says Bennett. “Southern has a reimbursement program, but then I have to pay them first, bring them the paperwork. I don’t have money to pay for it then.”
Women’s Studies Professor Rosalyn Amenta is spearheading the charge to expand the school’s comprehension on this emerging demographic.
“There’s a need to create a stronger connection among them, so that they can form some kind of community,“ Amenta says. “Once they form a community, they can be involved in helping each other to solve the issues and overcome the hurdles that are for them. Also allow those of us at the university to provide whatever support, guidance or advice that we can to make their experiences here at Southern more positive. We want to be more supportive to this growing population. Now we’re beginning more of an outreach to try to identify them.”
Amenta says there is a need for a childcare facility.
“The most important service right now in terms of priority of need, I would say is a drop-off center where students can have their children stay while they are taking a class. And in doing so, this might alleviate some of the stress in having to find a babysitter,” says Amenta.
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, campus child care has declined at community colleges and public four-year institutions in 36 states. The same organization found the availability of campus child care declined from 55 percent in 2003 to 2005 to under half of all institutions in 2015. They concluded campuses with accessibility to child care would increase the degree attainment among student-parents, while those lacking such support or families could see detrimental results.
Amenta has been speaking with student-parents in regard to issues such as financial issues, scheduling issues, childcare, time management, gender discrimination in the workforce, medical issues, and more.
Angela Eklund Hunt, 27 and a single mom pursuing her second bachelor’s degree in psychology, has a son that is on the autism spectrum.
Eklund Hunt, a senior, says children on the spectrum require a lot of work, especially if they are young. She says despite the intensive work involved, it is rewarding to witness a child with autism blossom during a therapy session.
“What can happen is that it’s a lot a stress on the parent, especially for single parents,” said Eklund Hunt. “Sometimes you’re looking at high medical bills. Sometimes you’re looking at 20 to 30 hours of therapy a week. It’s often very intensive. So, being in a university setting as a student as for one our time is very, very limited.”
For most single parents she imagined it can be incredibly limiting but added it is more limiting if do you have a child with a disability.
“You can’t do as many things as you might be able to do if you’re just a parent,” she says. “I think that it goes for all single parents, that as students you’re going to have a more difficult time with scheduling, especially if you’re just starting out.”
She says she cannot imagine the challenge a freshmen student-parent having to navigate challenges without confidence as an experienced student-parent would have in facing such towering obstacles.
According to a College Students with Children study, which was conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, nearly a third of all undergraduate women are mothers, and a majority—roughly 2 million women, or 60 percent—of those are single mothers.
Robert Gonzalez, a sophomore studio art major, does not face the perils of single parenthood. His son Roman’s mother, who is now his ex, and his current wife help provide him support as a student-parent.
“We’re pretty good at co-parenting, I’ll do it sometimes when he’s sick. When it’s my day or when she [ex-wife] calls out, it’s been really good too. I’m fortunate to have someone to co-parent with,” says Gonzalez.
He says he commutes from Manchester, which he estimates to be a 45-minute journey, and he travels that route two days a week. His wife steps in to watch his son if he ever needs to come to the university for studio work.
He is also a veteran, and originally enrolled under the G.I. bill but is now on pension for disability.
“They help pay for supplies,” he says, “help with housing allowances and pay for tuition, which is great. I am fortunate to have a military pension, so I can go to school full time. Plus, the housing allowance which is great, and my wife also works full time.”
It helps, he says, that his son is a child more than a toddler, as a child requires less attention than toddlers. He does incorporate his son into his college career by allowing him to participate in his abstract art projects.
Amanda Figueroa, 27, says she would not have been able to pursue her educational goals, such as majoring in communication, without her family.
Figueroa, a senior, discussed the balancing act of her education and providing the attention her 6-year-old child craves. It can lead to frustrating scenarios for her, such as trying to accomplish homework assignments while her son is nagging her for attention. She is a single mother, but despite that, she says her biggest support is her family.
When she is working or at school,
her mother takes care of her son. The rest of the family contributes by filling
in the gaps of time to ensure he is taking care of while his mom is attending classes.
“The credit goes to my mother, since the beginning she has been the one to have paid for my classes. We paid out of pocket. I can’t get financial aid. So, she has been the one, to pay for my education,” she says.
Figueroa says she hopes to start contributing to her education since she has started working again.
“I do have a significant support from my mother, father, brother and sister. Mostly from my mother. She has been a big help for me. Without her, I don’t think I would be here for school,” Figueroa says.
By Jacob Waring