While in college, many students have found that to survive, one must become a semi-professional juggler who can skillfully keep their education, extra-curriculars, friends, fun and mental wellbeing aloft at the same time.
However, few manage to do so without dropping the ball on occasion and for students who aren’t just managing their lives but the lives of children, this juggling act becomes even more complex.
According to the United States Government Accountability Office’s 2019 Higher Education report, more than one in five undergraduate students are raising children, and about half of student parents left school without a degree.
Yet, the journey isn’t easy for those student parents who continue to pursue higher education. Student parents become master jugglers: juggling academics, daycare schedules, doctor’s appointments and much more.
Kenneshia Dallas, a freshman majoring in hospitality management, said parenthood has taught her many lessons about life, like how it’s okay to ask for help.
“You can’t do everything; you can’t be superwoman, and that’s okay,” Dallas said.
Dallas began college at the University of Alabama as a first-generation student in 2015. Yet she was unsure what she wanted to do, so she joined the military, but a week before she finished, Dallas found out she was pregnant.
She had her baby in 2018, and from there, she focused on working and figuring out what options she had for her future.
It wasn’t until the pandemic began in 2020 that she decided to pursue her education again. After talking to a UA advisor, Dallas began taking classes at Shelton State Community College to increase her GPA; then, she transferred back to The University of Alabama.
The pandemic was a catalyst for many. While Dallas decided to start back at that time, Christian Thomas, a junior majoring in news media, had just had her first baby and decided that it would be best if she didn’t participate in the Spring semester.
She said she decided not to do the semester because it was a transitional period for her as a new mother and as the pandemic swooped in, the semester and following months became a transition for everyone.
However, when classes began in person again, “it was still a big change,” and she realized that she preferred online classes because it allowed for more flexibility with her schedule than in-person classes offer, whether that’s with a commute or course schedules.
A need for flexibility with schedules, work and assignments is an issue many students have, but for students with children, there’s even more of a need for flexibility and balance.
“So with also being a parent, I have restless nights, I’m up late, I don’t get time to do stuff like homework on my own if I’m at the house, I have to do stuff outside of the house,” Thomas said. “I feel like there isn’t a way for us to balance out as mothers; homework assignments, class times, and also because the child needs your attention more than anything, especially the older they get. They want to create a bond with their parent. So it’s been kind of hard.”
Steven Hood, the University of Alabama’s interim vice-president of student life, said as a former student parent himself during graduate school, balancing the roles of parent and student, and sometimes even other roles on top of those, can be difficult. It’s important to give yourself grace as you navigate that time.
Thomas said the only way she can make it is through prayer, patience and therapy.
“Even if it was like once a week, I have therapy because it’s kind of hard finding your own voice sometimes and figuring out how to balance,” Thomas said.
She said that along with prayer, patience, and therapy, having a good support system is also important when finding balance.
“For me being a native of Tuscaloosa, my support system is all around. I have family and friends that I’ve grown up with that are around that can help me with my child, but a lot of other moms don’t have that,” she said. “So I feel like, for me, that’s been a really good privilege, but I know if I had gone somewhere else and had to do all this, it wouldn’t be a balance; it would be extremely hard.”
Hood said the best piece of advice he has for student parents is to build and rely on a support system, whether that’s family, a friend group, classmates, anyone who can encourage you to make progress.
However, a strong support system doesn’t have to be just family and friends. Many universities offer different programs and opportunities to help student parents achieve their goals.
According to UA’s Office for Academic Affairs, the University’s resources for parenting students include designated lactation rooms, a parent resource library in the Child Development Resource Center, a parenting assistance line and graduate school parent support, an organization whose goal is to provide support to students while also connecting them to the University and local community resources.
The Child Development Research Center also has the Children’s Program, a childcare service that serves 114 children from two months old to five years old.
Though these resources are listed on various UA sites, Dallas and Thomas said they were both aware of the Children’s Program; the other resources offered to student parents weren’t something they were aware of.
And though these resources might be at the University, with a lack of visibility, it has left Thomas feeling as if students like her are not considered.
“It feels like they accommodate the students who are just college students. They don’t see parents, pregnant women, even elderly people that go to UA, that aren’t in grad school,” Thomas said.
Jeremy Henderson, the director of student care and wellbeing, said there are resources for all students that student parents might want to use, like the UA Counseling Center. There are also other resources for student parents like the parent assistant line. Still, the University doesn’t directly offer a number of those resources so that might be why they aren’t visible to everyone.
However, Henderson said though some resources can be helpful, “there may be a number of unmet needs for” student parents, and he would love to learn more about them.
While programs themselves are extremely important, it’s also important to have faculty and staff who are understanding.
To help encourage that understanding, Hood said it’s important to communicate quickly and clearly with professors and advisors when you’re struggling.
Thomas said she’d had professors who have been helpful and worked with her; however, some weren’t as accommodating.
“Nowadays, in recent terms, I still have some professors who are understanding,” Thomas said. “But I still maybe have like one professor per semester that’s kind of like, ‘well, I still have this policy here,’ not really caring thinking their class is more important than my mental wellbeing and the fact that I have other needs outside of what they need.”
Dallas said she hasn’t felt any support from her professors, but she has felt support from her employer, Darrien Simmons, the UA student center’s director, who helped her when she was in crisis.
Not only is it important that student parents feel supported, there’s also a certain level of isolation that can creep in.
Dallas said she was walking around campus thinking she was the only student parent because of a lack of community.
“I don’t feel like women or even fathers on campus have a support system where they can go talk about their problems, look for people who can help them,” Thomas said. “I feel like it’s just nothing here on campus to help.”
Hood said in Student Life, they want to make sure that all students feel welcome and have the resources and support they need to succeed and thrive, including student parents.
While trying to succeed and find community, Thomas advised student parents not to be afraid to speak up about being a parent.
“I was ashamed at first, when I was only a few months pregnant, walking around campus until I couldn’t hide anymore. I felt like there were moments where my self-esteem was really bad,” she said. “Find those friends, ask them to find support for us, tell them to tell their friends and other organizations, ‘hey, we need to do something for moms, they’re struggling, we need to do something for dads on campus that are single fathers that they’re struggling, they need help’.”
For student parents who are interested in creating support for other student parents, Henderson said student care and wellbeing would love to serve as an advocate for students “who have identified gaps in resources and problem-solve with students to create solutions to address those gaps.”
He said he invites any student to contact him directly at Jeremy.email@example.com.