For senior Melyssa Sharp, free time is a luxury she hasn’t had in a long time. As a single parent to a 10-year-old son, Sharp has three part-time jobs and is a full-time Portland State student. For Portland State’s student parents, successfully juggling the demands of family, work, finances and school can be a constant challenge–and some say it’s often schoolwork that gets left for last.
For senior Melyssa Sharp, free time is a luxury she hasn’t had in a long time.
As a single parent to a 10-year-old son, Sharp has three part-time jobs and is a full-time Portland State student.
For Portland State’s student parents, successfully juggling the demands of family, work, finances and school can be a constant challenge–and some say it’s often schoolwork that gets left for last.
Sharp, a 30-year-old who is studying sociology, remembers a time when she had a perfect grade point average-when she started at PSU. But lately, as she gets closer to her bachelor’s degree, she finds she’s choosing to spend time with her son when he needs her.
“I used to put school above everything,” Sharp said, “but now I’ll take a C and play baseball with my son.”
Sharp works as a University Studies peer mentor, she’s an assistant to the department head of linguistics, and she’s a research assistant. These on-campus jobs take up about 30 to 40 hours of her time a week. She said she tries to find work that she can do at home or that can accommodate her shifting school schedule.
“The truth of it is that I just really need the money, and I’ll often end up working at home from 8 p.m. to midnight,” Sharp said.
Alicyn Henning, a 33-year-old senior studying anthropology, started a new group on campus this fall called PSU Student Parent. The mother of two is dedicated to making people aware of all the demands that student parents face, in addition to studying.
Henning said that she’s hoping to inspire more students like Sharp to get involved with her group and to push the administration to be supportive of parent’s needs.
“Right now we’re not even at the table,” Henning said. “They’re not discussing parents, and that needs to change.”
Henning’s group is currently made up of eight parents, and she invites parents to get involved to make changes in areas like childcare and financial support.
“If we don’t band together it will be so much harder to get things done,” she said.
Henning said she pays $970 per month for childcare for her seven-year-old daughter and 18-month-old son, which is more than she pays for rent for her four-bedroom Milwaukie house.
Lola Lawson, coordinator for Student Parent Services at Portland State for the past 19 years, estimates that there are at least 1,000 student parents attending classes on campus.
“I have found that these are the most organized, most dedicated and most tenacious of students,” Lawson said. “When you look at other students here on campus, do you see anyone else who is that focused?”
Emma Nollette, a 33-year-old who has recently finished her bachelor’s degree at Portland State and will return in the fall to pursue a master’s degree, finds balancing classes and work to be the most challenging part of getting an education. Nolette and her husband Trevor, 30, have executed a complicated dance to raise their two and four-year-old girls, while both going to school. They own their own home, too.
“There was a time when Trevor was working full-time and in school full-time, and there was no way we could afford childcare, so I had to stay home and take care of the girls,” she said.
The Nollette girls attend Portland State’s Helen Gordon Child Development Center, where tuition is over $900 a month for the family.
Both Nollette and Sharp said that they have accepted all of the financial aid offered to them–both grants and loans–and it still isn’t enough.
For Sharp, she’s thankful that she can increase her cost of attendance to include childcare, but if her budget has already reached the federal limit for aid, then she’s out of luck. Sharp estimates that she will have about $40,000 of loans to pay off after she gets her bachelor’s degree, and she’s planning on getting her master’s next.
Lawson said that a heavy debt burden often follows student parents into the workplace.
“For most it is at least $20,000, and $40,000 doesn’t surprise me at all–that’s just scary.”