A tricky balancing act

Shawna Barnett is a freshman at Portland Sate and the mother of two children, and already she is faced with the possibility of having to drop her classes because of lack of child care on campus.

Shawna Barnett is a freshman at Portland Sate and the mother of two children, and already she is faced with the possibility of having to drop her classes because of lack of child care on campus. Barnett is among the many student-parents who are faced with the same challenges. 

For student-parents, the demands of family, work and school tend to take precedence over most things, including building peer relationships, even with other parent-students.

“If you have to choose between being with family and going out and doing other things, you’re going to choose being with your family,” Barnett said.

Barnett and other students-parents and staff are working to beat the odds—according to a Baccalaureate and Beyond study, only 4 percent of student-parents achieved their educational goals within five years—and help improve the status of students with children at Portland State.

Lola Lawson is the Coordinator of Student Parent Services at Portland State and helps provide resources to help improve the overall well-being of student-parents and their children.

The welfare of student-parents and their children, as opposed to families outside the university setting would not look that much different, Lawson said.

According to the Children First for Oregon: Status of Oregon’s Children County Data Book 2008, out of 157,184 of children ages 0–17 living in Multnomah County, 34,141 of those children live under the poverty level.

In addition, 17,290 children are uninsured and 21.5 percent of pregnant mothers in the county received no or inadequate prenatal care.

“I think it varies form year to year, but not very much,” Lawson said. “I think that what happens [among student-parents at PSU] would be a microcosm of whatever statistical report you would have for an urban center,” she said. “I have seen students that are feeding their kids but are not feeding themselves.”

Some student-parents who have walked into Lawson’s office have even been homeless. Lawson said that Student Parent Services provide financial assistance through programs such as the Jim Sells Childcare Assistance Program, which offers up to $900 toward child care for one term.

Another challenge that student-parents face is the wait for their children to get into child care on the campus. 

Even though PSU has two child care centers, Helen Gordon and The Children’s Center located in Smith Memorial Student Union, many students are put on waiting list for a year or longer.

Among the number of students on that waiting list is Barnett, who also is vice president of the PSU Student Parent Organization. 

“It has gotten to the place where I believe that if I don’t get a miracle, I’m going to have to drop out of school, and I’m already three terms in,” she said. “And to have to say that already is pretty intense.”   

As vice president of the Student Parent Organization, expanding the campus’ child care centers is an issue Barnett is working toward.

“Often times if they don’t have stable child care that could be a make-or-break situation for a student-parent,” Lawson said. 

Rhianna Derscheid, a PSU graduate student and undergraduate adviser, has recently studied student-mothers for her graduate work and found that the student-parents that she talked to had similar experiences regarding lack of child care. She also found in her study that student-parents faced feelings of isolation during their studies at school.

“They find it troubling to do group work. They feel stigmatized if they have to bring their child on campus and other students see that,” Derscheid said. 

Campuses need to have more places that student-parents feel their children are welcome, Derscheid said.

In response to this need, Student Parent Services is starting a forum on their Web site so that student-parents have a place to connect to other student-parents. Student Parent Services also host a children’s clothing exchange as a way for other parents to meet each other and find clothes for their children.  

Derscheid said that the key to success as a parent-student is for the climate at the university to be more inclusive to student-parents and to their unique needs as parents.

As a student-mother herself, she said that having a strong family support system was essential to achieving her academic goals. Her support came from the financial and emotional support of her husband.

“If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have been able to do all this,” Derscheid said.

In spite of all the hardships that student-parents face, they are a group of “resilient people” who are determined to provide a better future for themselves and their family, Lawson said. 

“Student-parents are amazing people,” she said. “They are here for a purpose and that is usually on the behalf of their kids. They want to get an education so that they can have not only a living wage job that they can take care of their family, but also to be an example for their children, and often times to make a change in their own community.”