On January 22, 2015, the ASU Graduate Women’s Association hosted a panel, “Having Children in Graduate School,” which included me. During this panel, we discussed issues regarding parenthood among graduate students. As a mother of three children, I was impressed to hear about the experiences of other graduate students facing similar challenges to me. These concerns are real and widespread. I left that gathering empowered and motivated to bring these important issues to the attention of other higher education institutions and scholars. #GWAGradParent
Just this past week, I explained to academic colleagues that having a family is not a barrier to my progress as a graduate student. Rather, my children are my inspiration and motivation to advance in higher education. People often ask me who the audience of my writing is. First, I always want to write something for my posterity. Then, I think of the many other audiences that I hope to reach with my work. Priorities and values center in such discussions about being a parent during graduate school. Mapping out support networks also feature in this dialogue and the experiences of graduate student parents.
During that panel in January, graduate students posed major questions. “What is the ASU policy about providing paid maternity leave for graduate assistant mothers and/or fathers? Where can we find out this information and make it known to graduate students and our advisors?” Many students and professors are confused about such policies. Few university staff, if any explain these policies during orientation week in graduate school. One student in the panel audience asked if professors could receive some guidance from the institution about how to advise and work with graduate student parents or those planning families. Other participants in the session also struggled to define their program’s policies about maternity leave, and they were not sure how to learn about them. This information should be shared clearly in meetings such as student orientation.
Hopefully, higher education institutions will be transparent and willing to work with graduate assistants concerning their needs as parents and expectant parents. Students should not have to go out of their way to acquire such basic information. I have been pregnant and had three children while working in higher education. Each time, I felt too nervous to ask my supervisors and institutional representatives about possible support for those in my situation. I did not ask, and so I just figured out other ways to address my needs during pregnancy and after childbirth. I wished that I had at least asked, but I can understand why graduate assistants in my past situations would not due to anxieties and concerns of how they would be perceived in higher education.
Major institutions of higher education also need to offer affordable childcare, family health care plans, and near-campus family housing options for their community of scholars (faculty, staff, and students).
Another important part of the panel discussion was the idea to develop a university-wide graduate student parent support network. This network would involve on-campus baby-sitting and parent chats. Graduate students showed interest in setting up childcare by the hour on campus for graduate student parents who need someone to watch their children for an hour or two while they have a meeting or class. Such a service would be affordable, safe, and trustworthy.
Some participants also expressed a desire to have “parent chats,” a group or network, which could meet regularly to discuss being in graduate school as a parent and parenting issues and concerns. Several students in the panel audience conveyed how they feel alone as graduate student parents.
Most importantly, what I gained from these conversations and the panel is that graduate student parents can be a great strength to each other. Together, we can affect more change and make our presence visible in higher education. As one panelist emphasized, scholars should not have to choose between having a family or a career. Neither should students have to choose between having a family and seeking higher education. We can work towards achieving this balance, as we voice our support of graduate student parents.