Student parents at Fresno State are seeking more recognition and support as they juggle their studies with the demands of parenthood.
At Tuesday’s Student Parent Resource Fair, child care, emotional support and basic needs like food and diapers were all topics of interest for student parents, who were also asked to write messages to university president Joseph Castro.
Women’s studies professor Larissa Mercado-Lopez, who organized the event, estimates that around 20 percent of all Fresno State students have children, a number based on the nationwide averages for four-year and two-year colleges. The university will soon become the first CSU to include a question in an enrollment survey asking whether prospective students have dependent children, Mercado-Lopez said.
A 2014 study found that about 26 percent of all undergraduates in the U.S. are parents, though the number is slightly lower among Western states like California.
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But despite the figures, student parents are sometimes invisible, Mercado-Lopez said, hesitant to advocate for themselves for fear that they will be taken less seriously as students.
“They feel lots of pride in being student parents. But at the same time, it can be difficult to reconcile those two identities,” Mercado-Lopez said. “Maybe they end up feeling like college isn’t for them.”
Alejandra Nicolas, mother to a 6-month-old girl, said she attended the fair primarily to meet other students and network.
“I don’t know many other parents here,” Nicolas said.
A senior now, Nicolas said she may need to extend her academic career some in order to make her classes work with her responsibilities as a parent. Childcare is her most pressing need: Nicolas said that she currently relies on her mother, who commutes from the Bay Area three times per week to take care of her granddaughter.
Fresno State has daycare for the children of students, staff and the larger community, but like many other child care programs throughout the Valley, space is limited and waitlists can be long. Also, student parents often are looking for flexible options to account for their class schedules.
Mercado-Lopez said she hopes to introduce a family study room in the Henry Madden Library where student parents can work in a communal area while their young children have a safe space to play. It would also be an ideal spot for group projects and other classwork that typically takes place outside of regular child care hours.
Other initiatives from the university include plans to offer free diapers and baby wipes in the Student Cupboard, as well as a children’s clothing closet to complement the existing one for adult professional clothes. The university recently opened a lactation room in response to new California state law requiring them on college campuses.
Mercado-Lopez said she also hopes to use the results of the enrollment survey to better understand the needs of student parents, and to inform how the university recruits and supports this population. She said she recently challenged her students to scrutinize why college brochures typically don’t feature students with children, and added that she has heard from pregnant students who missed class time and faced penalties for it – a violation of their federal Title IX rights.
“I asked my students for their No. 1 piece of advice to succeed in college – and they say it’s, ‘Don’t get pregnant.’ Well, if you’re already pregnant or have a child, what does that communicate to you?” Mercado-Lopez said. “I would like student parents to know that they belong here, and there are faculty who are ready to help them find their way even if their path might feel a little different.”