Books, backpacks…and baby bottles? As an associate professor of women’s studies studying student parents – and as a former student parent myself – I often find that people are stunned to learn that approximately 25 percent of the population at Fresno State is a parent of at least one child.
While the image of the “typical” college student in our collective imagination is that of a young, child-free person with few financial obligations, a significant percentage of the study body lives a very different life.
From promotional materials to actual policies, universities create narratives about who their students are and what their needs may be. How we tell the story about who we are as a university, and who we choose to include in that story – or who the data allows us to see – not only impacts programming, but can make students feel unrecognized and disconnected from their campus community.
As a former student parent and now a mother of four children, the message I internalized that “pregnancy can ruin your life” made me feel like a “bad” student. As as a result, I struggled to ask my professors for flexibility and drifted from my classmates. Though student parents have high aspirations, there still persists the myth that student parents are not fully committed to their education.
But, the data that I have collected through my student parent survey and focus groups paints a very different picture than what one might expect. Reflecting on my study at Fresno State, here are five things I think you should know about student parents:
1. Student parents are diverse.
Parents at Fresno State range from 18-year-old, first-year freshmen to students over 50 years old. They are single and married; they are of all genders and sexualities; they are of all races and ethnicities; they represent all levels of income; and they became parents in different ways. Some have one child; others claim up to six children.
They are pursuing everything from their bachelor’s degrees to their doctorates.
2. Student parents are resourceful.
From the student cupboard to the clothing closet, student parents know how to cull the resources they need to support their families. My focus groups revealed impressive stories of strategically making use of family networks, ride share programs, online advising appointments, and myriad other services and family capital to provide for their children and meet their academic goals.
While some did not ask for help because of the associated stigma, others were more straightforward with their needs. What connected them all was their desire to be present for their children and present in the classroom.
3. Student parents are ambitious.
The students I spoke with aspired for careers that would improve their families’ lives and create positive social change. Some mourned their former identities as “high-achieving” students and seemed to struggle with insecurities when among child-free students.
Nonetheless, they passionately detailed their dreams to be successful in their careers, to be role models for their children, and to improve the lives of others.
4. Parents are better students.
Student parents believe that parenthood makes them better students. Despite their challenges, internal conflicts and negative interactions they’ve had with peers and professors, student parents overwhelmingly believe that parenthood has made them better students.
The students expressed feeling profoundly connected to their studies and believed that parenthood helped them understand how their education related to the larger world and their future. Parenthood, they said, made them more focused and intentional as they pursued their degrees.
5. Student parents want to be recognized.
Think about the pamphlets, posters, and billboards that represent a university. How often do we see a pregnant student or student with a child? The idea that this would send a “bad message” for a university problematically plays into our narratives about who we think is or is not “fit” for college.
Students in my study expressed a desire to be seen and to make the complexities of their lives more visible to their professors, advisors, and classmates. Indeed, student parents want to be lifted out from under the shadows.
I wish to call on community members to find ways to support our student parents and to preserve the incredible richness of thought and experience that they bring to their campus community. These students are already meaningfully integrated in our communities as parents of school children, workers, sports coaches, and neighbors.
An investment in these students has the potential to effect positive change for entire schools, communities, and families, for generations to come.
Larissa M. Mercado-López is an associate professor of women's studies at Fresno State, feminist fitness media writer, and children's book author. A researcher on student parents, she was selected as a 2018 Emerging Scholar and was featured in the January edition of "Diverse: Higher Education" magazine. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @LMercadoLopez.