Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies
Strategies for Student-Parent Success at the University of Alabama
Walking around the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa, one could get the impression that the institution serves only “traditional” students—young, single, and childless. There are few children to be seen, even though about 10 percent of the university’s students are parents. “Student parents are an invisible minority on campus,” says Andrew Goodliffe, assistant dean of the graduate school. “Faculty say, ‘What do you mean there are students with kids? We don’t see them.’ And we don’t—because they’re off working very hard.” In fact, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that almost 25 percent of undergraduate students in the United States have dependent children.
Raising children and taking classes full time, or even part time, can present enormous challenges, and many university services are oriented toward younger, childless students. The Graduate Parents Support program (GPS) at the University of Alabama serves as an advocate for student parents—both graduate and undergraduate—and offers programs and services to help these students balance academic and family obligations. The program has steadily expanded since its launch in 2009, and in January the American Council on Education named GPS as the 2014 recipient of its State Network Leadership Award for the Advancement of Women in Higher Education. Being attentive to the needs of parents and to other diverse groups of students is essential to creating a campus climate that allows all students to flourish.
Alabama’s first parent support programs were launched in 2009, when Graduate School Dean David Franco and then-Assistant Dean Natalie Adams applied for and received a Council of Graduate Schools/Peterson’s Award for Innovation in Promoting an Inclusive Graduate Community. The grant money from the award was used to support the creation of both GPS and a program called Tide Together, which provides formal mentoring for a number of groups that are underrepresented in graduate education. Cori Perdue, now program’s director, was hired as a graduate student assistant to investigate possible resources and programs.
For Perdue, finding the student parents was the first big challenge. “Parents don’t self-identify on any applications—there’s no box to check,” she says. It took a series of e-mail surveys to find student parents and inform them about the new program, but interest was immediate, and by the end of the first year, more than five hundred student parents were actively participating in GPS programs. The program soon began reaching out to undergraduate students as well (though it is still housed in the graduate school). Today there are 544 graduate students and 387 undergraduate students actively participating in GPS programs and services.
Finding out exactly what student parents needed was the next issue. “We went in thinking we would provide some mentoring support,” Goodliffe says. “But we did a survey to see how best to really serve these groups, and when it came to the parents, they weren’t interested in the mentoring.” What student parents needed, they said, was contact with other parents and, especially, assistance with childcare.
“Time management—balancing priority for my family and priority for my education—is extremely challenging,” says Kelly Parvin, a graduate student in studio art. “As a single mother, I want my girls to see the value of my educational pursuits—but as a single mother I want my girls to know they are also significant and a priority to me. That is a constant balance for me.”
Making that balance work is particularly challenging because university schedules aren’t always conducive to parents’ schedules, says Tiffany Dargan, an undergraduate student-parent. “The biggest challenge is managing everything during daycare hours,” she says. Sometimes classes needed to fulfill major requirements are only offered in the late afternoon or evening, especially labs, and there are a few days every year that the university holds classes when the local school systems—and many daycares—are closed. “And of course, I’m trying to get as much studying as possible done during daycare hours, too,” Dargan adds.
Both Dargan and Parvin make use of Sitters for Service, a GPS program that provides up to thirty hours per semester of free babysitting to student parents. The babysitters are student volunteers, all of whom undergo a competitive application process including references and interviews, and who are trained in CPR and first aid. Students can document their babysitting hours for courses that require community service, but most are simply volunteering because they want to help, Perdue says.
“Without Sitters for Service I could not functionally meet my demands in this program,” Parvin says. “I have three babysitters a week: two are Sitters for Service, one is full pay. If I had three full-pay sitters, it would be a real burden. GPS has also vetted the sitters, so I can really count on these people. They begin to care about my kids, which is wonderful, and I’ll use the same sitters repeatedly and build a network of sitters.”
Connecting Parents with Resources—and Each Other
Another important service GPS provides is connecting parents with other resources. Perdue and her staff host several resource fairs, including a summer camp/daycare fair in the spring where student parents can learn about inexpensive or even free summer programs—a crucial resource for students who continue to take courses or conduct research over the summer. The fairs include supervised activities for children so parents have an easier time speaking with vendors about the available options. GPS also curates web pages featuring information about schools, daycares, medical services, and other resources in the Tuscaloosa area.
The program has also had some success in providing better housing options for students with families. Parents often have different housing priorities from other students, Perdue says. “They aren’t as worried about being close to campus—they want safety, a good school system, playgrounds nearby. The off-campus housing director and I made a list of apartments and communities that met those criteria and I talked individually with apartment complexes, and negotiated discounts.” Many landlords were eager to rent to families, and one complex that had had difficulty renting to traditional students offered rentals to student parents at 10 percent below market rate.
Connecting student parents with each other is another important service. “On a traditional campus like ours, you don’t see people with children when you walk around,” Perdue says. “Student parents don’t bring them to class, they don’t talk about it. They think they’re the only ones. Now they can see, ‘Hey, I’m not the only one.’ It’s a morale boost.” Perdue’s staff hosts a series of social events for parents, including events where parents can bring their children to socialize, such as family picnics. Other events provide the chance for student parents to get a relaxing evening just with other adults, such as the GPS Date Night, which provides free babysitting while parents eat dinner at a restaurant offering discounted food.
In some cases there are separate social events for graduate students and undergraduate students, but the students often prefer joint events, Perdue says. “Some of the undergraduates want to go to graduate school, and they get a mentoring experience through their meetings with the graduate students.” Bringing student parents together so they can assist each other is an increasingly important role, she continues. She describes one student-parent who, because her child has autism, has been unable to make use of Sitters for Service (as of now the service cannot accommodate children with severe special needs). “But she asked if we could set up some play dates with other parents who have kids with special needs, where they can talk and possibly start their own babysitting co-op.”
Serving as Advocates
GPS staff can also assist by communicating with faculty members about the particular challenges facing student parents. Parents shouldn’t get a pass on academic responsibilities, Goodliffe says, but faculty should think before scheduling committee meetings in the late afternoon, when parents need to pick up their children, and understand when parents’ schedules are suddenly affected by a sick child. GPS has also pushed for more comprehensive summer and holiday hours at the campus clinic, which many student parents rely on for healthcare.
Ultimately, every student parent needs something different, Perdue says. While childcare is one of the most pervasive needs, she says, “we may have a re-entry student with teenagers who doesn’t need childcare—but that student needs to connect with other parents who have teenagers.” Perdue makes it a priority to connect personally with as many student parents as possible—and with their children. She and a graduate assistant—who happens to be a parent herself and has a background in social work—are available to meet with student parents individually and figure out how to meet those students’ particular needs.
As with most programs, funding is a constant limitation, Goodliffe says. “We’re looking for additional grant money, because we know we’re only reaching a small percentage of parents. We need to be able to provide services to all of our parents, but the reality is we don’t have the resources for that.”
In the meantime, Perdue is constantly revising programs in order to serve parents more efficiently with the resources available. Perdue meets regularly with an advisory board of graduate and undergraduate student parents and faculty with children to discuss way to modify the program and brainstorm new ideas. “I tell my graduate assistants all the time, let’s think outside the box,” she says. “We need to do new things and evolve.”