Imagine waking up at 6:30 a.m. after sleeping for four short hours. You quietly creep out of your bedroom, cursing the creaky floor as your strategically step on less noisy parts of the hardwood in order to not wake your four-year old daughter. Feeling energized after your morning yoga practice, you begin what you like to call the amazing race.
You wake up your child, head to the kitchen to turn on the kettle, shower, get yourself and then your daughter dressed. You make a quick breakfast, slap on some mascara and zoom out of the house to catch the bus to your daughter’s daycare.
Dropping her off with a hug and kiss, you catch the bus back downtown to get to work for 9 a.m. After your morning shift, you have a few minutes to gobble up some lunch. You then head to your afternoon class, which ends at 4 p.m. giving you ample time to pick up your daughter from her daycare before 5:30 p.m. You eat dinner, hang out at the park in the evening and put your child to sleep before finally sitting down to start your homework at 9 p.m.
Welcome to life as a student parent.
Walking through the crowded halls of Concordia University on any given day, you run into engineers, accountants, artists, environmentalists, activists and musicians. The student body at Concordia is diverse and it is not always easy to figure out who the student taking notes besides you in class really is. In fact, many of us are unaware that among the ranks of graduate and undergraduate students exists a group of student parents.
As a student parent myself, I rarely encounter others who are dividing their time between being a parent and being a student. Based on my own experience, I know that the challenges student parents face are numerous.
According to Kristy Heeren, the director of Concordia University Student Parents Centre, there are three main challenges student parents face.
“The biggest challenge is financial,” says Heeren. “Many student parents are single parents who feel the financial strain of having extra mouths to feed, or they are international students who can’t work.”
Heeren explains that the second challenge she hears from student parents at CUSP is a lack of childcare resources. “There is a shortage of flexible, affordable childcare,” explains Heeren. “There are very few part-time childcare options, so outside of regular daycare opening hours, parents have no help with childcare. Although private and evening daycares do exist, they are expensive.”
The third and most straining challenge student parents face, according to Heeren, is emotional strain. “They don’t have the same options to meet other students, and to go out,” states Heeren. “Many student parents struggle with isolation and loneliness, especially single parents, and international students who are new to the city.”
Hearing Heeren recount challenges that are part of my personal experience was comforting, because they are things I always imagined to be private and exceptional. I now saw they were quite common among student parents.
In order to overcome some of these hardships, some student parents seek assistance at CUSP which is located at the downtown campus. The centre offers a resource room for student parents to come use freely, either to work or relax in. They also offer psychological support and heath promotion services.
“In terms of finding a community of people and a database of resources, we have the CUSP drop-in center, which has over two hundred members,” says Heeren.
CUSP was an idea initiated by dean of students Elizabeth Morey. The centre, which supports initiatives in areas of student life and services at Concordia, is a great first step for Concordia towards providing services for student parents. Despite trying to be as available and helpful as possible, one area that remains a common problem for student parents is finding adequate childcare.
“When it comes to finding part-time childcare, there is nothing I can point you towards, except maybe Craigslist or your friends and family,” admits Heeren.
Currently, there is one childcare centre on each campus that is open to the children of staff, faculty and students. But, with limited space, finding a spot for your child is anything but easy. According to research by Tricia Van Rhijn and Donna S. Lero for the University of Guelph, student parents account for close to 11 per cent of the total student population in Canadian universities. That means close to 5000 students at Concordia University are parents. With only 50 spaces available at the childcare centres on campus, there is an abundance of student parents whose needs are not being met, especially since priority is given to children of faculty members.
“Student parents at Concordia should be given priority for daycare spots, because it’s hard to even get on the waiting list for a spot,” says a Concordia University student and single parent who is still unable to find a daycare for her 11-month-old daughter.
Recognizing the challenges student parents face and the need for an improvement of student services at Concordia University, the dean of students office took action by hiring sociologist Malene Bodington to oversee the implementation of a university-wide survey. The survey aims to study the student parent population at Concordia to find out the challenges and needs of this student population. With the results, they hope to learn how the university can take action towards serving the student parent population more effectively.
“A lot of [the challenges] come down to isolation,” says survey designer Bodington. As a mother herself, she notes that it helps to know that there are other parents who are going through the same thing. Bodington stresses that student parents should be aware that Concordia has many services available for them such as the Counseling and Development Centre and CUSP, especially because of its function as a resource centre
For many student parents, their family and friends play a big support role in their lives.
CUSP is another great help because it is a place where student parents can get together and see how others in similar situations balance parenting and school. As CUSP members, student parents have the chance to get involved in events such as monthly cook-outs, clothing, toy and babysitting exchanges, while making friends with other student parents in the process.
For student parents without families close by, being part of a community can ward off the feeling of separation. In my own life, I have gained a support network though my volunteering as a yoga teacher at the Art of Living Foundation which has allowed me to move through my days with confidence, despite the lack of family support in the city.
In addition to the CUSP resource centre, student parents can now also become involved in CUSP’s newly formed Student Parents Association. SPA, which is still in its beginning stages, will be the first student association run solely by parents who wish to implement services for parents and their children.
Student parents can drop by CUSP at 2150 Bishop St. Dean of students Elizabeth Morey is holding a “Meet the Dean” event Oct. 27, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in H-637 where students will have chance to make suggestions concerning student services at Concordia.