Non-traditional warriors

Rarely discussed reality of parenthood at college

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“I saw a student changing her baby on the floor of the library restroom at California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB),” Shirley Ramos told me during our reporting class. I had been working on an article focusing on women’s health services on campuses but never considered what it would be like to be a parent on campus, apparently the campus hadn’t either.

Parenthood is a wonderful thing; people talk about it all the time. College is also a great adventure that parents and young adults get very excited about. However, when the two are intertwined, there’s very little conversation about it and a very large amount of stigma. Parenthood during college is not something we talk about as a society. We chat about dorm life, sorority life and life away from home for the first time, but the conversations about raising a child while attending classes are left out; simplified into “difficult” or simply thought of as non-existent. Are students expected to disappear once they have a family of their own? More importantly, should they?

Shirley and I had been noticing there weren’t always tampon and pad trash receptacles in some of the school’s frequently used restrooms. Advocacy and acknowledgement of women’s health seemed to be an issue, even at progressive institutions of higher learning.

While I was walking around campus trying to tally up the lack of tampon and pad dispensers, baby changing tables, and receptacles, I was extremely fatigued from my pregnancy and pulled a muscle in my leg and had to go to the ER. I never finished the count, but the idea of the student having to use the bathroom floor to change their baby stuck in my mind.

That’s when I changed my focus to the challenges faced by students raising children and what resources, if any, exist for them. When I reached out to find other non-traditional students dealing with the challenges and joys of parenthood while also trying to get a college education, I found a surprising world of superheros and warriors.

Shelby Leal is the mother of a little boy, and currently a junior at CSUMB. She transferred to the college when her son was 13 months old, after getting her Associate’s degree in the summer of 2016. She is also a single parent and uses the school’s affiliated childcare services. She said that, “There are specific days when the child care facility closes early, and I have had to bring my son to campus with me on these days so I could still attend meetings and/or group project meetings.”

She also said, “I love having my son with me, but he has endless energy and can be a real handful during these experiences. I try to keep my patience, but I know it can also be very distracting to other students with having a toddler running around, especially when he gets moody.”

Miss Amanda, on the other hand, said that, “teachers [should] be understanding of having children in the classroom within reason. Like, say it’s a night class and it’s mostly older adults and you sit in the back with the kid, and the kid is quiet, I don’t see how that would be an issue.”

If there was an affordable family housing at every college campus, that would be a huge thing.

Miss Amanda is also a single parent and although she said she didn’t feel that the sliding scale child care arrangements at CSUMB were affordable, she felt it was necessary and better than paying full price. At Monterey Peninsula College (MPC), she received free child care. Miss Amanda, a former MPC and CSUMB student, currently lives in Colorado with her young daughter and hopes to complete her master’s in social work, as well as the one language class she needs to have her BA. When asked if there were any ways that colleges could help their students who are also parents, she said, “I think the main thing is housing, if there was an affordable family housing at every college campus that would be a huge thing.”

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When Miss Amanda talks about child care facilities, she says they “are not affordable”. What does that mean?

Well, the minimum wage, something that many active college students earn, brings in $22,880 before taxes on a full time schedule according to the Labor Commissioner’s Office Website. According to the Boston Globe, the average cost of childcare in California for an infant is $12,068.00 and the average cost for a four year old is $8,407.00. School age children’s after school care costs are $2,792.00 on average. This annual salary less infant child-care expenses would leave a student and their child with less than $11,000 to pay for rent, food, clothing and medical expenses in California. After subtracting the “average fair market rent prices in California” of 2018 for a one-bedroom, a student parent would be left with $-1296; yes, that’s “negative one-thousand and ninety-six dollars.”

Obviously, any food, clothing and medicine would bring further debt. The point is that when Miss Amanda says not affordable, we should be reading that as structurally made impossible, independently.

Shelby breastfeeds her child and said this about it, “I know that if I was still pumping [breastmilk] that I would face a lot of obstacles, as there does not seem to be any spaces on campus that are private enough for women to be able to pump.” The California Department of Labor government website states that an “employer must make a reasonable effort to provide you with the use of a room or other location other than a toilet stall and in close proximity to your work area [for lactation].”

There is a code similar to the state’s Labor Code Section 1030 for the California State Universities (CSU’s). CSUMB is not in compliance with the Guidelines for CSU’s. According to the a unanimously approved 2018 revision of the CSU’s Lactation Resource Policy and Practices; they state that, “new and existing CSU lactation resource policies contain recommendations including but not limited to:

  • The proximity of lactation stations to centrally-located instructional spaces (e.g. student unions or libraries) and faculty/staff/administrative offices.
  • That lactation stations be equipped with a sink, comfortable seating, proximal electrical outlets, changing tables, refrigeration for storage and an emergency phone.
  • That campuses provide on-site and digital/web-based signage along with map indications for lactation stations.
  • That all students, staff, faculty and administrators receive lactation resource information upon hire or orientation.”

Do you see these things on campus? I didn’t and I searched.

Shelby said that she understands that “some women aren’t as comfortable breastfeeding in public” and also remarked that she has “not seen any spaces dedicated to breastfeeding mothers to be able to do this without being in the public eye.” Raul Lopez, a current CSUMB student and father of two, acknowledged that absence of baby changing tables, but said that it was “understandable.”

Shelby said that, “Just because we are parents does not mean that we should give up on our dreams, it should be an even greater reason to become the best possible version of yourself so that your children can grow up with role models that will encourage and support their growth in life.”

She also encouraged the offering of clubs on campus for students who are raising children. It would be a place where they can meet and exchange tips, she said and she wanted the inclusion of more daycare options. She is currently majoring in Pre-Law and plans to graduate in the spring of 2020.

Raul Lopez’ two children are ages 10 and two. He raises them with the childcare help of his family and his girlfriend, who also earns income for their children. He took on the burden of full-time work and parenting while his girlfriend finished school and now, they have alternated that arrangement while he finishes his degree. He believes that although being a parent while going to college is “unorthodox,” it should “definitely” be supported. Raul has brought his daughter to campus as a teaching tool, “to show her what I do at times when I’m not home, and how serious I am about education. It’s my way of showing her that if I can; she can, too.” He feels fortunate to have help from his family and girlfriend and acknowledges others who do not. Raul said that doing college from home would make it easier on parents going to school.

Shirley Ramos is the classmate who told me about the woman she saw changing a baby nappy on the bathroom floor in the library. I sought her out when she mentioned women’s health on college campuses and also because she sometimes brings her young daughter to class with her. She made me feel less scared and alone with her courageous example of womanhood. Shirley is the single parent of a 10-year-old girl. Like all college-attending parents, she does not get any additional financial aid from the school for having a child. Only the standard package, and there are only a few child-related tax breaks. She relies on childcare services to attend, and pays about $500 a year for childcare, but still has to bring her daughter to class and campus on many occasions. Shirley believes that having free childcare would make going to college while being a parent a lot easier, adding that “if not that, then make it acceptable to bring your children to class.” Miss Amanda shared the same sentiments. Then Shirley echoed Raul and Shelby’s philosophy when she agreed that colleges should support students raising children because “chances are higher that the children will also attend college one day if they see a parent do it, too.”

He told me that if I can’t afford college, then I shouldn’t be here.

Shirley has stopped going to college and also returned to it many times. She says, “It’s been a long seven plus years just to complete my BA.” When I asked her if there were any ways that colleges specifically help students who are also parents, she had this to say; “Not really. I once asked a professor if I could photocopy his book or maybe he could have one reserved in the library because I couldn’t afford one. I also explained the whole single parent, financial aid hasn’t kicked in yet. He told me that if I can’t afford college then I shouldn’t be here.”

Desean Fullwood attended a few semesters at MPC and works as a caregiver at the child care center on CSUMB campus, “I’d often found myself changing my little girl in the trunk of my Jeep,” he said when thinking back to his time at MPC, “I’m not saying parents should have to, but you do get good at [improvising].”

A mother and CSUMB college professor, Estella Porras, worries over where to put her daughter during some of the after school hours she works because the early childhood education center for grade school age children near CSUMB is closing its doors for good.

This is a sign that convenient and affordable childcare may be in shortage overall. The fact that the college doesn’t provide a safety net for its own faculty sends an alarming message to students raising children.

The seven Early Development Child Care Centers scattered about the local areas of Salinas and Seaside take care of children over 18 months and under five years with few exceptions. Only a few take kinder-age children. Only one takes infants, but they must be over three months. None take newborns. Of course, these are not the only childcare services that exist in the local area, but they are the most affordable, aside from family child care, because these facilities are run by the State. The regular cost is about $1000 per month, according to an administrator I spoke with at the Early Development Services administrative office on Broadway Ave in Seaside, CA. Their website which describes the seven childcare facilities is The cost can be subsidized if an applicant meets the low-income guidelines.

Student housing does not have a sliding scale for low-income people; not even for parents or students dealing with homelessness. The waitlist for childcare is six months to one year long, but children can not be placed on it until they are born. These centers care for children ages 18 to 24 months at the facility that accepts infants and 18 months to 5 years, as well as kinder age to third grade at the other facilities. Parents of older children, like Professor Porras, must find after-school childhood education centers elsewhere.

We all know that parents are superheros, and hope that someday college campuses can be the super schools they deserve. These parents have brought up some worthy ideas for consideration from parenthood clubs, affordable campus housing, and free childcare, to feeding and changing tables to the idea of acceptance and encouragement.

For now, we know that only the brave and the bold set foot on college campuses through their journeys into parenthood. Yet maybe, in the near future these ideas will go somewhere, and the next generation can be better than the last. After all, what we do with this knowledge is up to us.

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