Illustration: Christine Wang.
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Are student-parents falling through the cracks at the U of O?

It’s the first day back at school. You’re all ready to go—backpack, coffee, and son or daughter in hand.

Can’t relate? That’s no surprise, given that the most recent estimate by researcher David Holmes puts the proportion of Canadian student-parents in university and college at about eight per cent and 22 per cent of the total student population, respectively.

Although this group may be small and oft-overlooked, their experiences at Canada’s post-secondary institutions may become more and more common as our society and economy changes.

According to the 1976–2005 Canadian Labour Force Survey, the proportion of student-parents at university increased by 55 per cent over the years studied.

More recent data from the United States’ National Center for Education Statistics shows that older students are making up a greater proportion of the country’s college campuses, with 17 per cent of all college and graduate students in 2009 found to be over the age of 35. This number is expected to jump to 19 per cent of that total by 2020.

Although the University of Ottawa does not keep data on the number of student-parents enrolled at the institution, it’s not hard to picture a similar scenario full of older students in our own backyard.

With the economy changing so rapidly in the face of new technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence, the World Economic Forum estimates that 65 per cent of children entering primary schools today will work in jobs that don’t currently exist. And with recent massive geopolitical shifts, from Brexit to the upcoming North American Free Trade Agreement re-negotiation, the future of the job market is as uncertain as ever.

One thing is for certain: re-tooling is often necessary to adjust to the needs of a changing job market, and that will likely come with a greater presence of parents studying on our campus.

But (spoiler alert), student-parents are already here. With the help of their experiences, the U of O can prepare for the future while ensuring that all students—including the ones balancing both toddlers and textbooks—feel supported.

No (child-free) Gee-Gee left behind

When I asked Vanessa Dorimain, a former student-parent and executive coordinator of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO), whether she ever considered postponing her studies, she laughed.

“Of course.”

This was no surprise, given that the Canadian Journal of Higher Education’s Profile of Undergraduate Student Parents in Canada report notes that having children often acts as a barrier to completing post-secondary education.

This is a problematic trend since, according to Statistics Canada, completing some post-secondary education without fully earning a degree does not result in significant improvements over merely obtaining a high school diploma.

Dina Salama, an incoming master’s student at the U of O, was hesitant to even apply to her master’s program after doing a one-year diploma at the U of O while her child was less than a year old.

Further, according to Holmes’ study, student-parents on average work longer hours for pay than other students. Dorimain emphasized that this, paired with the typical class schedule, makes for an extremely hectic lifestyle.

“I was doing it to support myself and my child, but at the same time I was barely there to be with my child,” says Dorimain.

“Having to find child-care services that could run until 7 p.m. or 9 p.m. to have people who would be able to take care of my child until I finished my classes was very difficult.”

Salama agrees that finding childcare is another barrier to success at school, and says that she’s still waiting on a spot to open up for her child to have subsidized care.

Dorimain says that when she couldn’t find someone to watch her child, she had no choice but to bring him to her classes. But this didn’t exactly go over well with professors and other students, and she would later miss classes because she didn’t want to “be embarrassed or shamed” for bringing her child.

“I had a midterm, and I had to bring my child in with me because there wasn’t anyone to watch him,” Dorimain recalls. “And then my prof asked me if I could just leave my child outside… and I was like, no, because there wouldn’t be anyone to watch him there either. There was nothing I could do.”

Where did we go wrong?

But when it comes to unpacking the problem of student-parents being left behind in their studies, there’s no catch-all solution. Dorimain says that although the U of O opened a nursing room in the University Centre in collaboration with the Graduate Students’ Association last winter, the campus as a whole is still not very child-friendly.

“There are other parents that go to the U of O that have classes elsewhere, so to have one nursing room in one building, well obviously to me I don’t think that’s accommodating student-parents,” says Dorimain.

She recalls that before the nursing room was available, she had to feed and change her young son in a bathroom stall, or in one of the student federation’s equity centers.

Dorimain’s concerns are echoed by Salama, who took all classes for her diploma at Roger Guindon Hall, which had no nursing spaces on campus.

“I had to pump while I was at school in order to maintain my milk supply, so finding a private place that I can lock on the inside so I’m not interrupted, at the same time is not a washroom, was somewhat of a challenge at first,” Salama says.

“I used to find security guards and explain my situation every single time so they can find an empty room for me.”

According to Néomie Duval, media relations manager at the U of O, and Marc Duval, director of Community Life Service, there are currently no plans to open any other nursing rooms or day-care facilities on campus. They do note that the university is open to suggestions for opportunities to better serve its students, faculty and support staff.

But it’s not just the facilities that need an update—Dorimain’s experience with the U of O’s professors suggest that it’s time to look at how well student-parents are supported by their instructors, too.

Dorimain recalls one particular time where she needed to defer an exam due to her child’s illness.

“I brought in a note saying my child was very sick, but then the prof had told me I could not get an extension or re-do my exam for that reason because it had to be that I was sick,” she explains. “But if my child is sick, I’m the one who has to take care of him.”

The current exam policy at the U of O states that the only acceptable reasons for missing an exam are physical illness, psychological illness, or exceptional personal circumstance. However, in case of personal circumstances, the policy specifies that the student’s faculty reserves the right to deny a deferral—which can leave parents like Dorimain in a tough spot with no clear solution.

Strengthening a broken support system

Although there are many institutional changes that the U of O could make to prevent its student-parents from falling through the cracks, Dorimain says that change can start at the student level.

She puts it bluntly, suggesting that when a student-parent brings their child into a lecture, classmates should try not to act like they’re bringing in elephants. Similarly, Dorimain believes profs could put in more effort to accommodate student-parents when they can’t avoid bringing their child into the classroom.

Salama recounted her experience with U of O professors in a more positive light, saying that her professors told her she could bring her child to class if she needed to—although she says this would have been “difficult.”

Federated bodies and the student federation can also be agents of change—Dorimain suggests having more parent-friendly events, including during 101 Week.

According to Kathryn Leblanc, the SFUO’s vice-president of services and communications, the federation is already using a three-fold approach to supporting student-parents at the U of O.

“Firstly, the SFUO takes into account the needs of student-parents when we’re fighting for changes at the U of O or in the provincial government, for example whenever there’s a conversation about accommodations policies, or opening hours for our services,” says LeBlanc.

It may come as a surprise that the SFUO’s Food Bank is also a student-parent friendly service, as LeBlanc says the service is well-equipped to provide most baby-care supplies to anyone studying at the U of O.

“There is baby formula, diapers, baby toys, lots of baby food, baby cereal, really anything you need.”

In addition, according to LeBlanc the equity centers in the University Centre are part of the student-parent support system.

“The women’s resource centre (WRC) has run a program called ‘We Care Child Care,’ and it’s a drop-in child-minding space.”

However, she emphasizes that child minding is different than child care, with more stringent regulations placed on child-care centers. For example, childminders working from their own location may only watch five children under 10 at one time. This means that these WRC services aren’t sufficient to replace on-campus child-care services.

“We’ve lobbied the university quite extensively to have affordable childcare in more spaces on campus,” notes LeBlanc.

According to Duval of media relations, however, the U of O does reserve 44 full-time spaces for students and staff at the La Garderie Bernadette Child Care Centre on campus.

Despite this limited space available, Dorimain believes that all students should have the choice to pay a fee for guaranteed childcare while they are in school.

“Child-care costs are super expensive, and I think that if we’re already paying for school at the U of O we should have some type of benefits to also be able to study knowing that we have childcare there.”

No Gee-Gee left behind

In the early weeks of September, students all over Canada will flock to university campuses to start their post-secondary studies with some sleepless nights and booze-filled days during 101 Week.

But amidst this chaos of moving vans, rowdy crowds, and endless line-ups, it’s important to look beyond what we’ve come to accept as the “normal” student experience. Most of us forget to empathize with those who struggle to do the very things child-free students often take for granted.

Perhaps it is this same lack of empathy that leads the U of O administration to overlook student-parents in their future campus planning, leaving nursing rooms and child-care centers off of the blueprint for now.

No matter what the future of our campus looks like, student-parents are here to stay. And if student-parents continue to struggle on our campus, Dorimain refuses to believe it is because of their children.

“I want to be specific that it was not my child that caused me to fail. It was that fact that people were not accommodating for the fact that I had a child… it’s the fact that our institutions themselves are not accommodating to people who have children.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Graduate Students’ Association opened a nursing room in the University Centre last winter. The nursing room was an idea proposed by the association to the U of O admin, and all costs were incurred by the university.