Is it possible to balance college and parenthood?
Facilities available for student parents are far from standard across all institutions
Colleges such as UCC offer subsidised creche care . Photograph: AFP/GettyImages)
For some parents, sending their child off to college can be a worrying time. For others, it’s they themselves who are entering the fray of third-level education. After rent, utilities and transport, childcare was the fourth largest category of expenditure for the Student Assistant Fund in 2014/15, with 9.8 per cent of total funds available dedicated to it. But although it’s by no means easy, it is certainly possible to be a student and a parent at the same time if the right supports are in place.
Unfortunately, the facilities available for student parents are far from standard across all institutions. While some offer parent support groups and strong representation within student unions, others provide little to no assistance for students with children, or those who become pregnant during their time at college.
“What we mean when we say ‘student’ has changed now. Students are no longer 18 and straight out of the Leaving Cert,” says Annie Hoey, president of the Union of Students in Ireland. “There’s a wide variety of ages and backgrounds. Institutes should recognise the diversity of the student body and should be supportive to all types of students. That means supportive of parents and facilitating their ability to participate in student life in the same way they would support people of different backgrounds.”
Some institutes, including Trinity College and Dublin Institute of Technology, offer funding programmes for childcare costs. Colleges such as UCC offer subsidised creche care, but in Trinity for instance, this is only available for children up to 4½ years old. However, the financial assistance available is limited overall.
Rebecca Williams is a single parent of three children, and has been working part-time along with studying for her BSc in information technology in Waterford IT. She has had to defer the final year of her course to work for a year in order to save money for childcare and the basic necessities for her children. “It’s just impossible,” she said.
“I love education, I want to learn. But I don’t have the money. The supports are just not enough.”
“Financial pressure is the biggest pressure without a doubt,” agrees Colum Foskin, a father of two, who is studying for a BSc in Applied Computing. His girlfriend works, but the family are still struggling financially. “We’re barely making it through. We’ve tried everything but we’re just over the bare minimum . . . I’m back to college on the back to education scheme, so from that side of it, there’s support there. But with a mortgage and two kids, it’s tough.”
Having seen the lengths that student parents go to for education in Waterford IT, maths lecturer Dr Susan Mac Donald set up a group in WIT this year in order to offer some level of support. “I set up WIT Student Parents’ Network because I talk to many valiant student parents who exude grit and who manage to attend lectures, to study and to pass examinations; and I could see that in several cases some support of any hue might be beneficial,” she says. “The idea is just to form a network of fellow student parents who might be in a position to help each other in practical ways or who might simply be available to chat and encourage each other.”
A similar service being operated in Mary Immaculate College in Co Limerick has given many students the practical and emotional support to continue with their studies since its inception in 2007. Being a student parent can be an isolating experience, but the Student Parent Support Service gives students an outlet to talk to others who are in the same situation, and to realise that there are other students in the same boat.
Rachel O’Connor (19), has a one-year-old daughter and is in her second year of an arts degree. Although her friends are very supportive, she is also grateful for the college’s support. “It’s just weird because there’s nobody else my age that has a baby in college. It’s weird not being a regular student, but at a regular student age,” she says. “There’s a lot of people in my class who have no idea I have a baby, I’d say they would be shocked if they knew. . . It’s nice to see other parents that are doing the same thing.”
Students in Mary Immaculate credit the services available with helping them to stay in college. The support provided and the various events for the children of students throughout the year gives real validation to families as being part of the college community. “If Nicola in the Student Parent Network wasn’t there, I wouldn’t have even completed the degree,” says Caroline Doocey, who has recently graduated with a Bachelor of Arts. “I found out I was pregnant in July 2011 and was starting in Mary I in September. I met counsellors in the college and they told me about the student parent co-ordinator. I met with Nicola then every week.”
Even with the added support, staying in college during pregnancy or with a young child is an enormous challenge. Moira Rammell says that balancing college with parenthood is “a juggling act”. She finished college a week before her due date and was back completing assignments in less than a month. “I thought I was going to have a week off, but I ended up in hospital with high blood pressure on the Tuesday, and Matthew was born on the Sunday,” she says. “We were in hospital for a week and I ended up with sepsis. I came out of hospital on the 18th of March. I was doing assignments as soon as I got out, and I submitted a psychology assignment the first week of April.”
Although the balancing act is tricky for Anthony Hurley, a WIT student with a one-year-old son, he advises expectant parents to set up supports in advance. “When you find out that you’re going to have a child, line up as much help as you can. Try and find the supports that are out there and talk to other parents about how to manage your study,” he says. “It is hard, no matter what information you get from people, everyone’s situation is different. Each child is going to be different. You could get a good child that doesn’t cry, you could have a child that cries 24/7 so your study is going to be impacted. I’m lucky my young fella is very good, and I study when he goes to bed.”
Resilience and support from family and friends is vital to being a parent and a student at the same time, but Moira is keen to note that it’s not impossible.
“It isn’t the end of the world. The obstacles can be overcome. If you have to take a year out, take a year out; you can always go back, education’s always there. If you really want to do it, you’ll do it,” she says.