It takes a village: Montana State’s student parents

“My day starts at 6 a.m., sometimes earlier. About an hour in the morning is ‘mom time’ … before the kids go to school,” explains Cassandra Bergum, MSU student and mother of two. After spending two to three hours in class and another couple of hours studying each day, Bergum heads home: “After four, it’s all mom until ten at night.” Then, she will study some more. Juggling classes, children, a part-time job on campus and her relationship of three years with her self-employed boyfriend, Bergum is a busy woman.

Bergum’s experiences and the experiences of other student parents remain largely unexpressed. MSU offers some resources to student parents — namely childcare and connections to community services — but there is a growing push from university faculty, staff and students to improve how MSU addresses the needs of student parents.

 

A number one concern

There are currently two on-campus child care facilities for pre-school aged children. One, the Child Development Center (CDC), is the College of Health and Human Development’s experimental preschool. The other, the ASMSU Daycare Center is funded in part by student fees and is specifically designed for students’ child care needs.

The CDC, located in Herrick Hall, provides child care for 50 families while serving as a research and test classroom and field placement site for all Early Childhood Education and Child Services (ECE & CS) students.

Important to the CDC’s mission is respect towards the children and their families. “It’s not just about the children,” said Lux, “It’s about the family as well.”

“Parent involvement and communication is vital to the children’s success in our preschool program,” explains the CDC handbook.

The CDC provides family education for parents and connects families to community services, such as Child Care Connections, a Bozeman area child care resource and referral agency. Lux explains, “We try to be sure to connect [student parents] with the resources, especially financial resources, and we make sure to do that in a sensitive way.”

However, of the 50 students enrolled in the CDC, only three are from student families. Lux explained that the prohibitive factor is “probably cost.” The cost of full-time enrollment at the CDC is $38 a day or $755 a month.

The ASMSU Daycare is a more affordable option for MSU students. The daycare’s mission statement is “to serve MSU as a quality early education … [and] to meet the needs of children and families.”

“For [student] families, childcare is probably one of their number one concerns,” says ASMSU Daycare Director Mary Bolick.

Restricted to student and faculty families, ASMSU created the program in 1977 to meet the needs of students with children. “Our program is subsidised by ASMSU,” said Bolick, “That allows us to charge less than what else is out there.” Average child care tuition rates, in the Bozeman area including the CDC’s rates are nearly double those of the ASMSU Daycare.  Currently, the ASMSU program charges $19 per full day for student’s children, and $27 per full day for faculty and staff’s children.

Bolick, who has been with the program since 1979, is passionate about improving the daycare. In the beginning the daycare enrolled 14 children and was located in half of a Family and Graduate Housing (FGH) duplex. Enrollment has since grown to 70 children. “We’ve made many changes,” she said, “Our program, over the years, has evolved … It’s been exciting trying to become a better program.”

Recently, the ASMSU Daycare received National Association for the Education of Young Children (NEAYC) accreditation, a distinction awarded to less than 10 percent of child care programs nationwide, and only 15 programs in state of Montana.

The ASMSU Daycare, to specifically meet student needs, is now located between the FGH complexes and campus, a convenient place for student families, many of whom live in FGH residences. Additionally, the daycare schedule mirrors the University class schedule, and is open every day classes are in session.

However, Bolick identified two shortcomings with the child care options on campus. “One thing I see lacking is infant/toddler care. There’s really nothing on campus, and even in the community it is in high demand,” she said. Currently, neither the CDC nor the ASMSU Daycare is set up or licensed to provide care to infants and toddlers.

There is also high demand for preschool age child care. “Our wait list goes out to 2015 right now. We have parents who come in with six month olds, looking for a slot,” Bolick said.

“If you’re a student and don’t have a place for your child to be, it’s a challenge that could stop you from being a student,” said Bolick.

 

A black hole of information

Although Bolick identified the need for affordable child care as a pressing concern for many students with children, MSU’s understanding of student parent experiences remains largely undeveloped. Sara Rushing, political science professor and Family Advocate, is driving the push to increase MSU’s “family friendliness.”

The Family Advocacy Program was started in 2009 with the idea of being a first stop for information about familial concerns. “I’ve worked primarily with faculty and staff, and with a few students,” Rushing explained. One of her goals for the program is to reach more students.

“There’s been a real jump in parents in school,” Rushing explained. “There’s a normative idea of what students are,” she said, describing a 19-year-old recent high school graduate with parents to pay tuition, “What we don’t think of is a father of three returning to school, but we should.”

She estimates “a fair number” of MSU students are parents. However, like the answers to most questions Rushing has about the experiences of student parents, there is no official data. “We’re trying to get a handle on what the problem is. Is it money? Is it time? … Just how big is this demographic?” she asked, “It’s kind of like a black hole of information.”

“I’m a social scientist and a parent so I can speculate,” she said, “but it’s much better to actually talk to people … I would like to hear from them what their experiences are.”

Currently, Rushing is facilitating efforts to understand and aid student parents. She was instrumental in initiating dialogue between MSU and the Bozeman school district and is encouraging development of a Student Family Advocacy Program.

 

Looking for solutions

Bozeman school district data identified the children of MSU students as a potentially at-risk demographic for falling behind or dropping out of school — a demographic that could specifically benefit from additional support.  “We want to figure out a way to have MSU and the public school system tackling it from both directions,” said Rushing. MSU and school district stakeholders, have begun brainstorming solutions.

Bergum often finds herself finagling child care on days when MSU classes are in session, but the school district has a holiday. One day last semester, Bergum’s son sat quietly next to her in class for lack of a better child care option. “Better communication between the [schools’] calendars would be good,” said Rushing.

But it remains difficult to solve other problems that have not yet been identified. “That’s one of the things I’m really curious about,” Rushing said, “How much do they [student parents] draw on the resources available? What challenges do [student parents] face? What resources or support would help?”

Rushing is also collaborating with campus staff, including the Office of Student Success and the Office of Activities and Engagement, to develop a student-specific Family Advocate position. “Were talking about having a dedicated Student Family Advocate. We’re excited about it and we’re trying to figure out what that position will look like.” Rushing said.

For Bergum’s part, she is currently seeking out more financial aid. “Money is not … easy for me. I have other things [besides tuition] like kids and vehicles and pets and just life. Money is the biggest issue for me,” Bergum said, “One thing I haven’t delved into are scholarships for moms, for single moms, to reduce my ridiculously high school costs.” She admits she would welcome guidance — guidance Rushing hopes a Student Advocate could provide.

The position would also help student parents navigate issues with attendance, grades and professors.

“I’ve worked with students who have been too pregnant to fit in a desk,” Rushing said. She has helped a student whose wife suffered a serious illness after a pregnancy and had to drop all of his classes, and other students negotiating family-related absences. “How do you manage the semester when you’re not sick, but not functional?” Rushing questioned.

Bergum said she has only had positive experiences working with her professors, despite occasional missed classes to care for a sick child or other parental duties. “I’ve never had anybody [be] discompassionate towards me,” she said. “[My professors told me to] ‘do what you can, get it in when you can ’… it’s really nice to know I wasn’t pushed. My professors, TAs and other students have been really helpful.”

“Balancing a child and life is difficult no matter what stage. It doesn’t mean you have to put your life on hold,” Rushing said.