It took me many years as a professional in the world of higher education before I had a personal epiphany: for me and my family, our academic success as student parents was not only a two-generation (2Gen) strategy that uplifted me and my children, it was a four-generation strategy that set up our family’s success for generations to come. I was a student parent and now that my daughter is preparing to start college with her own vibrant and energetic two-year-old daughter, we are going on four generations of student parents – making a five generational impact – in our family.
My parents had a lot to do with my success as a student parent. My dad studied for his medical school exams with an infant Autumn sitting on his lap, and I proudly celebrated his graduation from my mother’s shoulders when I was two (a story that had been told to me my whole life with the help of our family photo albums). My mom also finished her bachelor’s degree when I was an infant, and when I was nine or ten, returned to college first to earn her landscape contractors license, and later to enroll in an online Master’s program at the University of California in something to do with Greek Mythology.
Growing up, our home was a place of lifelong learning. It was full of books, we had a pre-windows DOS computer by the early 90s, and I always knew that if there was something I wanted to do or learn, that I could either figure it out by researching it myself, or ask my parents or grandparents for help. From this childhood vantage point anything and everything was an option and opportunity as long as I was willing to put in the effort that it took to learn.
It took a lot longer for me to realize even after listening to all the stories of my grandmother’s life at the dinner table since she moved to Oregon to live near us when I was ten, that our family’s intergenerational student parent story goes back another generation. My grandmother was born in 1919, growing up in Brooklyn as the daughter of a pharmacist, and co-enrolling at Columbia University Teachers College and the Juilliard School where she studied as both a concert pianist and music teacher. As she told me the story, she earned dual Master’s Degrees in Music Education and Music Performance, and even made it to doctoral candidacy before being compelled to leave her program to start a music education business and to attend to raising her children. Even though I knew this story well for most of my life, one day, it hit me like an epiphany, that my grandma had been a student parent too–long before Women’s rights or Title IX or other advancements between the 1940s and today that made such things much more possible.
In our family, being a parent was never a reason not to go to college, in fact, it was exactly the reason that a person should.
Of course I knew that I had been a student parent before and after starting my career as a scholar of student parent success. So I had seen first-hand the power of a 2Gen approach through the path of higher education. When my daughter, Braedon, was ten, she walked into my bedroom where I was sitting on my laptop typing out a letter asking Congress to expand opportunities for higher education as part of TANF reauthorization.
“What are you doing Mama?” she asked me.
“I’m writing a letter to Congress about how moms and dads like me should be able to go to college,” I explained.
“I want to write one!” She exclaimed immediately.
I agreed, opened another window on my computer, and she began dictating:
“Dear Congress People to Which I am Writing,” she began. “I don’t know life without my mom going to school but I think that our life would be different. I think that we wouldn’t live in a good house, we wouldn’t be able to eat as much food, I know we wouldn’t have the house I live in now for sure. We probably wouldn’t have as good of a doctor and I probably wouldn’t have got to have the knee surgery I needed. My sister has learning disabilities and she probably wouldn’t get the help she needs either without my mom going to all these meetings and understanding all the things the teachers have to say.
We have those things because we moved to Boston for my mom to go to school. Now my mom has got a pretty good job as a teacher at Boston College while she finishes school. Also, my mom knows how to fight really hard for our family. I think that she might have learned that in school. Even though my mom works a lot I still get to spend time with her and I know that when she graduates we’re going to live in a nice house and that I’m going to go to college someday too just like my mom.
I know some other people in my life that have problems like my family except for their problems are more severe. They don’t have a lot of money either. They can’t afford lots of stuff that they need like food and housing. They don’t have anybody to look after their children except for themselves. With them having to go to school they need lots of support. I think it’s important that they go to school so they can get a better job and have a better life. Maybe they can even get a job helping make other people’s lives better too, like my mama is trying to do. That’s why I think it’s so important that people get the opportunity to go to college. It’s good for our families and for everyone else too.
Thank You Very Much.” She concluded.
And then I printed out the letter and she colored the whole thing in with carefully crayoned rainbow stripes as I went back to finishing mine. The next day we walked together to the office of our local representative, Mike Capuano, to hand deliver our letters–which were also delivered to Washington DC by advocates from Women for Economic Justice.
At ten years old, Braedon understood and articulated the 2Gen impact of supporting student parents more clearly and powerfully than many 2Gen advocates. She was born at the end of my freshman year of community college, but I only took the summer off before returning to college with the support of on-campus child care, a child care scholarship, federal student aid, and pretty resourceful parents who supported my efforts to finish college from beginning to end. And, as Braedon so eloquently articulated, her and her sister’s life experiences and opportunities were forever changed for the better as a result.
Braedon is now 22, and raising her own exuberant and outgoing two-year-old daughter. While she is treading out her own unique path in life as an amazing human being and mother, one can’t help but see some of the parallels in our experiences and lives as mother and daughter: I finished my GED before she was born, while she is now completing her exams. We are both fiercely dedicated, independent, and loving young mothers who took on the full and unwavering commitment of raising our kids, at any cost or sacrifice — including giving up fantasies that our lives might ever resemble those of childless young adults — and fully taking on the daily duties and challenges of parenthood head on, from an age that still classified us as teenagers.
Now as we research and plan for Braedon’s next steps in life, she also knows, because I showed her first-hand, as my parents once showed me, that becoming a young mom herself will never stop her from reaching her goals or accomplishing her dreams. She knows that college is a pathway that can not only change her life, but that it will also transform her daughter’s life for the better. She knows because she witnessed first-hand how my college journey with her and her sister already shaped and changed their lives.
She knows that student family housing exists, because she grew up in it. She knows that colleges have child care centers, because she attended them. And she knows that anything she needs to support her own journey as a student parent is possible to find with the help of a little research and a resourceful mom — and of course having a mom who is among the leading national experts on these matters doesn’t hurt either.
Most student parents are not preceded by three generations of student parents to look to as role models. One-in-three students with children are the first-generation within their families to attend college at all — let alone try to do it with kids in tow. Public discourse, television, and movies tell young parents that going to college as a low-income student with kids is an unrealistic pipe dream.
They don’t know about student parent support services. They break down in tears when they learn that not only are there people like me in the world who went all the way from GED to PhD with kids, but that I’m doing the work to ensure that the support services that were available to me, and that I’m helping Braedon find and access, are easier for them to find and access too. The American Dream, however mythological it may seem, is a promise that everyone deserves equal access to the opportunities they are willing to work to achieve. That means everyone, even if you are the first person in your family to do it, and even — and especially — if you have kids.
My research team has partnered with the Hope Center and Bridge to Hope in Hawaii, and others, to conduct research through which we are identifying every service and support program for students with kids at every college or university in the country. While we don’t have all the answers yet, we hope to have them soon. With these answers we are creating reports about what we are learning, as well as online search tools and regional guidebooks so that every student parent can Find Their Way to and through a college degree program, on the path to achieving their dreams. We also have a nationally comprehensive database of every college and university in the country with campus family housing which can help prospective student parents find a school that meets their needs for housing.
To find out more visit:
Supporting Student Parents on Campus/Find Your Way: www.wcwonline.org/findyourway
Campus Family Housing Database: www.wcwonline.org/Family-Housing/family-housing-project-database
Higher Education Access for Student Parents Research Initiative: www.wcwonline.org/studentparents