Weathering the Storm with Student Parents: Confronting Racism and COVID-19 in Minnesota

Susan Warfield | August 12, 2020 | Aspen Postsecondary Success for Parents

In the 20 years I have been with the University of Minnesota’s Student Parent HELP Center (SPHC), I have never experienced anything like the parallel traumas of a pandemic and the George Floyd murder. Being in Minneapolis, which has been at the epicenter of the national mourning of George Floyd and resulting social strife, has made this a uniquely difficult time for our program. The SPHC serves a particularly diverse group of students, with typically 50 percent of our registered program users identifying as Black, Indigenous, or Person of Color (BIPOC). We have witnessed the devastating impact that the abrupt transition to online classes and homeschooling, combined with the racial unrest in the Twin Cities, have had on our students.

The SPHC has always been a relationally-based program. Research driven and intentionally designed, all programs emphasize student parent-peer relationships, staff and student engagement, and the creation of a welcoming home base for pregnant and parenting students on campus. When we began to work remotely in March, we were very worried this relational work would be interrupted. Thankfully, we have found this has not been the case. Although for safety reasons we had to end on-site contacts, our weekly Parents As Students Support (PASS) Group, our End-of-Year Celebration, and Graduation Party, we feel we have been able to pivot and maintain our connection to students through Zoom and outgoing, staff-initiated, check-in calls to every undergraduate SPHC parent.

From the moment we went remote, we began brainstorming ways to reach out to students and re-tool programming we could no longer maintain due to safety concerns. When we witnessed several students floundering when they transitioned to online learning and homeschooling, we initiated outreach calls to every undergraduate student parent served by the SPHC. Those contacts resulted in more than one intervention that saved a student’s term and/or graduation. The first round of calls covered not just COVID-related health and related stressors, but also the city-wide protests, impact on their specific neighborhoods, and any personal trauma they might be experiencing, racially or otherwise. In one case, a student burst into tears when our staff asked how they were doing, sharing she felt she was drowning academically in her online classes and was also not keeping up with her first-grade daughter’s studies. We immediately began weekly Zoom check-ins, mediated a plan with her professor, and scheduled joint meetings with the professor, the student, and I, as needed. Eventually, this student went from being totally lost and failing to a more than passing grade and graduation at the end of the term. We also identified significant mental health issues, found struggling single mothers cut off from all avenues of emotional support, and resolved financial issues with SPHC emergency grants or referrals to financial aid-based government CARES fund and other COVID-related funding.

In determining what we would do to replace our much-loved weekly PASS Group, we immediately reached out directly to past attendees to determine their interest in a Zoom-based weekly support group. We found online classes and other academic meetings had already led to screen burnout, making an online PASS Group offering a strong “NO” from our students. However, they reported missing their PASS friends and connection with staff leaders and agreed to some type of replacement offering for fall would be welcomed, if we continued to work remotely. Since they reported that meeting weekly would be too frequent, we are planning a series of bi-weekly Zoom events for fall term that feature more activity and less discussion. We are developing plans that will incorporate the children, so they are not faced with additional time with mom or dad staring at a screen and not at them. One idea is to hold an online scavenger hunt where parents can send the kiddos off to gather household items and then do a “show and tell” with one of the items listed.

The SPHC has also continued our core resource and referral work, now through emails or calls. We have used our email list to communicate key details of government aid programs, COVID funding at the U, and new funds offered by local municipalities. The SPHC worked hard to assist students as a whole and individually to access the new unemployment and stimulus funding. We also released an emailed statement sharing our heartfelt concerns for students impacted by the George Floyd murder, neighborhood unrest, and on-going national social justice issues.

Although the SPHC has weathered many storms in our 50-year history, nothing has compared to these dual crises. Not the closing of our host college and administrative re-location in 2005, not the day the Twin Towers fell during 9/11, and not any previous belt tightening we have had to do during economic downturns. No previous budgetary crunch or pain will equal the scenarios the U of M and higher education overall, now faces. It was heartbreaking canceling our End-of-Year Celebration for the first time in 15 years.

However, more than parties or events or even the money we offer, it is staff expertise and our relationships with students that has had the greatest impact, even in terms of degrees saved. Because of our years of donor engagement and development work, we feel our funding pools for students are secure. We are still completing intakes with new students by phone or Zoom. We have transitioned to processing all child care grants electronically. We are holding more weekly check-in meetings with students than we did before life changed so dramatically. We have assisted students in mediating pregnancy “leaves” from classes through email alone. Currently, we are in no danger of losing staff positions and continue to do the work, remaining physically – but not socially or personally – distanced.

Susan Warfield is the program director of the Student Parent HELP Center at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. She is a National Advisor with the Ascend Postsecondary Success for Parents Initiative.

Photo above of past End of Year Celebration and Graduation Party provided by the SPHC.

The SPHC recently published an in-depth evaluation, “Academic Outcomes of Undergraduate Student Parents,” by Wilder Research and funded by Raise the Barr, an Ascend Network Partner. Read the report here.

Related Posts

Today, Ascend at the Aspen Institute announced that eight Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) have joined its Black and Native Family Futures Fund.
Press ReleasesDecember 13, 2022
Yolanda Johnson-Peterkin was taught to always take care of those around her, but didn’t always see education as a way of doing so After dropping out of school and later finding herself incarcerated and pregnant, Yolanda became determined to change the course of her life. Once she was released, Yolanda focused on establishing a relationship …

‘1 in 5’ Season 2 Episode 5: Meet Yolanda Johnson-Peterkin Read More »

Aspen Postsecondary Success for ParentsDecember 1, 2022
Drayton Jackson experienced homelessness for almost 20 years. Today, Drayton utilizes his lived experience to advocate for others in a similar position—but it wasn’t always easy adjusting to having a seat at the table. Drayton, now the father of eight, is setting boundaries and goals for himself to achieve a healthy work-life balance. Along with …

‘1 in 5’ Season 2 Episode 4: Catching up with Drayton Jackson Read More »

Aspen Postsecondary Success for ParentsDecember 1, 2022
1 in 5 Student Parent Podcast
Soren’s interest in higher education has always been rooted in an interest in the environment, even from childhood. As an adult, after struggling with their own mental health, Soren became interested in psychology, and pursued jobs in the medical field, but was soon discouraged by the for-profit medical system. Soren went through challenging transitions in …

‘1 in 5’ Season 2 Episode 3: Meet Soren Read More »

Aspen Postsecondary Success for ParentsDecember 1, 2022
Ignacio Angel has decided to define for himself what success looks like as a college student and father of four. The for-profit trade school he went to, which was later investigated for preying on vulnerable students, never delivered on promises of a job, and landed him in debt. With Lilly’s help, he found a support …

‘1 in 5’ Season 2 Episode 2: Meet Ignacio Angel Read More »

Aspen Postsecondary Success for ParentsDecember 1, 2022
Dr. Daria Willis brings her extensive education and her own experience as a student parent to her role as president of Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland. Daria had her daughter, Lyric, during her first year in college. She shares how keenly she felt the social stigma of being a single parent. It took a …

‘1 in 5’ Season 2 Episode 1: Meet Daria Willis Read More »

Aspen Postsecondary Success for ParentsDecember 1, 2022
Today, Ascend at the Aspen Institute (Ascend) released the second season of “1 in 5,” its highly rated podcast that explores the multifaceted lives of the one in five college students raising children.
Press ReleasesDecember 1, 2022
1 in 5 Student Parent Podcast
The 1 in 5 podcast vividly profiles students who are parents pursuing their education while raising a family and working. Today, more than one in five college students (22%) are parents. The experiences of students who are parents should not be unfamiliar or unheard, especially on college campuses. They’re in classrooms and clubs, working jobs and managing finances just like their peers.
BlogDecember 1, 2022
In an op-ed written for Early Learning Nation, 2023 Ascend Parent Advisor, Mikah Jorgensen, shares her personal experience and expertise offering 5 ideas and recommendations for postsecondary institutions to make higher education more supportive of parenting students.
Media MentionsOctober 6, 2022
Today, Ascend at the Aspen Institute (Ascend) announced that 11 new Parent Advisors have joined its Postsecondary Success for Parents initiative (PSP) to help shape Ascend’s expanded agenda to improve higher education policy and practice for student parents.
Press ReleasesSeptember 29, 2022
More than half of the nearly 4 million student parents in the U.S. are students of color, with Black, Native, and Latino students among the most likely to be raising children while in college. In fact, one-third of all Black college students in the U.S. are parents. When higher education is not designed with parents …

A Leadership Imperative: Postsecondary Success for Parents Launches Its Next Phase Read More »

Aspen Postsecondary Success for ParentsSeptember 29, 2022
In an op-ed for Philanthropy News Digest, Ascend founder and executive director Anne Mosle highlights the power and potential in listening to and honoring the expertise of parents and caregivers.
Media MentionsAugust 22, 2022
In an article for Lumina Foundation's summer 2022 Focus magazine, Ascend's David Croom offers insight into the power of student parents' commitment to success for themselves and their families.
Media MentionsAugust 3, 2022
In an op-ed for amNY.com, Félix V. Matos Rodríguez shares insights and reflections on how higher ed can make a difference for families by supporting student parents.
Media MentionsJuly 29, 2022
RFP for HBCUs and TCUs to apply for funding and technical assistance to support student parent success on their campuses One in five college students – close to 4 million – is pursuing higher education while parenting. More than half are students of color, with Black and Native students more likely to be balancing school …

Ascend’s New Family Futures Fund Focuses on Black and Native Student Parent Success Read More »

Aspen Postsecondary Success for ParentsJuly 20, 2022