Alexandra Haar enters her campus library looking like the other students cramming for finals: tired, busy and stressed. She has a 20-page paper due in four hours, a shift at her part-time job at a coffee shop, and tests throughout the next week. But Haar, a 21-year-old junior at Washington University in St. Louis, has much more than grades and essays on her mind—she is the single mother of a two-year-old boy, Dylan. Her study schedule revolves around her parenting schedule, and parties take a backseat to the responsibilities of being a mom.
When Haar applied to college, she never expected to be raising a son while in school. She became pregnant in the middle of her senior year of high school, and six weeks before her first college class, she gave birth to Dylan. As a freshman, Haar settled into life as a college student while starting out as a single parent. Dylan's father, who attends Saint Louis University, will often watch him for an evening, and Dylan's grandmothers help out, but he is not enrolled in daycare and Haar is his primary caregiver.
"Dylan really motivates me with school work, but he also keeps me grounded socially," she says. "I'll go see my friends and go out, but I always think of him, so I can't drink too much or anything like that."
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) estimates that seven percent of fulltime undergrads are single parents and, like Haar, take on the double duty of parenting and studying. But scattered throughout schools across the nation, they tend to feel cut off from college life. Most live off campus, as family housing open to undergrads is hard to come by, and find that packed schedules leave little time for socializing.
"It can be isolating when you're sitting in a class of 200 people and you're thinking about your kids or about what you're going to be making for dinner," says April Kigeya, the parent resource specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Kigeya experienced life as an undergraduate parent firsthand. She gave birth to her son Demetrius during the second semester of her freshman year at UW-Madison. Her daughter Kenya followed senior year.
"I got used to staying up late, usually until two or three in the morning," says Kigeya. "My son would go to bed at eight or nine and I would just have to study after. That's pretty much what I did—working during the week, studying on the weekend."
While raising her children and pursuing a degree in legal studies, Kigeya split parenting responsibilities with her boyfriend Dan, who is now her husband. They had to coordinate their schedules to ensure that while one was at class or work, the other was home with the kids.
"It's really hard to find a balance," she says. "Things are fine when your kids are in school and you're at class, but when you come home and need to study, your child needs your attention. You have to get food for the house and so many other things."
After graduating from UW-Madison in 2004, Kigeya now helps other parents on campus find their balance. At the university's Office of Child Care and Family Resources, she coordinates a single parent resource group, plans activities for parents and children and tries to create a sense of community among student parents.
"Right now I have 500 student parents on my list at the university," she says. "I think that people don't realize that there are student parents out there and that it is a part of the college 'tradition' now."
But finding a place within that tradition is still difficult. Beyond the balancing act of studying and parenting, there are the everyday aspects of raising a child that few campuses are equipped to handle. Campus daycare facilities can be financially out of reach for undergrads and, at some universities, are open only to faculty.
Elizabeth Gonzalez attends the University of Arizona, the only Pac-10 University without an on-campus daycare. The university offers a $500 childcare stipend per semester, but that hardly covers the monthly $600 cost of daycare that she used to pay for her four-year-old son, Daniel, who now attends preschool. Even with financial aid and child support payments from Daniel's father, whom she dated in high school, Gonzalez works three jobs to support herself and her son. She waitresses at a restaurant, helps with clerical work at an insurance office and assists in an elementary classroom for students with special needs—all before hitting the books at night.
With these responsibilities, extracurricular activities simply cannot be prioritized. "When I am going to be applying for jobs they're going to look at how much I've been involved on campus," says Gonzalez. "It wasn't a choice I could make. I was really involved in high school, but I have to work too much now and I have my son."
The demands of being both a student and mother may explain why only a quarter of single parents pursue a bachelor's degree. The NCES identifies being a single parent as one of the seven factors that puts students who begin an undergraduate degree at risk for dropping out of their program. Parenting places significant financial burdens and time commitments on the undergraduate. As Gonzalez says, "If it became a question between paying the bills and going to school, I have to pay the bills."
Gonzalez has not yet been faced with that decision. The paychecks and child support have paid the bills, and a desire to make her son proud motivates her to stay in school. While raising a child can put graduation in peril, it also can drive parents who want to provide the best for their children.
Bri Kneisley even questions whether she would have graduated high school without her son. She became pregnant at 15, and with a 0.125 GPA, she dropped out of high school. At eight months pregnant, she was waiting tables for $5.50 per hour while living in the housing projects in her hometown, Kansas City, Missouri. The birth of her son and her brother's graduation from community college pushed her back into the classroom.
"I had the realization that I was way too smart to be waiting tables the rest of my life," she says.
Kneisley quit her job as a waitress to focus on her studies and parenting responsibilities and, after completing an associate degree at a community college in Kansas City, transferred to Wash. U. But when Kneisley arrived to pursue her undergraduate degree, the only affordable housing she could find was a half hour drive from campus. Wash. U. does not offer on-campus housing for undergraduates with children.
"We honestly don't have the space," says Cheryl Stephens, an associate director of residential life at the university. "We are having enough trouble finding housing for all of our students, even before considering non-traditional students."
The university's off-campus apartments, which can accommodate student parents, were financially out of reach for Kneisley.
"I couldn't afford to live anywhere near campus," she says. "So I spent about an hour a day getting to and from campus and then couldn't really justify coming back to campus after I left for the day."While financial aid and scholarships covered her tuition, Kneisley still borrowed $45,000 to cover living expenses for her son Damien and herself. Living far from campus made it difficult to schedule study groups when she had to look after Damien.
When her car broke down for a month, Kneisley took the bus. When she dislocated her knee one winter, she navigated an icy campus on crutches. If Damien had a day off from school, she would sometimes bring him along to her classes. No matter what difficulty came Kneisley's way, dropping out was never an option.
"I just couldn't not graduate. It had to happen," says Kneisley. "I don't have my parents to fall back on; I don't have anything particularly to fall back on. If I don't support us, nobody else will."
Kneisley did graduate, receiving a degree in English last spring. During the three years she spent at Wash. U., she found professors encouraging and understanding of her experience, and taking her son to class was never a problem. Yet she found the campus unable to adequately accommodate the needs of student parents.
"There's no childcare, there's no housing and they aren't particularly understanding financially," says Kneisley. "We may not be the entirety of the university or we may be thoroughly anomalous, but we do exist."
Karen Kneifel had a lot on her mind when she moved to Bemidji, Minn. in the fall. Her boyfriend had broken up with her just three weeks before she learned she was pregnant. Her son Landon was just a few months old when Kneifel left her hometown to begin life at Bemidji State University. While living away from home, Kneifel quickly found a support system in her apartment building, a university complex that houses many undergraduate parents.
"It's helped out a lot. You can really confide in other parents about school and how hard it is," she says. "It's been a big help being around other single parents. Talking to the moms in the apartments, we get the same things all the time. But we can do it."
As a parent, Kneifel sacrificed the parties that used to dominate her social schedule. When she took on the additional responsibilities of parenting and a part-time job, she saw her grades begin to improve.
"After having my son, I've done better at school," she says. "I made the Dean's List for the first time. I've had a lot people stereotype me, saying that I'll never go back to college. I really want to prove to those that I can do that. I only have a year left."
Kneifel will receive a degree in graphic design next spring, and her son recently celebrated his first birthday. Haar will graduate from Wash. U. at the same time. She hopes to pursue a law degree and recently wrapped up an internship with the American Civil Liberties Union. Kigeya plans to pursue law as well, and hopes to apply her experience as a parent to a career in child advocacy law. Kneisley is in the first year of a doctorate program in English at the University of Missouri, and Gonzalez will continue to balance three jobs, parenting and classes until she graduates in spring 2008. She is preparing for a career in elementary education and hopes that, by pursuing her dream, she will make her son proud.
"I don't want my son to think 'My mom was only 16 and now she's on welfare,'" says Gonzalez.
Parenting has been incredibly demanding, they say, but none can imagine her undergraduate experience without it. The children they are raising have become fundamental parts of their successes.
"Damien is such an integral part of how I imagine myself. I would not be where I am without him," says Kneisley. "Things would have been a lot easier if I hadn't been a single parent, but, that said, I wouldn't have given him up for anything."