Elizabeth Cady Stanton Pregnant and Parenting Student Services Act
U.S. House Briefing, February 15, 2006 - Susan B. Anthony's Birthday
Remarks of John Dickinson
I am from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I met my future wife, Terri, in high school. I went to college at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and Terri went to Southwestern in Texas. The summer before our senior year we became engaged, and shortly thereafter we found out that we were pregnant. We returned to our respective colleges for the first semester of our senior year. We were married in December, and I took a leave of absence from college to take an internship in Albuquerque from January till August 2004. In March of that year, we were overjoyed by the birth of our daughter, Isabel. A few months later, I returned to school in Baltimore to finish my last semester and graduate in December. Both Terri and I spent a semester expecting a baby and a semester with an infant in college.
As anyone knows, getting pregnant is a life-changing experience; for new parents, there is immediately a new, completely helpless person who must be cared for. This can be a jarring change even for a couple comfortably settled into a consistent routine. However, in college when life is anything but consistent, the effects on an individual's life are dramatic.
Being a student parent required me to plan and coordinate for our future, and then implement this plan with whatever support I could find. It was a challenge. I cannot recount the myriad thoughts and feelings I had upon learning of our pregnancy, but when the dust settled, it was time to decide “What do we do now?” I realized several things immediately: we both needed to finish our education as soon as possible, and we needed to find the financial means to support our new baby. We decided to return to our respective schools for the upcoming semester, at the end of which we needed a plan to prepare for Isabel's birth.
Immediately upon arriving back at school, I sought out assistance from the administration. The first thing I looked for was precedent; had an undergraduate ever been on campus with a baby before? I had certainly never seen a pregnant student and rarely saw children on campus, especially infants. I wanted to know what accommodations could be made for students who had a child at school; for example, childcare, housing, changing tables in the washrooms (men's and women's), stroller accessibility on campus. The unknowns of pregnancy also gave rise to a multitude of “what ifs”: What if I'm too busy to spend enough time with my baby? What if my baby gets sick? It was vital at this time that I find someone who could connect me to resources and support for a new baby.
Graduate students occasionally had children while in school, but I found after talking with one of the deans at school that it was extremely rare for an undergraduate to have a child. The dean listened to my questions and told me that some things could be provided for and others could not be. The administration had good intentions, but was not going to make it easy. There was no place for a family to live; there was no place on campus where I could leave Isabel while I was in class; and there were no accommodations for parenting students like changing tables and booster seats in dining halls. Distance or out-of-classroom learning may help student parents, but it was not even an option for undergraduates at my school.
However, some of my concerns were addressed. The dean was willing to talk with my professors to help accommodate any out-of-class child emergencies, and academic advising would work with me so that I could fulfill the curriculum requirements and finish my degree. In short, my school was willing to compromise where it could through administrative intervention, but was unwilling to change anything substantial about school policy in order to help undergraduate parents. This substantial change is where the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Pregnant and Parenting Student Services Act would have helped me; there were simply no existing programs or staff members in place at Hopkins to find creative ways for me to parent my child as well as complete my education.
Knowing that I would be able to finish my education in the near future, though it would not be easy, I turned my attention to supporting Terri through the rest of her pregnancy and both her and Isabel after the birth. I needed to secure health care for the three of us, and I also needed some way of providing for us financially. My solution to this problem was to secure a paid internship that provided health insurance in our hometown. Schools usually have work-study positions and an expansive network of internship possibilities that could be utilized and arranged to assist student parents. Even if the school is only temporarily employing a person, having that job makes a huge difference.
It turned out that the insurance company paid about $24,000 for Isabel's birth, a figure that would have put us in debt for years at an already financially tenuous time of our lives. In the end, we spent an out-of-pocket sum of only $400. Looking back on the whole pregnancy, escaping this financial catastrophe was the key to our current state in life, and I know that comprehensive health insurance is a major factor for other parenting students.
After working for eight months while Terri finished school and Isabel was born, our family moved to Baltimore so I could finish my degree at Hopkins, and the challenge of actually having a child while in school was upon me. Fortunately, since Terri had finished her degree and we had money from my internship, Terri was able to stay at home with Isabel, and we did not have to worry about child care.
The most important thing for me was to have an ally in the administration who knew my personal situation and was capable of communicating on my behalf with other administrators and professors, or at least pointing me to the person who could assist me as challenges arose. The web of university administration is a difficult realm to traverse to begin with, and when you barely have enough time to get to your classes, the barrage of meetings, emails, and phone calls required is suffocating. In my case, determining which courses counted for which requirements and arranging my schedule at the beginning of the semester was most intimidating, and the understanding and determination of my administrative representatives was crucial.
After that, I had to worry about our life after my graduation—the prospect of finding work and continuing my life beyond school. The concern of not knowing where we would go afterwards was daunting. However, one of the most helpful things about a university is their network of on-campus recruiting, which proved an indispensable asset and allowed me to secure a job immediately following my graduation.
The semester that Terri and I spent apart, expecting a child, and the semester I spent as a parenting father took an incredible amount of focus and dedication to both my family and my education. Today my whole family is healthy and happy, I have a good job, and future prospects are encouraging. However, there was a time after I learned of our pregnancy that I thought there was no way we could ever lead a normal, comfortable life without being plagued by debt and having blank spaces on the wall where our college degrees now hang. The key to similar success stories is not to leave students completely alone, fending for themselves, with no allies at their universities. In a world full of unknowns, these new, young parents need support and guidance, and most colleges are not prepared to offer the resources that student parents desperately need. Students should be given the opportunity to finish their education without compromising their own ability to be attentive parents to their children. I encourage you to offer your full support for the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Pregnant and Parenting Student Services Act so that more students will have the information, resources, and opportunities they deserve.
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