Elizabeth Cady Stanton Pregnant and Parenting Student Services Act
U.S. House Briefing, February 15, 2006 - Susan B. Anthony's Birthday
Remarks of Terri Nelson Dickinson
In the summer of 2003, I was preparing to enter my senior year at Southwestern University. In the midst of working a summer job, planning my wedding and applying to graduate schools, I discovered that I was pregnant.
Though my fiancÚ and I were in a state of shock and disbelief, we had a limited amount of time in which to make decisions and arrangements. Our families wondered if we would both simply drop out of school and take whatever jobs we could find, but after three years of private school tuition and hard work for each of us, it seemed like such a waste. We made plans for a December wedding and returned to our separate schools for the fall semester, hoping we would be able to work something out. Since neither of us knew of any pregnant or parenting undergraduates at our schools, we weren't sure where to begin.
The first challenge was finding a source of prenatal care at school. Though I was covered under my parents' health care plan, I was only entitled to prescriptions and emergency care while out of state. The insurance company said that my school health clinic should be able to provide any care I needed. My school, however, had only a nurse on staff. Though willing to help, she had no experience in dealing with pregnancies. Switching to the student insurance plan would not help; its enormous cost could not be defrayed by financial aid, and it failed to cover standard prenatal care.
I started calling area OB/GYN practices to investigate out-of-pocket costs and was dismayed to find that most required a large deposit up front for patients without valid insurance. The cost was prohibitive. Finally, I discovered that I could qualify for secondary Medicaid coverage. After wading through the necessary paperwork, I managed to locate the one doctor in the county who would accept this type of payment.
I was left with the dilemma of how to complete my remaining coursework after the birth of the baby. My school's student handbooks and policies gave me very little guidance, and I had never even heard of another Southwestern student having a baby and still graduating. My school had no family living arrangements on campus, and I depended on my scholarship and aid package to pay my room and board. Trying to attend school for even a few weeks with a baby would mean finding not only the funds to cover off campus housing and transportation, but childcare somewhere off campus.
With the help of the academic services coordinator, I put together an arrangement in which I would take my remaining classes at home. When I approached my advisor for the final signature, I hit another wall. Neither she, the Dean of Students, nor the Registrar were certain whether this was allowed by school policy. In the end, my advisor hammered out a compromise: Southwestern would not alter its unwritten policy against all forms of distance learning, but would bend the rule requiring that seniors obtain their last 30 semester hours of credit while in residence at Southwestern. If I could find courses at a school in New Mexico that matched my requirements and complete them before the end of the semester, I could still graduate.
I received the official go-ahead just weeks before the end of the semester. I managed to enroll at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque as a non-degree student for the spring semester, then beg my way into the already closed courses I needed.
The next few months did go much more smoothly, but even at a university where many students had families, professors and administrators seemed perplexed by my situation. I knew I would have to miss some class when the baby was born, but hoped that with the help of my family I would be able to return quickly and still finish my assignments. Professors were unsure about what accommodations university policy required or would allow them to make. Answering a simple question took weeks of e-mails, phone calls, and appointments, all time taken away from schoolwork and preparing for the new baby.
Just three weeks after my c-section delivery, I returned to classes with a now frantic workload. The university's parking system required students to park in distant parking lots and ride a shuttle to the campus. This added almost three hours of commute time to one hour spent in class, keeping me away from my nursing newborn and eating up precious hours of studying time. The school would make no allowance for me to park nearer to campus. Fortunately for me, my mother-in-law was able to drive me and Isabel to campus, dropping me off in front of my classrooms. She would then park the car nearby and care for the baby until the end of my class and return, bringing me food and giving me the chance to nurse. This somewhat ridiculous arrangement gave me the time I needed to complete my work. Though I was unable to avoid grade penalties for my absences, a fact which seemed cruel given the lengths to which I had gone to attend as much class as possible, I was able to complete my last project and assure that my paperwork had gone through just hours before the graduation deadline. The next week, I was able to attend commencement exercises with the rest of my class at Southwestern.
Though being a pregnant student is a difficult task, it was made much more difficult by the lack of pregnancy resources, school policies, and administration and faculty experience with pregnant students. Though most genuinely cared about my situation and wanted to help me, they were constrained by university policies, which were often difficult to even discover, much less interpret and apply. There was no clear-cut precedent to follow, and no one knew where I could go to obtain a final answer on a question. Many times I was assured I had solved a problem, only to discover later on that it had not, in fact, been resolved. Pregnancy is a physically and emotionally draining time, and adding coordinating an entirely unheard of academic situation to a regular workload can seriously compromise health and academic performance. I constantly ran the risk of pursuing a difficult course of action and not discovering that it was inadequate until it was too late to remedy it.
As it was, only my own initiative as well as the concerted efforts of an unusually caring faculty and staff made my graduation possible. A few clear-cut and established policies, as well as at least one staff member educated and equipped to facilitate any necessary adjustments would have saved me hours of frustration and heartache. All universities ultimately want their students to graduate and to succeed, and there is no reason a new baby, even an unexpected one, should prevent that from happening. I encourage you to support the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Pregnant and Parenting Student Services Act, which will give more students the information, resources, and support I needed to finish my degree and succeed.
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