If you’ve raised kids or gone to college, you can imagine how difficult it is to do both simultaneously. College students who are parents must find myriad ways to get their children fed and ready for their day, whether it means being dropped off at day care or school, and then prepare for their own day of classes, homework and test preparation. And for many student-parents, there is the added responsibility and pressure of having to earn a living.
The pandemic pushed the student-parent balancing act to a new level, compounded by the chaos, stress and forced isolation brought upon by the unfolding health crisis and shelter-in-place restrictions.
As a new school year is set to begin amid the pandemic, parents in college continue to struggle with how to juggle their classwork and their children’s schooling as the Covid-19 delta variant raises new questions about health and safety, as well as remote learning.
In March, researchers from UC Davis’ Wheelhouse Center for Community College Leadership and Research released a comprehensive study that offered rare insights into the lives of students who are also parents. By examining financial aid applications in 2018, the authors of the research found that out of 1.5 million applicants in California, about 202,000 of them were parents. The study also found that 3 out of 4 student-parents are women, with an average age of 34. EdSource interviewed seven student-parents about how they’re balancing their own academic responsibilities and that of their children’s as the pandemic grinds on.
Jessica Ross hopes for the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’
By Melanie Gerner
Jessica Ross is a single mom of three children and a senior at California State University, Dominguez Hills. After 15 years of college courses, the 37-year-old finds herself two classes shy of graduation. She hoped to complete those classes before her financial aid ran out in May and now is unsure how she will pay for the rest of her education.
Her struggles with virtual learning during the pandemic have led to a lowered GPA in her chosen field of advertising and public relations, in part because she had trouble keeping up with coursework and learning to use school-related design and editing software.
The Ross home is a constant hub of online school activity, attempting to support every level of education from elementary school to high school to university, to accommodate Ross and her three children, ages 8, 9 and 16. Sometimes to get the kids through school, Ross must give up her laptop to her children so they can finish their work.
During the school year, Ross’ oldest child had to be ready for her first 11th grade Zoom class of the day by 7:45 a.m. The third and fourth grade kids started online classes by 9 a.m.
“I have to sit there and micromanage my 9-year-old because he’ll fall asleep on Zoom and will sleep the whole class,” Ross said at the time. In addition, she said that her 8-year-old son has a third-grade school schedule that rivals the schedule of a high-schooler: “He goes to different periods every 30 minutes.”
Ross’ oldest child often had homework due within a 45-minute window at the end of each class period and often needed help with the quick turnaround of assignments.
At the end of the school day, Ross sometimes got her laptop back. Other nights her boys needed her computer for behavioral therapy on Zoom or coding classes.
“Managing your three kids, your family and school. You know, it’s all a delicate dance. One misstep can just ruin the whole dance,” Ross said. “It’s tough. And then my children are kind of challenging. One of my sons goes to a nonpublic school because there’s a lot of behavioral issues, and that takes a lot of my focus.”
Ross has been working toward her bachelor’s degree since 2005 when she enrolled part time at Merritt College in Oakland, California, where she eventually earned an associate degree in communication.
“I went for a couple of semesters and then took a couple of years off and then went back and basically started over,” Ross said. “In 2013, I went back full-time and finished community college.”
She tried to restart in 2017 but had to drop out when her son was suspended from school for behavioral issues.
“I just really couldn’t focus on continuing my education,” Ross said. “So, I had to stop going as a result. I just got all F’s that semester.”
Ross says that she had a better experience upon returning to Dominguez Hills in the fall of 2019 to complete her advertising and public relations degree and go on to work for a PR firm.
Beyond the issues of class scheduling for her and her children and daily issues like Wi-Fi access, Ross is frustrated because she cannot afford to buy her kids new computers or other items they need for school. Ross also struggled with her own online learning requirements, including the Adobe Suite of software in a virtual environment.
“I didn’t get a lot of support,” Ross said. “I didn’t get a lot of help. I didn’t get a lot of direction. I was lost a lot of the time; it was discouraging. I think the technical aspect of virtual learning is what hinders me the most.”
Ross came to the realization that she could not graduate in May, as she had hoped. Even worse, her 9-year-old may need to repeat the fourth grade. Despite the setbacks, she remains positive and committed to earning her degree because she sees that achievement as a path to pulling her family out of poverty.
“It might seem a little meek or bleak,” Ross said. “But it’s not always going to be a struggle. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Keep pushing. There will be a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Why school comes second to family for Adriana González
By Cassandra Reichelt
For Adriana González and her two teenage children, the kitchen table is the epicenter of their educational universe. It is not always easy to share the same study space, the mother says, but she is grateful for the extra time she gets to spend with her kids and the bonding that has taken place caused by the pandemic.
The 41-year-old mother says she wants to be a role model for her children about having to sacrifice for education. She had dropped out of high school but returned so she could graduate and go to college.
González graduated in May from Cal State Polytechnical University, Pomona with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and a minor in teaching English to speakers of other languages. She also hopes to earn a master’s degree.
“I’m a high school dropout,” González said. “And then I went to community college, and it took me a while to get through there. There were times that I wanted to give up. It was hard.”
González said that she often believed she was too old for college. But she was able to push herself forward by considering how much her degree could help her family, starting with teaching her children that it is never too late to earn an education.
Her son, who is 13, achieved top marks during the pandemic, earning a spot on the principal’s honor roll. Her daughter is 19 and recently completed her first year at Norco College in Riverside County. González says that her daughter has struggled with online learning because she prefers being on campus and interacting with professors and other students.
“I tell her if I can do it, you can do it,” González said. “I tried to lead by example, but I know that we both have different mindsets because I’ve been through so much as a single parent that I can handle it.”
Today, González manages to host three classrooms from her six-seat kitchen table in her three-bedroom home.
When González was at Norco College in 2013, one of her biggest challenges was finding someone to care for her kids. Sometimes she was forced to take them to class.
And when González’s son was 10, he attended so many of his mother’s community college courses that it became routine for her to send professors warning notes that he was coming.
“I had to take them with me to school,” González said. “Class space is small, so he had to sit outside, and I made sure to sit in the back chair to be able to keep an eye on him.” She paid a price, as she often struggled to concentrate on the class lessons while she constantly had to look over her shoulder to make sure her son was OK sitting outside.
González admits that while her own studies are a priority, they will always come second to her family’s needs.
“I know that it’s a campus, we’re safe, but still, as a parent, I can’t concentrate because what if he has to go to the restroom?” González said.
That’s why, despite the cramped quarters and inconvenience, González prefers narrowing her family’s school life to the kitchen table. Now, study time equals family time.
“My son will be doing his homework,” González said. “My daughter will be doing hers, and I’ll be doing mine.”
González says she also makes it a priority to remove her kids from the kitchen table so they can spend time on the couch watching movies together or get fresh air by sharing a hike or tending the garden in their backyard.
“I think that it’s hard just to focus one day on nonschool stuff, but you have to do it so that you can dedicate that time to your kids,” González said. “I have to study, but you have to be able to dedicate time for them. They grow up so fast.”
New mom sends emails to professors from hospital bed
By Melanie Gerner
Berenice Santillan spent the first day of the fall 2020 semester in a hospital bed giving birth to her first child and frantically sending off emails to professors to keep them updated about her situation and ensure she kept her spot in class.
“I do not want to be dropped from this course,” Santillan’s email read. “But I am currently in labor and won’t be able to join today’s Zoom session.” She asked if the professor would arrange a one-on-one session.
Three of four professors were sympathetic. The 25-year-old senior studying advertising and public relations at California State University, Dominguez Hills said it was like a slap in the face when a communications professor told her that he was OK with her missing the first day but made it clear that he expected Santillan to attend the Zoom meeting scheduled for the second day of class.
Santillan, a first-generation college student, said that she felt like her professor did not care about her newborn child or understand what she was dealing with in her transition to motherhood. But Santillan made the bet that her child would be born on a Sunday and she would be ready for the first day of her senior year on Monday.
“It’s fine,” she told herself at the time. “My class doesn’t start until noon.”
The incident would be the first of many that would test Santillan’s ability to balance her pursuit of a degree and dream of starting a family.
“The first week of school during the fall 2020 semester was my worst time as a student-parent,” Santillan said. “Everything was brand new to me: having a new baby, being a first-time mom and handling school at the same time. It was a lot.”
Postpartum complications added to her struggle to finish the course. With a newborn and the most challenging communications classes for her degree program scheduled in the first 16 weeks of the academic year, she began to question her ability to complete her undergraduate education.
“I wasn’t sleeping, and both of my legs swelled up to three times their normal size because I was retaining fluid for a week and a half,” Santillan said. ”I couldn’t walk, and I needed assistance bathing.”
When she failed to turn in an assignment in her Culture, Gender and Communication class, the professor reached out to make sure Santillan and her newborn were OK. The professor encouraged Santillan to bring her daughter to the one-on-one meeting and did not mind if she nursed the infant while they talked.
“That was one of the best feelings, knowing someone was actually looking out for me mentally and emotionally,” Santillan said. “It makes a big difference as a student-parent when a professor is aware of your situation and is willing to take steps to reach out and see if you need any additional support. ”
Santillan’s difficulties juggling her pregnancy and her coursework started weeks after she learned she was pregnant in December 2019.
Due to abdominal cramping and light bleeding during her first trimester, her pregnancy was considered high-risk. Some days, she would go home early and skip her afternoon classes because walking up and down the stairs on campus was too painful and possibly dangerous for her unborn child. Professors assumed she had the flu when she told them she wasn’t feeling well, and she never told them she was pregnant.
After having her child in August 2020, Santillan was relieved that classes were all online, knowing it would be easier to care for her
“Mentally, that messes me up sometimes,” Santillan said. “I just crave talking to someone my own age. I want to see people and talk to people.”
After being furloughed from her job as a purchasing assistant at Knotts Berry Farm, Santillan was grateful to get a student assistant position with the university’s Women’s Resource Center, dedicated to the needs of women.
Through the center, Santillan created a student-parent support group series titled “Once Upon A Student Parent. Like many other CSU campuses, CSU Dominguez Hills lacks an office to support the unique needs of students caring for children.
Now that her daughter is a little older, Santillan has learned how to better balance student life with home life.
Santillan’s daily schedule is built around her child’s needs. Next comes school work, her internship and her student assistant job. Her crowning achievement was graduating in May.
In the weeks leading up to graduation, Santillan said, she found herself crying on many nights, tired and overworked. She found solace when people told her she is an inspiration.
“I had my daughter during a pandemic,” Santillan said. “That was hard. The lack of resources to make graduation possible was way harder. The mental toll this pandemic had on me and having a newborn during my senior year, I tell myself I am much stronger mentally because I never gave up.”
Geneva Canellas budgets time and money as a working mom and student
By Emily Chung
For 20-year-old Geneva Casellas, the sounds of a screaming toddler added to the stress of final exams, homework and endless Zoom classes.
“It was just so chaotic, and I was so stressed out,” Casellas said of taking her statistics final exam last May at California State University, Long Beach. “I’m on a time limit; there are so many math problems. I have my kid screaming in another room. It was just really overwhelming.”
Casellas is no stranger to frenzied exam periods and taxing days. A rising senior and business finance major and mother to a 2-year-old son, her college experience has been defined by having to juggle between reading bedtime stories to her child and reading textbooks for her economics classes.
“Being at home with a toddler and trying to take classes is not easy. I’m still struggling,” Casellas said. “When I went to school before the pandemic, I would have a selected time for me to go into class. “Day care was already handled. Everything was handled. Now that I don’t have that space at school, that separation anymore. Everything is all mixed into one, so it’s hard.”
Attending online classes two days a week, Casellas says the distractions at home paired with various technological difficulties made it hard for her to focus. Though Casellas’ family helps her around the house, her son often craves her attention, and she still hasn’t “quite gotten the grip of Zoom.”
Still, Casellas says she is grateful for her family’s support. After the temporary closure of local day care centers, her sister offered to take care of Casellas’ son while she’s in class. Her son’s father has also been a great help, Casellas says, co-parenting with her and splitting equal custody.
“He’s very involved,” Casellas said of her son’s father. “Every other week, we switch off having our son for four days of the week. Every semester since I started school, we’ve always just sat down with, ‘Here’s my work schedule, here’s my school schedule.’ And then we just make a schedule and stick to it for the whole semester.”
Casellas survives financially on her salary as a part-time lifeguard but says her budget is often tight. As a low-income student-parent, she qualifies for financial aid that covers most of her university costs. In addition, CalFresh benefits keep food on the table.
From March to June 2020, Covid-related facility closures prevented her from working, and she relied heavily on unemployment compensation. Still, tactical management of weekly paychecks and Cal Grant allotments helped her get by.
In the past, Casellas also benefited from free day care services through Cal State Long Beach. Her son has attended the university’s Isabel Patterson Child Development Center since he was 6 months old, but the university’s closure last year halted in-person services.
While she likes the social interaction her son would get with other children, Casellas said she has cherished the time she now gets to spend with her son and feeling like a “stay-at-home mom” since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Before the pandemic, my son was in day care Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. I’d get in late, and he would fall asleep in a few hours. I’d get him on the weekends, but I work on the weekends, so I felt like I wasn’t getting the quality time to spend with him,” Casellas said.
On top of her other responsibilities, Casellas makes it a priority to support the student-parent community at Cal State Long Beach. She is president of the Parenting Student Club and hosts meetings in which student-parents can share their struggles and encourage each other.
“Being a parent is hard. Being a student is hard. And being a student-parent is even harder,” Casellas said. “We all have that common issue, and we all just need to find ways to cope.”
Once she graduates in 2022, Casellas hopes to open her own business in the realm of reiki healing, a Japanese form of alternative medicine. Her goal is to be the best role model possible for her son.
“I look at my son, and I’m like, ‘I can’t just stop. You can’t stop,’” Casellas said. “Days are always going to be hard, but just like anything else, things will get better. I’m doing this for my future, so I am more stable for the both of us. My son is always the biggest motivation.”
‘You’re my why’
By Jasmine Nguyen
Nicole Moreno’s days are filled with Zoom calls, homework and lab work. However, the 25-year-old junior studying psychology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona has the added responsibility and pressure of having to help her 9-year-old stepson with his fourth grade classes and her 3-year-old son with his autism therapy sessions.
Virtual schooling is nothing new to Moreno. She took all of her courses online while earning her associate degrees in psychology and sociology at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, located in East Los Angeles. Moreno says her online experience in community college made her forced transition to online learning at Cal Poly Pomona easier, which is why she was able to maintain her A’s and B’s during the pandemic.
But in addition to her own GPA, Moreno is focused on making sure her 9-year-old stepson’s grades don’t drop either. Moreno has become a teacher for her kids, filling many of the roles an in-person instructor would have pre-pandemic.
“I check up on him weekly, just to see how he’s doing in class,” Moreno said shortly before the end of the school year. “Sometimes I’ll rush through my homework, or I don’t do homework, just so I can help him in the evening time.”
Moreno said she had to adjust her parenting style last year after her 3-year-old son was diagnosed with autism. Now, she finds herself researching subjects like speech therapy and behavior therapy, as well as attending therapy sessions with her son. Also, she attends meetings with school officials to ensure that her son’s specific academic needs will be addressed when he begins public school.
Moreno says these virtual sessions were hard on her 3-year-old son because he found it difficult to relate to or listen to someone on a computer screen. She eventually stopped forcing him to attend the meetings.
“Even though occupational therapy is vital in his developmental stages,” Moreno said, “it just wasn’t working out because his attention span is so short right now that he won’t sit for an hour on the computer straight.”
He now participates in virtual sessions twice a week and in-person therapy three times a week. The effort is still difficult for him, given that each session lasts three hours.
Moreno said she receives aid from the Pell Grant and the Cal Grant. In addition, she receives $600 annually from the CSU’s Educational Opportunity Program, which is spread out over two semesters.
Moreno’s life partner, the father of both of her children, works full-time to pay the family bills, leaving Moreno to focus on raising the children and completing her own education.
“I have to really budget because everything, the cost of living, the cost of driving, the cost of eating, it’s gone up,” Moreno said.
In an attempt to better balance her life and schedule, Moreno takes advantage of a campus program for parenting students, which during the school year hosts a weekly Zoom meeting for members.
“If I’m feeling a little overwhelmed, that’s mainly what the Zoom meeting every Tuesday is for,” she said. “To air out and vent about some stuff and what tips and advice we could use the rest of the semester.”
Moreno says she sometimes believes her role as a student-parent is ignored by academic advisers, as they often unwittingly pressure her into taking more classes than she can handle.
“Sometimes they forget that you’re not just a student, but you’re also a parent,” she said. “And depending on that person you’re going to put school first, or you’re going to put your child first.”
Moreno understands that furthering her education as a parent can be challenging, but at the end of the day she’s doing it for her children.
“Why am I coming to school? I could be at home 24/7 with my son,” Moreno says she asks herself on the hard days. “But then I wake up on a different day and I just stare at him and think ‘You’re the reason why I want to go back to college. You’re my why.’”
‘Little moments’ make it worthwhile
By Iman Palm
Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck home, Nicole Martinez, 26, balanced being a full-time physical education student at California State University, Long Beach and a full-time parent to her two young children with the help of her mother and husband. Between the three adults involved, Martinez could keep up with classes and feel confident that her children were properly fed, safe and put to bed at a reasonable time each night.
That whole arrangement was tested once the pandemic hit. Suddenly, Martinez had to care for her children while also paying attention to her professors during Zoom meetings.
“It feels like it would be easier, since everyone is at home. But it makes it a lot harder because there is a lot of conflict about what needs to get done and noise level,” Martinez said.
The mom of two is expected to graduate with her teaching credential this fall.
She says that for the past year, she has enjoyed spending more time at home but doesn’t enjoy the stress of having to attend classes while her children, Dante, 4, and Lily, 10-months, are playing, crying and or fighting in the background.
For example, Martinez says that while she was giving an online class presentation, her kids were being noisy in the background. They were so loud that she had to try to quiet them in between muting and unmuting herself in order to complete her class presentation. While she credits her professors and classmates for being understanding and supportive, Martinez describes the ordeal as embarrassing.
Continuing her studies at home and completely rearranging her schedule to accommodate her kids and their schedules is an ongoing struggle. She missed being able to participate in the hands-on classwork her program previously offered, such as being able to teach in person at various elementary schools to earn credit and job experience.
“We are still practicing teaching,” Martinez said during the school semester. “But it’s over Zoom, and we don’t have a direct audience of kids. It’s just the other people in our class watching the lesson that we are teaching.”
For some assignments, Martinez used her son as a stand-in classroom audience so she could practice teaching in front of others.
Some days, Martinez would stay up all night doing homework. On a good day, she would go to bed at 2 a.m. and wake up at 7 a.m.
She helps her son with his early learning education along with keeping up with her courses. She and her husband decided to take him out of preschool last March but plan on re-enrolling him in the fall.
“We go through a lot of stuff he would normally learn in school,” Martinez said. “He doesn’t meet the age requirement to start kindergarten next year anyway, so this fall he will start preschool again.”
Her son’s at-home curriculum consists of Martinez singing songs about the alphabet, practicing his writing skills and making arts and crafts to instill some aspects of normalcy.
“Singing songs helps my son learn words, rhyming, phonics and memory. Reading to him teaches word recognition, story sequencing and comprehension,” Martinez said. “Crafts help his fine motor skills and shape/color recognition.”
Martinez follows teachers on social media and takes inspiration from them to implement in her son’s learning.
“I am by no means an early-learning teacher, but I feel we are doing well teaching our son and keeping him safe and happy during a pandemic,” Martinez said.
Prior to the pandemic, Martinez didn’t use the child care facility and services offered at Long Beach State because she had a reliable child care system at home with her mother and husband.
“It’s kind of like a tag team between the three of us, with watching the kids and trying to get work done,” Martinez said. “Sometimes my mother still needs help with the kids, so I’ll have the baby during class and she will have the older kid.”
Even though being a student-parent during a global health crisis is challenging, Martinez says she and her family still have good days while dealing with the closures and limited services in response to the pandemic. They enjoy taking the kids to the park and spending quality time together.
If it weren’t for the school closures, Martinez feels she would’ve missed out on a lot of milestones with her growing children.
“There are just little moments I probably wouldn’t have been able to experience, especially with the 10-month-old,” Martinez said.
She encourages other student-parents that are having a hard time right now to take it one day at a time. “Give yourself grace,” Martinez said. “Just being a parent or just being a student is hard enough as it is, and the fact that you are doing both is amazing.”
New grandmother Sysong Vue aims to become aerospace engineer
By Taylor Helmes
As a mother of five, Sysong Vue knows how hard it is to be a parent and college student. So far, she has attended college for more than a dozen years but doesn’t yet hold the engineering degree of her dreams. After her divorce, she quit college for a number of years to take care of her kids. Now that they are grown, she is poised to complete her pursuit of a higher education.
Today Vue, 48, has two of her adult children living with her. She works a full-time job, is the provider for herself and her children and is finishing off her associate degree at American River College in Sacramento. After community college, Vue plans to transfer, but since she missed fall application deadlines for California State University, Sacramento, and the University of Las Vegas, she will have to defer a semester.
“If accepted to UNLV, then most likely I will move there and live with my son to help them while taking a few classes,” said Vue, who recently became a grandmother. Being a parent and now a soon-to-be grandparent has brought new challenges for me in regards to my continuing education choices and personal life balance.”
Vue earned an associate’s degree in mathematics in 1998 and began a career in banking, including her current job at Safe Credit Union as a relationship officer and team lead. But Vue’s professional aspiration is to be an aerospace engineer for an American space exploration program.
“With my degree, I want to help build gear, vehicles, satellites for space exploration or be part of a research team at NASA or any other company working with NASA,” Vue said. “My major right now is mechanical engineering. I want to be able to use my degree to build stuff, but I am also leaning more towards the physics and astronomy side, too.”
In 2009 with the dissolution of her marriage, she set her college career aside, dropped out of California State University, Sacramento and redirected that time and attention toward her family. Once she and her ex-husband divorced, Vue continued to raise her children but recalibrated her life as a single mother, which meant having to work full time to financially support her family, on top of returning to school as a part-time student.
For her final semester at American River College, Vue enrolled in seven units. Being a part-time student and a full-time parent was a challenge, Vue says, especially because of her age. Compared to her earlier years as a student over two decades ago, she now finds herself focusing and spending more time studying than her college peers.
“I have to study harder because there’s things that I don’t understand. My brain cells are not like when I was 20,” Vue said. “Back then, it was a lot harder with younger kids, and being a single parent was really rough. But now that they’re older, the balance is easier.”
Since classes transitioned online, Vue has been able to find free time on the weekends to spend more quality time with the two children who live with her. Their latest project is building a garden in their backyard. The extra time with her children reinforces her mission and purpose to earn a degree, in order to provide a better life for herself and her family.
“I think this is the reason why the majority of parents go back to school,” Vue said. “That way we can have a better career, to be able to provide for our children.”
Vue says the keys to successfully being a student and parent are commitment, organization and belief in yourself.
“It may take time to get where you want to be, and whatever your goal is that you want to accomplish in your education, it will take time,” Vue said. “Stay focused, stay committed and just believe in yourself that you will achieve it.”
Emily Chung is a junior at the University of Southern California. Melanie Gerner, Taylor Helmes and Jasmine Nguyen are recent graduates from California State University, Dominguez Hills. Iman Palm is a recent graduate from California State University, Long Beach. Cassandra Reichelt is a senior at California State University, Long Beach. Each was a fellow with EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps this past spring semester.
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