Student-Parents Face Lack of Support at Seattle U


Tucked away on the third floor of the Student Center lies a room that houses several offices, including the one-person Office of Parent and Family Engagement. This office’s resources are shared by both students’ families, as well as by students who are parents themselves. With this small office serving the entirety of the student parent demographic at Seattle University, some of these students feel under supported on an institutional level.

On a national level, a 2017 Institute for Women’s Policy Research report claims that as of 2014, only one-third of student-parents graduated within six years thus making their dropout rate the highest of any demographic.

“It felt like whatever creative solutions we brought up, there was some kind of challenge.”

Seattle U does not offer on campus childcare and has limited institutional resources available for studentparents. Access to childcare and other on-campus resources such as changing tables, lactation rooms, and policies protecting the student-parents’ right to bring a child to class are some of the challenges facing student-parents.

Mariah Ramirez, a Seattle U alumna and former Graduate Student Council (GSC) president, knows these challenges well. Ramirez gave birth to her son during her term as GSC president.

“I was lucky enough to be able to meet those challenges and those systemic growing pains for the university, surrounded by a community that lifted me up and recognized the importance of what I was doing as a mother and a student and a young professional,” Ramirez said. One of the few resources available to Seattle U’s student-parent population is the Office of Parent and Family Engagement. Laurie Prince is the director and sole staff member of the office. Overseeing both parents of students and students who have children of their own, Prince says most of her job is dealing with parents of students, simply because they greatly outnumber students who are parents.

One of the main obstacles Prince faces in dealing with student-parents is the lack of data Seattle U has gathered about this demographic. She says she currently has no way of accurately assessing how many student-parents are on campus.

“It is not something we ask in the application process,” Prince said. “Nor should we. This is not something that should impact the student’s admission.” However, due to this, all her information about the student-parent population is either self-reported directly to the office or collected through other means, such as the FAFSA application.

“At the beginning of the year, I am in contact with Student Financial Services to get them to share which folks have listed that they are the head of household on FAFSA,” Prince said. “Is this all-encompassing? Heck, no. Not everyone who is head of household is a parent and not every parent is head of household.”

Prince also hosts a breakout session during transfer orientation specifically for student-parents, and she said she gets a few student contacts from that. There is also a new feature on ConnectSU which allows for students to identify themselves as parents on their profile. Prince is currently waiting to get names back from that service.

While lack of data hinders the office’s ability to give concrete evidence to serve the student-parent population, students themselves have other pressing issues. Among them is accessibility of childcare. Seattle U’s webpage for the Office of Parent and Family Engagement says that they do not offer on-campus childcare. With the expected closure in June 2020 of Mother’s Place—a childcare center on 12th Avenue—it is likely to only become more difficult for members of the Seattle U community to find reliable childcare. And yet still for some, they cannot afford childcare.

While she was GSC President, Ramirez worked with her council on a student-parents survey to improve resources available for students on campus. She was particularly interested in finding a way to bring childcare onto campus, a service she said is necessary for staff and faculty as well as students.

She and the council explored options for childcare on campus, even looking to the University of Washington as a model for possibilities at Seattle U. But Ramirez said that she was met with resistance every step of the way. “It felt like whatever creative solutions we brought up, there were there was some kind of challenge,” she said.

Ramirez said that professors and coworkers were typically understanding and allowed her to bring her child with her to meetings or class as she could not afford childcare, and there is none available on campus. However, she recounted an instance where this was not the case. As GSC president, Ramirez attended meetings of Seattle U’s Board of Trustees. She recalled an instance when she was asked not to bring her child to the meeting, though she said bringing her son to the meeting would cause no real distraction.

“That took me aback I was quite frankly shocked because I had been feeling extremely supported and cared about at that point,” Ramirez said. “So I immediately had a really big reaction.”

Access to childcare plays a large role in a student-parents’ success. If a childcare site were closed on days which do not align with Seattle U’s closure, students may be forced to miss class in order to stay home with their child. “Group projects can also be burdensome for student-parents,” Prince said. “Many traditional students do not take issue with meeting 7, 8, 9 o’clock at night to work on group projects. Student-parents would need to find childcare, as centers do not stay open that late.”

“You can see the evolution of society catching up with reality.”

Ramirez echoed these concerns and spoke of a problem that studentparents, commuter, and graduate students often face: office accessibility. Because these students may be taking classes on the weekends or at night, other university offices or resources, such as Career Services, are often closed when the students would be able to meet.

Despite this, Ramirez also recognized that those resources that are available on campus for student parents do a great job at attempting to find small solutions to a much larger systemic issue. In addition to a lack of on-campus childcare, student-parents also deal with limited access to lactation rooms and changing tables on campus.

The university’s website states that there are only two lactation rooms on campus and that changing tables are only in four buildings on campus and only specific floors in those buildings. Those listed include the Student Center on the first floor, the first floor of the Pigott Pavilion, the Chapel of St. Ignatius, and Lemieux Library gendered restrooms on floors one, two, and three. Of the two listed lactation rooms, one is in the Garrand building. The other is a newly added lactation room found in the Administration building, which was opened within the past month. The new Center for Science and Innovation, which is currently being constructed and expected to open in 2021, will also contain a brand new lactation room serving the lower mall of campus.

Facility Services Director of Design and Construction Lara Branigan and Colleen Pike, Director of Planning and Real Estate, would like it known that Seattle U is committed to aiding parents on campus. To that end, they are working towards the implementation of more changing tables and lactation rooms. Pike said that there are changing tables in 10 buildings, but these tables are not all listed on the website.

Branigan and Pike said that there has been a gap in communication between facilities and the Office of Parent and Family Engagement, and that they are working to improve that. They also recognize that though there has been an increase in changing tables on campus there is still room to improve.

“That took me aback, I was quite frankly shocked because I had been feeling supported and cared about at that point. So I immediately had a really big reaction.”

“It is not as easy as many would think,” Branigan said. “We can’t just go into a restroom, find an open wall space and install the table. You have to think about what is behind the wall and if it can support the weight of a changing table and the baby.” The installation of a changing table in a bathroom can cost anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000.

“Despite that, there will be three more buildings getting changing tables in 2020, 2021, and 2022,” Pike said. Many of the restrooms on campus are also too narrow for facilities to legally install changing tables. Restrooms must comply with the Americans with Disability Act regulations, meaning that a five foot turn radius is needed and in many cases a changing table would hinder that. The two lactation rooms not listed on the website are in the Sullivan Law Building and the James Tower Life Sciences building.

Moving forward, all new construction on campus will include a family and assisted use room which can be utilized as a lactation room. Branigan said that modern code requires each building to have a family and assisted use room. “It’s a little bit bigger than a single user room, you put the baby changing table there, it’s all-gender, and it’s big enough that if somebody in a wheelchair needs an aide to be in the restroom with them, there is enough space for that,” Branigan said.

“This isn’t something that we would have built in ’62. You can see the evolution of society catching up with reality.” While the changes are slow, there has been progress in trying to provide resources to student-parents. Prince urges any student-parents to disclose their student-parent identity to not only her but also their professors, and that they should feel comfortable to do so. She said that this will help to ensure that they may have as much support as the university is currently able to offer them.

Ramirez expressed her appreciation for Prince and the systems already in place to support student-parents, but said that there is still plenty of work to be done to fully support student-parents. “So I think that there are places there that are that are wonderful building blocks, and I think it wouldn’t take a heck of a lot. What it really takes is just a little dedication and a little money.”

The editor may be reached at [email protected]