Full-time students are often burdened with the stress of juggling exams, assignments, part-time jobs and social lives. But what if the responsibility of raising a child was thrown into the equation? Jackie Campbell reveals the struggles some of Ryerson’s young mom’s have faced balancing full course-loads with parenthood
Jasmine Clark is stuffed into the front seat of her Toyota Corolla, her protruding belly making it difficult to grasp the steering wheel. It’s 4 a.m. in the middle of January and Clark is nine months pregnant and driving to the hospital. In the passenger’s seat is her backpack, bulging with textbooks. It’s two weeks before her due date and Clark assumes the doctor will perform a quick check-up and send her home. But upon arrival, a soft-spoken nurse announces Clark won’t be going anywhere.
“Hon, you’re having a baby.”
Hours later, Clark is sitting upright in a hospital bed surrounded by stacks of textbooks, attempting to finish her homework and study for midterm exams. As she writes, an IV line attached from a needle in her hand to a bag of clear liquid drags across the page. The bag is full of Oxytocin, a hormone used to stimulate contractions. As Clark waits to give birth all she can think about is the assignment due in class tomorrow.
Clark, a social work student, is about to enter the world of student-parent limbo.
A recent study found student-parents account for 11 percent of students enrolled in Canadian universities. While many students have trouble finding time slots for partying and schoolwork, students with children have a different set of priorities. According to the Canadian Council for Social Development, the price of raising a child to age 18 is $166, 972, a hefty addition to the price tag on student loans.
At 21, Clark is now a full-time student and mother of a 21-month old. She sits at one of the octagon-shaped tables at Maggie’s, the cafeteria of her old stomping grounds, the ILLC. Three years ago, Clark was in her first year at Ryerson: a young buck in skateboard tees and sweatpants who spent her time playing video games with floor mates and cruising residence hallways.
Now she sits in an orange cardigan, hair up, no make-up. Remnants of her old life are fading — there are half-inch slits in her earlobes from where giant spacers used to reside, and a small scar from an old lip ring.
Up until her son Denver was born, school was Clark’s biggest priority. Days after his birth, she spent hours crying. She felt guilty every time she devoted time to school rather than her son, but felt stressed when she didn’t do her homework. She was beginning the steep transition from a time when school was her only real source of stress, to the next 18 years of her life, when her son would be.
And while some universities have made changes to accommodate student-parents, Ryerson has not. The University of Toronto has a Family Care Office, which features a makeshift manual on how to present yourself as a serious student to your professor while explaining your role as a parent. Other schools across Canada like the University of British Columbia have support groups and websites dedicated to the student-parents of their schools.
But at Ryerson there are no large social groups or direct assistance exclusively for students with children. Ryerson’s only online link for student-parent groups, is to ‘mature students,’ a common misconception of what student-parents really are, according to Tricia Van Rhijn.
Rhijn helped compile a study at the University of Guelph and created the Ning.com ‘Student Parent Support Network.’ She said most parents are grouped into the category of ‘mature students,’ which doesn’t include the heterogeneous group that is student-parents.
More than two per cent of students enrolled in Canadian universities are young parents like Clark who may fit into the ‘mature’ category by their level of responsibility, but not by age group or even life experiences. Mature students don’t have to be parents, and they must have left school for a while, something Clark felt she could not do.
“I don’t remember what it’s like to be a student without being a mom at the same time,” agreed Claire Prentice, a 23-year-old Ryerson student who commutes from Mississauga each day.
“I don’t know what I was doing with my time before the baby, I would have had so much of it and didn’t use it to my advantage.”
Clark, who lives an hour north of London, continued with online classes the semester after Denver was born and returned to Ryerson classrooms the next fall. As a student in social work, Clark’s heard countless statistics of the odds against young mothers. Young parents enrolled in school are 1.7 times more likely to leave without a diploma or degree.
Because the commute from home would be an eight-hour round trip, she picks classes that take place within the second half of the week so that she can stay at her grandparents’ in Burlington and commute from there. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday she plays the role of student; Saturday through Tuesday, a parent.
“Denver always has people around. Brett is a great dad, and usually [Denver] is with my parents after day care on one of the days, and with Brett’s another. I wouldn’t be able to do it without my family,” Clark said.
But still, the life of a student-parent has its costs — literally and figuratively.
“My mom called me to tell me I missed his first steps when I was in class. It was disappointing, but if you’re going to have people support you endlessly, you have to share the wealth a bit,” Clark said.
On the economic front, raising a child and paying for school puts a huge dent in your bank account. The expense of raising a baby, coupled with the average Ryerson tuition of $6,314.08 is a pricey affair. Each month Prentice said she goes through $70 worth of diapers, $150 worth of food and tons of clothes that her son grows out of.
“It adds up really fast,” said Prentice, who lives with her parents to save on rent charges.
“It’s bad at the beginning when you have to buy the stroller, car-seat, crib, highchair and the baby food. But now, it’s mostly day care,” Clark agreed.
She looked into Ryerson’s childcare facilities early on but the waitlist was approximately two years — a daycare epidemic not exclusive to Ryerson, but seen at post-secondary institutions across Canada.
Instead Denver goes to daycare near their home in London three days a week for $32 a day — which means an extra $3,000 per school year. Ryerson’s general awards department has no scholarships that Prentice and Clark (as full-time students) are eligible for, based on their student- parent status alone.
But Clark is eligible for an award within her program that gives $1,000 to a student facing extenuating circumstances but who still remains at school. The government awards the ‘Canada Grant’ for part-time and full-time student mothers with dependents. The grant provides $200 per month of study for each child under 12. Both Clark and Prentice are lucky enough to have their tuition covered by parents and grandparents.
Clark’s boyfriend Brett makes enough at his full-time job to support their lifestyle and the house they bought after Denver was born. Prentice thought about looking into housing closer to campus, but the prospect of living on her own was too expensive and living with a roommate while raising a screaming baby was exhausting to think about.
She looked into Ryerson’s options and found there was little to offer. The University of Toronto offers a family residence restricted to those with a spouse or a child, and priority is given to single mothers. But Ryerson, with an already overcrowded residence that only holds up to 800 students, does not. Ryerson Housing Services said students can find residency in places across the city, instead of on campus.
“We can’t offer anything like that here, partially because of the rooms we have… they’re not appropriate rooms for families,“ said Chad Nuttall, student housing manager.
Neither Clark nor Prentice mind the commute, claiming it is the best decision for their child. Clark is only three semesters away from graduating and is excited to begin contributing financially to her family.
“I know the statistics. Kids with parents who don’t go to post-secondary are less likely to go, especially if they have young parents, “ she said. “I want Denver to have the options. It’s stressful at times, yeah, but it’s my life.”
Photo: Lauren Strapagiel