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The uncertain future of graduate student families at UMass

BY ADINA GIANNELLI

Department of Public Health

Do graduate student families matter to the UMass administration?

There may not be malice in the disregard shown by UMass officials in recent months, but it’s hard to read devotion in the university’s actions.

In the last year, graduate student parents at UMass have been hit hard by anti-family developments, including ongoing attacks on student health insurance, repeated and persistent efforts to erode UHS, and most recently, announcements that Family Housing plans to phase out Lincoln Apartments while raising North Village rents by 6.5% (negotiated down to 3% by GEO and GSS but rent increase promises to be an issue that will reappear every year). As a result of these changes, graduate school has become a luxury that most students with children cannot afford.

In light of the university’s systematic attempts to dismantle its infrastructure of support, it is clear that student parents are not high on its list of its institutional priorities.

Despite the general state of affairs, the university hosts two departments that are steadfast in their commitment to graduate student parents, the Office of Family Resources (OFR) and the Center for Early Education and Care (CEEC).

From an office on the fourth floor of the Student Union, and under the direction of Joanne Levenson, the OFR offers free, innovative programs such as the Amherst Family Center (AFC), a series on Mondays known as Dinner On Us, and in conjunction with the GWN, a weekly graduate parents group. On the other end of campus, hidden away beside the football stadium, is the CEEC, which provides flexible and affordable day care for graduate parents for up to 30 hours per week.

These departments, their staff, and the directors who run them are bright spots in an otherwise cloudy sky.

Although the programming sponsored by the OFR and CEEC is wonderful, it is not enough. With a notorious waiting list, the CEEC, which serves toddler and preschool aged children only, is chronically unable to meet its demand. Additionally, there is neither infant care nor afterschool care anywhere on campus.

And while departments such as GSS and GEO offer childcare vouchers and other forms of tuition assistance, the options for affordable childcare are close to nonexistent for most graduate students.

Garth Schwellenbach, GSS Vice President and Chair of the GSS Childcare Committee, which is charged with distributing childcare funds, noted that many graduate student parents are struggling economically.

“It’s hard enough to survive as a grad student if you are childless, but the added financial and time commitments of having children push most parents closer to the edge,” he said.

We are left with an open question: Can it be done? And how?

*

I may be biased, willfully ignorant, or naïve, but I believe that graduate students can succeed in the realm of parenting while meeting their academic goals. You can complete your intellectual work without neglecting your precious children, and vice versa.

How? I have no idea. As a new parent working on thesis research, I have not yet figured out how any parent finds time to brush his teeth, never mind write anything publishable or earn a living. Since the birth of my son, Sam, I have misspelled my own name, unchanged since the day I was born, mailed my rent check to myself, and locked myself out of my house, more than once.

And in some ways, I’m lucky. Sam is healthy, I am frugal, and the baby is still small and immobile enough to be strapped to me, everywhere I go. Once I have to arrange infant childcare in the fall, though, it will be a very different story.

*

What I know from my own experience and that of other students is this: graduate school is notoriously hostile to student-parents, especially women, single parents, and families headed by two graduate students. In the wake of recent and impending cutbacks to key services at UMass, the climate has become even more family unfriendly.

To the extent that the university has demonstrated a commitment to graduate student parents, this commitment is fast eroding. Without meaningful assistance, students with kids are going to have an even harder time surviving.

 

*

Critics may argue that it is not the university’s responsibility to subsidize the lifestyle choices of its graduate students. The administration did not make your baby, so why should the administration pay for its care? In other words, it was your poor choice to have a kid after you started grad school, or start grad school with children, and it’s your problem.

But for many students, the choice of whether to have a family is not an option. Graduate students with preexisting children can’t just shuttle these little people into a vault for the next two to twelve years, while they conduct research. Graduate students who hope to build families through adoption or childbirth are similarly constrained.

But that is not the point. In an era—and at an institution—ostensibly devoted to work-life balance, students should not be forced to decide between intellectual development and family life, an academic career and children, short-term finances and long-term goals.

Tremendous lip service is paid to the family-friendliness of our campus and the broader community, but this commitment is largely an abstraction. Without a genuine commitment, as demonstrated by the provision of adequate childcare options or subsidies, affordable housing, and adequate health insurance, students with children will be forced to leave. This is bad for students, but it is bad for the university, as well. If UMass seeks to maintain—or better yet, improve upon—its reputation as a research institution, it does not have the luxury of playing fast and loose with its constituents.

The question is not whether graduate students parents can succeed in academia, or whether their contributions are valuable. This has been asked and answered, in the affirmative. The question instead is whether, in light of gross and repetitive cutbacks to housing, healthcare, and insurance on campus, graduate student parents will be able to continue to succeed here. If the administration has its way, we may not have the opportunity to find out.

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