Published on 2013/04/05

Working Mothers Still Face Challenges in Higher Education

AUDIO | Working Mothers Still Face Challenges in Higher Education
While there are more mechanisms in place to support parents as they work towards a higher education credential, pursuing a degree while supporting a family is still a very challenging proposition.

The following interview is with Rebecca Chopp, president of Swarthmore College. While Chopp had a relatively traditional higher education experience, she was a working mother while completing her graduate degree in the 1970s and 1980s. In this interview, she reflects on that experience, discusses some of the challenges she faced and the services that were available to her. She also sheds some light on how her approach to higher education leadership has been shaped by her past.

1. What were the three biggest challenges you faced as a graduate student with children?

Well, I will say I had one child as a graduate student and I think the three biggest challenges had to do with the fact that, in that day, there were so little services or understanding. There were very few women who had … children; in fact, I think I was the only one in my graduate program who had a child. So, lack of even professional child care. … There were no places you could take a newborn, there were very few places that you could find childcare. You had to really hire someone to take care of your child.

Second, I was working. I had very little money. There was not much financial aid. So, I had to balance going to school, one or two jobs, plus taking care of my child.

And then I think the third challenge was really a lack of understanding and at least in my day — which was a long, long time ago — a sense that women should not be trying to go to graduate school and should not be working if they had small children at home.

2. Were there any services at all in place to support students with childcare responsibilities when you were enrolled in higher education?

No, there were no services at all in the late 70s and early 80s. There were no services for students, there were no services for women faculty. They didn’t get time off if they had a child, they couldn’t delay tenure clocks and there was absolutely none … for students.

3. Looking back, what kinds of services do you wish had been available to you?

… I think for me, the number one thing that could have been helpful was more financial aid … because that drove a lot of my work. So, trying to provide enough income to pay my tuition, to pay my living expenses and to pay childcare was really difficult.

I liked having the child during graduate school; I thought it kept me grounded. It was fun. I think I was a better teacher as a parent because I, myself, I was learning, I was engaged in learning. It was a very creative period of my life, so I think I created a very creative home environment. So, I liked the idea of having the child, but trying to balance work and always worrying about money is very difficult. So, I would have appreciated more financial aid.

I think some people would answer that question by saying they would have appreciated childcare. Maybe a school that had childcare or something like that, I’m not sure. I was very fortunate. I got with another graduate student who actually had a child, in another school, and we were able to find a woman who came and took care of the children part time, and then we took care of the children part time and then we had them in a nursery school part time.

4. How has your experience as a non-traditional student — juggling family, work and academic responsibilities — shaped your approach to higher education leadership?

Well, I think I it was excellent training, I really do. First of all, the word “juggle” is an important one. Any higher ed administrator is constantly juggling. And that’s what I learned how to do. I was multitasking before that word was ever invented. I wrote my dissertation on a card table in a den while watching my son and his seven or eight best friends running through the house playing. I would be typing up a note from a philosopher and then running upstairs to make grilled cheese sandwiches. That taught me continually how to multitask, how to switch, how to focus. So it was very important.

Again, I think it helped me learn the importance of balance and grounding. Having a family is an incredibly grounding experience; you’re constantly thinking about what is important. I found it very nurturing and nourishing. And I think that’s important as an administrator: you have to learn, as a leader, you have to learn, the importance of being grounded in your family, of being nourished with your family, of nurturing your family as well as being responsible for the many activities at work.

5. What types of support systems do you think every institution today should be looking to put into place to better support non-traditional students, such as working mothers?

It’s a great question. Lotte Bailyn, who is a professor at MIT and who is a Swarthmore graduate … received an honorary degree from Swarthmore and she has spent her life on this issue, on this very topic: what kind of support do we need to put in place for families? And she talks about — and I think it’s right — we need more flexibility in the workplace. And so, in higher education for instance, we have a tenure clock where people in their … sixth year … it is decided whether they will continue to receive employment or have to go elsewhere. That’s very difficult for people with young families these days, because both parents work. It’s a system that was developed many, many years ago, when one parent (almost always the man) worked and there was a stay-at-home mom. Very difficult to do what we expect in six years. That’s one of many, many examples — more flexibility.

Better childcare support systems. It’s still very hard to find childcare. Swarthmore is too small to support its own childcare facility, but it would be nice if there were many more childcare facilities located in our geographical area. I think better support and better understanding of the stresses. Kids get sick, mom or dad has to stay home — again, this is another type of flexibility. But I think we just need to work through our system and find the ways to support these families.

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of supporting non-traditional students as they go through their educational journey and how institutions could play a bigger role in making sure students are successful?

Well, I think the one thing that I would like to stress about supporting non-traditional students is that these students learn a great deal. They learn, as I said, how to juggle. They learn how to balance. They learn a kind of empathy for what people may be experiencing that are different than them. They are always having to, kind of, be on the outside looking in and on the inside looking out.

I think it’s a tremendous resource in our culture and that we should do all we can to support these people in the ways I’ve talked about, by providing more financial support, by providing childcare, by building far more flexibility into the system.

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Readers Comments

Lynn Pittelli 2013/04/05 at 10:10 am

I’ve read some of Lotte Bailyn’s work, including a reported titled “Integrating Work and Family Life,” where she discusses the importance of reframing the debate around work-life balance. What we’re failing to see in the higher education industry is the acknowledgement that workers also have lives outside of their careers, and how it’s impossible to completely separate those two aspects of their identities. This is a conversation desperately needed in higher education. I’m happy that administrators such as Rebecca Chopp are beginning to acknowledge the changing reality, but this needs to become an industry-wide effort. Otherwise, we’re losing a valuable population of potential students.

Patricia Lawerence 2013/04/05 at 12:04 pm

Listening to you speak about the challenges of being a working mother and graduate student, I can’t help but think that nothing has really changed. I am also a working mother, who recently finished an undergraduate degree after seven long years. Along the way, I was surprised by how little flexibility there was in my program — for instance, the order in which I had to take certain courses so I would have the prerequisites for others meant that, if I couldn’t take a course in one semester because I couldn’t secure childcare for my son, I was essentially ‘held back’ one semester. The same inflexibility seemed to grip some of my professors, who couldn’t understand why I sometimes had to miss classes because of my responsibilities at home. I think that what really needs to change first is attitudes—the attitudes of administrators, faculty and fellow students. If we can make them see the importance of having student parents on campus and the need to support them, we might see some tangible actions follow.

Glenda Cullen 2013/04/05 at 1:48 pm

Schools may be hesitant to put too many resources towards helping working parents because, while they represent a growing demographic on campus, they are still a relatively small group. Schools therefore have very little incentive to offer services like a childcare facility. It doesn’t have much of an impact on a school’s operations, but it can make all the difference in the world for the individual parent who does or doesn’t have access to this type of service.

Stephanie Hursey 2013/04/08 at 5:30 pm

The article highlights a lot of issues that need to be addressed. There is a lot that is not quite understood in the relationship that a mother has with her family and school.
The demand for loyalty and the choice between a higher education and stability for the next generation. It gets cut short when the need for money becomes the very component to keep the journey of advancement fused together.

The constant stop and go of mental and emotional worries does impact the outcome of the education the mother is pursuing. I still till today suffer from unconscious anxiety when I face another semester. I as a single mother I faced the most horrible hardship I have ever imagine, and at the same time it opened my eyes to how broken this element is. I lost it all and put it all together again, alone.
So, thank you for this article, because I know how true it is.


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