How was your first day at Trinity? I remember sitting on the bus and thinking about what the day would hold. I felt deliriously happy and petrified in equal measure. As I walked into the quiet of Front Square, I was bursting with pride. But then, an hour later, I received a phone call from a cardiologist informing me that I needed to bring my daughter into hospital straight away. And with that I was gone.
Thankfully my daughter is doing OK now, but it meant that I was absent for much of my first week as an undergraduate in college. I was barely able to concentrate in the lectures that I did manage to attend, and I fell behind in my reading. I was unsure of who to speak with, worried I might be seen in a negative light, and so I carried the burden alone.
These kinds of incidents are rare, but children can regularly suffer from high temperatures or badly scraped knees and need to miss school. An unexplained rash will almost always involve a trip to A&E. Then there are the follow-up appointments, GP visits, parent-teacher meetings, school plays and after-school activities – not to mention what happens when the childminder suddenly lets you down. And please don’t mention housework. Being a student parent gives you a lot to contend with, and it can definitely be tough.
Many student parents share the opinion that studying at Trinity will dramatically improve our circumstances and those of our families.
And yet it has its good sides. Being a parent changes you, and I believe that my children bring out the best in me. When I’m having a rough day or lacking motivation, I only need to look at my two amazing kids and immediately I feel less overwhelmed and more inspired to succeed. Many student parents share the opinion that studying at Trinity will dramatically improve our circumstances and those of our families. We want the best for our children, and in order to achieve that, we have to be the best we can be.
I think that it is unfair to ask a four year old to understand that mammy cannot play right now because she still has 2,000 words to write by Friday. And so I don’t expect that. Instead, academic work is done after they have gone to bed and during gaps between lectures. My weekends with them are precious. They come first, as it should be. Any student parent will tell you that their parenting responsibilities will always trump everything else. It is par for the course. Such responsibilities often act as a barrier to many parents who might otherwise consider a return to full-time education. For those of us who have managed to juggle education and parenting, we find ourselves worrying and desperately hoping that we will be able to do so unimpeded. Each student parent’s story is unique, but there are some central issues that appear to be common to many of us, including timetabling, childcare and financial hardship.
Depending on your choice of course, the timetable will either be a curse or a joy. Through no fault of my own, I was unable to register until a week before I was due to start. As a result I could not access my timetable. I requested it in advance, but I was told this was not possible without being registered first. Student parents need their timetable weeks, if not months, in advance so they can organise childcare arrangements. It is also made quite clear at the beginning of the academic year that it is frowned upon to request any changes to the tutorial schedule. It is not made apparent that parents may warrant an exception, and so often they do not ask, which may incur extra costs.
While students can call on the students’ union or the Senior Tutor if they experience difficulty, I would argue that there are few students who would feel comfortable engaging with their faculty about this, particularly first-year students.
Such issues are dealt with in the Student Parent Policy, which is to be welcomed. However, the policy is in its early days and as a result students have said that many College staff seem unaware that such a policy exists. Even if they are aware, decisions around attendance and “family-friendly” timetabling issues are entirely at the discretion of each department. There does not appear to be any clear or common structures or guidance in place to help guide or direct staff. Most significantly, the onus is on the student to inform and engage with their respected faculty regarding issues relating to their parental responsibilities. While students can call on the students’ union or the Senior Tutor if they experience difficulty, I would argue that there are few students who would feel comfortable engaging with their faculty about this, particularly first-year students. The policy is a great start, but just how much power is really given back to the student parents?
Childcare costs are also a huge barrier to accessing education and, at present, there are no government-run childcare places or funding available to full-time third-level students. The Trinity College creche does offer reduced rates to students. But the facility can only cater for young children. The Trinity Access Programme, the students’ union and the Senior Tutor’s office can provide funding towards childcare for those on low incomes, but budget cuts have severely restricted resources. Coupled with the increasing numbers of student parents enrolling to study, as well as restrictions on the type of childcare that can be legitimately accessed, it results in a small payment. This definitely helps, but it does not come close to covering the actual costs involved. The Irish government continues to ignore this issue despite evidence that affordable childcare is a worthy investment, increasing participation in education and, ultimately, the workforce.
Many student parents experience financial hardship. Again, supports such as the Student Hardship Fund, as well as a number of bursaries, can be availed of. But many must rely on a mix of financial support from their families, college and social welfare payments, as well as outside agencies such as St Vincent De Paul. The Lone Parent Payment, Back to Education Allowance and other social welfare payments have all experienced significant cuts in the last few years, while student contribution charges continue to increase. Such policy decisions hurt one of the most vulnerable groups in our society and make little economic or social policy sense. And if student loans are introduced, it will sound a death knell for many of us. Not everyone at college has access to credit or a guarantor.
If we are missing from class nights out, society gatherings or other events, please don’t assume it is a choice. More likely it is that we are unable to afford either the childminder, the night out or both. Student parents can feel a sense of social isolation as a result. I would encourage student parents to participate when they can and to consider joining the Student Parent Society, who offer coffee mornings as well as family friendly events throughout the year. College is difficult as a parent, but there are supports are in place. It’s often simply a matter of knowing what they are and where you can turn.
Carly Bailey is the Chairperson of the Student Parents Society.