How to create a “family friendly” campus

Mike Davies, Editor-in-Chief  Ω

It is almost universally accepted that the Canadian childcare situation is in a state of crisis (see story here), and that the situation directly affects university campuses, and post-secondary students — but how, and to what extent?

Well, it’s simple really — student-parents have more going on in their lives, and the childcare situation makes it even more difficult for them to better themselves by achieving the higher education that we all are attempting to do by enrolling at post-secondary institutions.

I’m not saying that you’re not busy if you don’t have a child, so just settle down, but if you aren’t a parent, I’d just ask you to picture how busy you are, and then add the responsibility of raising another human from scratch.

“The administration section of universities need to come to the realization of the benefit of cooperation with and support of childcare facilities,” according to Marian Hardy, executive director of the Cariboo Childcare Society, the non-profit organization that operates the TRU childcare facilities, adding that though their relationship with administration is a good one (better than most institutions, she thinks) it could always be better.

She said that part of that cooperation needs to be making the campus “family friendly,” in order to support student-parents as well as encourage more people to enrol, saying that it’s possible that failure to do so is keeping people from choosing TRU as an option when considering which institution to attend.

An article published by The Concordian (Concordia University) in October 2010 cited research compiled by Tricia Van Rhijn and Donna S. Lero for the University of Guelph has student-parents accounting for “close to 11 per cent of the total student population in Canadian universities,” which would suggest that this demographic is, in fact, a significant one.

Floriann Fehr, a TRU nursing professor and parent of children who have attended various childcare facilities in Kamloops (including the TRU on-campus facility) also thinks that the overall attitude of universities need to change toward a more “family friendly” one that acknowledges this demographic before the childcare situation will improve on post-secondary campuses — a change in attitude that would affect students without children in some ways as well, though perhaps not as immediately.

Fehr is currently pursuing her PhD in higher education and administration, and her doctoral research has her focusing on post-secondary students and their ability to balance work, school, and life. One of the biggest barriers in achieving that balance, she said, is childcare.

“The school (TRU) itself doesn’t even know how many of its students are parents,” she said, and added that there are “check-boxes” for various other demographics — “visible minority,” “Status Native Canadian” and others — on the admission forms, but for some reason parents get left out of the research.

As such, she claims, little effort is made to cater to their needs.

Which is why, she said, “You need to advocate for yourselves.” Whether it is demanding family-friendly services from your institution, or simply opening lines of communication with your professors about the extra demands on your time, student-parents need — and should expect — more flexibility from their institutions.

Concordia University in Montreal has developed a certain measure of the “family friendliness” that Fehr is discussing by opening the Concordia University Student Parent Centre (CUSP), where support can be found for their student parents, an idea initiated by Concordia’s dean of students, Elizabeth Morey.

The centre is designed to share resources — information on childcare facilities, health promotion services, and the psychological support needed for overburdened student parents, as well as a place to meet others in similar situations and socialize in a way more conducive to their lifestyle.

“[Student parents] don’t have the same options to meet other students, and to go out,” said Kristy Heeren, who was the director of CUSP in 2010. “Many student-parents struggle with isolation and loneliness, especially single parents, and international students who are new to the city,” and CUSP is one of the ways that Concordia has acknowledged and addressed the burden on this demographic.

“CUSP is another great help because it is a place where student parents can get together and see how others in similar situations balance parenting and school,” according to Concordia student-parent Anna Chigo. “As CUSP members, student parents have the chance to get involved in events such as monthly cook-outs, clothing, toy and babysitting exchanges, while making friends with other student parents in the process.”

Other post-secondary institutions have similar “family-friendly” programs and services.

The McGill University Chaplaincy, for example, houses the McGill Student Parents’ Network, a community of parents, children and student volunteers that hosts a number of programs to support families, such as in-house babysitting, and events that allow student parents to network and share stories. One program, “Study Saturdays,” occurs once a month and provides childcare services and a healthy lunch for a few hours while parents can study.

As far as how TRU (or any other institution that people feel need attitude-adjusting) can begin to become more “family friendly,” Fehr recommends that student-parents initiate the change by contacting their professors before each term and let them know that they have added demands on their time — not that they want special treatment, but just to inform them so they aren’t caught unaware when classes are inevitably missed, etc. — and help raise the awareness of the campus community in general in that way.

“When [professors] start seeing these letters all the time, they might start to understand that they are dealing with a significant demographic and that things are more difficult for them,” she said, and that change in awareness is needed if institutions are truly going to consider themselves “family-friendly,” and continue to develop in a way that recognizes a key demographic necessary to encourage returning and mature students as well as another generation of potential ones.

After all, those kids that are 5 years-old right now will be looking for a university to attend in less than 15 years, so developing an infrastructure for student parents now could have a large effect on enticing another generation of students not so far down the road, according to Fehr.

So even if you’re not a parent in search of childcare or in school to be an early childhood educator, you might want to consider what is best for both student-parents and for your institution. Post-secondary institutions have at their fingertips a demographic that they could impress now leading to higher enrolment down the road.

They certainly don’t want current students to be telling their children in 15 years that they should consider attending, “Anywhere but where I went.”

With files by Anna Chigo and Annie Shiel