Colorado State University student Britni Mendizabal is taking online classes from College Station, Texas. When she isn’t attending class or doing homework, she’s caring for her infant son and working as a property manager, which can sometimes feel impossible.
“I’ve cried a lot,” said Mendizabal who’s studying ecology and evolutionary biology. “There have been a lot of rough days, but I have to keep moving forward … I keep telling myself, ‘I’m almost done. I’m almost done.’”
Along the way, Mendizabal, who expects to graduate in the spring, said that she has faced hurdles in the pursuit of her degree, which she hopes will lead to a career in environmental law. Through it all, she said that she has received support from advisers and case managers at CSU.
In the past few years, CSU has been working to better serve student parents and caregivers, a group whose multiple and diverse identities sometimes get overlooked at colleges and universities across the country. According to University leadership, these students bring tremendous life experiences and add to the diversity of the CSU community.
In 2019, CSU established the Committee on Supporting Students who are Parents, Guardians, Future Parents, and Caregivers through the Division of Student Affairs to find a way to better serve this group. The committee is co-chaired by John Henderson, assistant dean of students and director of Parent and Family Programs, and Lisa Chandler, assistant director of Adult Learner and Veteran Services, and includes membership from across several University divisions and academic departments
According to Henderson and Chandler, CSU has more than 4,000 adult learners — students who are 25 years of age or older. However, they said that they do not have exact numbers on students who are parents, planning to be parents, guardians, and/or caregivers, whether they are adult learners or traditional age — students who are 18 to 24 years of age — college students, as that data cannot be accurately gathered.
The committee is currently in the nascent stages due to the COVID-19, working to get more concrete numbers and learn more about this important student population. Even so, Henderson said that it’s important for the University community to recognize this group and understand their background.
“Students who are parents, guardians, future parents and/or caregivers bring a focus to their academics, and to personal, family and professional commitments that require a tremendous work ethic, being adept at prioritizing and working to adjust and adapt to our university, and its expectations, more so than many other students. Not all students can just join a study group that meets at 3 p.m. at the LSC,” Henderson said. “We also have traditional-aged students who hold these identities – especially those who may need to take care of siblings and/or older family members, while also being students. For some, it might not be during the week, but it could be that their weekends are spent supporting family needs.”
Types of caregivers
Student parent: A student who provides on-going care to one or more children.
Student caregiver: Any student who provides care to a family member including but not limited to siblings, elderly, disabled, etc. individuals.
Student guardian: Any student who is appointed as a legal guardian for an individual.
Future parent: Any student who is expecting a child through childbirth, adoption, foster care or other personal circumstances.
Student Case Management
CSU’s Student Case Management plays a key role in helping student parents and/or caregivers as well as all students in difficult situations such as medical, mental health, behavioral, personal or family crisis and illness or injury.
CSU Director of Student Case Management Jennifer Van Norman and her team of professional staff are on the front lines in charge of ensuring all students at CSU have support when they’re experiencing some sort of difficulty or crisis.
When working with student parents and/or caregivers, Van Norman said a big piece is helping students navigate attendance policies. She explained that most instructors set their attendance policies, noting that 99% of them are incredibly empathetic and generous when it comes to student situations.
“Put yourself in the shoes of a student parent or caregiver. What do you do when you have to be absent from class because your child gets sick?” she said. “What happens when a student has to miss an exam or miss out on participation points for an unanticipated family emergency? It can be a snowball effect for them.”
CSU student Brendan Kayne, a junior studying Health and Exercise Science and also the vice president of the Student Parent Organization, expressed how important it can be for instructors to provide language on their syllabus that reaffirms their support for students who are parents, guardians and/or caregivers.
Kayne, who has a child in the first grade, said that language in the syllabus that notes that the instructor is both aware and supportive of students who hold these identities is beneficial, “as opposed to wondering if my instructor will be understanding to an extending circumstance when they arise,” he said.
“Put yourself in the shoes of a student parent or caregiver. What do you do when you have to be absent from class because your child gets sick? What happens when a student has to miss an exam or miss out on participation points for an unanticipated family emergency? It can be a snowball effect for them.”
— Jennifer Van Norman, director of Student Case Management
In addition to attendance, Van Norman said that Student Case Management assists students who may be experiencing temporary disabilities by referring them to the Student Disability Center for temporary accommodations and support.
Van Norman added that Student Case Management helps students by providing information and resources to combat issues surrounding hunger and food insecurity, exposing them to the Rams Against Hunger Programs, Food Bank for Larimer County and SNAP benefits.
With Mendizabal, she said that Student Case Management helped her with several issues before and after her pregnancy.
“These students hold diverse identities across race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, and more, and at times face specific challenges as a parent and/or caregiver because of the ways our university and broader community operate,” Van Norman said. “They have incredible, powerful stories and awe-inspiring professional experiences. We as a community are much stronger because they opted to attend CSU.”
Mendizabal, who is appreciative of the help she has received, said she is 15 credit hours away from graduation and is looking forward to starting the next chapter of her story.
“One of the reasons I stayed at CSU was that my academic adviser was so lovely,” she said. “She goes above and beyond for my well-being. Honestly, if it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t be here right now.”