A Student Parent Experience - An Autoethnography

Spring 2022


PAH 201 - Applied Humanities Practice: Techniques & Technologies for Public Enrichment


Harris Kornstein
There is a small yet not so small population in the United States that must work at least twice as hard as their peers. I'm referring to college students who are also parents. I wanted to make a meaningful project showing the lives of these students but if you're one, you know, they simply don't have the time to spare. So, I pulled out my tripod, set it up as I went, and I filmed a day in my life because I am part of that student parent population. I felt this project needed to be made to shed light on this population of students who have so much more expected of them with little to no additional resources. Being a student at The University of Arizona, I have researched and taken advantage of what little resources are available. I am speaking of the childcare subsidy of $1000 per semester, fall and spring only. The only other resource is back up childcare for sick days. I am curious how many student parents have used this resource. As a mom of 3, the last thing me or my children want is a complete stranger taking care of my sick child. But maybe that's just me. At this time, I have not been able to find any other additional resources The University of Arizona offers. Despite the lack of resources, I also wanted to show how much more dedicated student parents have to be since we have less time than childless students to attend class and do schoolwork. We also have to be able to justify, and afford, spending money on childcare in addition to tuition. By filming my day, I wanted to try and answer the following questions: 1. How do I navigate the cultural expectations of being a spouse, a mother, and a professional while pursuing higher education? 2. How can showing a day in the life of a student parent spark a conversation of needed resources and changes at The University of Arizona? In preparation for this assignment, I spent too much time thinking about what would be the most important aspects of my day to share and how I wanted to share it. I came to the realization that just setting up a tripod, filming it all, and taking snapshots of those videos would be the most honest and natural way. I wasn't worried about my children not acting as they normally do though my 9 year old did make silly faces from time to time. Children's short attention spans and tendencies to think of themselves proved a valuable resource in filming their natural day to day activities. Normally, when filming subjects you might worry about authenticity however there was nothing more authentic than the way my children acted during filming for this project. I am fully aware the assignment required making observations of others in a space but who would be more qualified to make observations than the person living it every day? I showed from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep what it is like to be a wife, mother, professional and student which are insights an outside observer may not have access to. Those who watch this video will see me rise in the morning alone, make my tea in my favorite robe, then prepare breakfast. This day's breakfast was cereal, sausage, and a banana. Since the chaos of getting two babies ready and myself was too stressful to film at the same time, those details didn't get recorded. I then filmed our entire drive in the morning. This would have been fun to show in its entirety as my children play, sing, giggle, and sometimes fight during this long car ride. The snapshots after the kids are all dropped off are very insightful, however. That brief 20 minutes is a very short amount of time that I have to get errands done without children yelling in the background. This is an important observation because student parents have to develop skills in time management on a whole other level compared to traditional students. Being a parent is not a full time job. Parenting is a 24 hour a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year job with no vacation or sick days. Couple that with being a student and free time is virtually nonexistent. Add being a spouse and professional, well, you get the idea. The images of me in class portray my participation habits. Since student parents tend to be over the age of 30, real world experience is something we can contribute in class and we usually have no issues doing so. Along with age comes maturity and the least likely we are to care if our answer is wrong or being judged by our peers. In addition, we enjoy being around adults, even younger ones, bouncing intelligent ideas off each other and learning new concepts. I have also found my connections with my professors to be much stronger than my peers due to my identities as an older student and parent. While I would love to be in the university environment all day, I do love to be home with my family. The observations of life after class are very telling of the challenges for student parents. It is nearly impossible to get any work done with toddlers running around and to see it on screen should be evidence enough that student parents deserve a prize for even trying. Then comes dinner and bedtime. As parents, we tend to make sure we are 100% present during this time talking about our day, being silly, and enjoying each other's presence. Once all the kids are down for bed, when others are winding down, watching tv, or enjoying a drink, student parents are doing homework. Staying up until 11pm, sometimes later, every night is common as it is perhaps the only time student parents have to dedicate full attention to assignments. As previously discussed, this is why time management and dedication are essential for student parents to succeed. But that is not where cultural expectations end. If the student parent is a spouse, then there is one person who requires just a bit of child free attention as well. After all that, it is finally time for lights out and hopefully 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep though, as a parent, we know that is rarely the case. This media autoethnography is an intimate and genuine insight into the life of a wife, mother, professional and student. As the narration describes, 22% of students are parents with over half of them dropping out and never graduating. The cost to attend school is exponentially more for student parents due to the cost of childcare, $5,328 per semester in my case. My hope is that seeing this project will show the challenges that student parents face: lack of free time, lack of self-care, increased debt due to high costs of attendance. Yet despite it all, we are even more dedicated and want to show our children the importance of an education and honoring commitments. What we need is a bit of help. By seeing these trials, I challenge higher education institutions to offer more resources, take notice of this population that is held to the same standard as their peers, and support them in an effort to increase the percentage of student parents who can walk across the stage and earn their diplomas.
Darionne Williams
Applied Humanities (Business Administration)
I am a born and raised Tucsonan, married to a soldier in the Army National Guard, mother to a 9, 3, and 1 year old, and a senior at The University of Arizona. I am studying Applied Humanities with an emphasis in Business Administration and minoring in Finance. I am also taking prerequisites for the Master of Science in Accounting program which I hope to start in 2023.