Managing family life and graduate studies is not always easy, but academic departments, The Graduate School and other organizations help students find community and thrive
Graduate students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill represent diverse backgrounds and experiences — which, for some of these students, include parenthood. Student parents have the unique task of balancing rigorous coursework and cutting-edge research along with familial responsibilities.
That intersection of duties is where the support of faculty, staff and campus organizations — including The Graduate School’s Diversity and Student Success (DSS) program — helps graduate student parents connect to resources at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“More and more graduate schools across the country are recognizing the importance of providing support for their graduate students with families,” says Maria Erb, co-director of DSS. “Providing this support can ease some of the stresses of life as a parent and, hopefully, assist the student in completing their degree in a timely manner.”
“More and more graduate schools across the country are recognizing the importance of providing support for their graduate students with families.”
—Maria Erb, co-director of Diversity and Student Success
Numerous campus policies, procedures and resources have been introduced within the last few years to accommodate the growing number of graduate student parents. Beginning in the 2019-2020 academic year, the parental leave policy is applicable to graduate students who have completed one full academic semester (as opposed to the previous one full academic year). Additionally, Parenting@UNC is a website that provides vital information on resources such as family leave, child and spousal health care and wellness services, caregiver aid and much more. Counseling and Psychological Services offers a Parent Support Group each week.
Clare Counihan, program coordinator for faculty and staff at the Carolina Women’s Center, says the Graduate and Professional Student Federation has also played a key role in advocating for graduate student parents.
“Initially, we [Carolina Women’s Center] thought that bringing on more parenting policies would attract faculty and staff more, but I realized that parenting also heavily affected undergraduate and graduate students,” Counihan says.
“I met and began working with grad students in the Graduate and Professional Student Federation who were dedicated to getting more resources for grad parents. They’re strong advocates.”
Kathy Wood, co-director of DSS, says she has seen that advocacy: Graduate students frequently ask Wood and Erb about support available to graduate student parents. In addition to helping students connect to graduate student resources, DSS makes some of its programming family friendly.
“We do our best at the University to support our students so they can enjoy the best of both worlds — a successful graduate career, and a healthy and happy family,” she adds.
Carolina Graduate School Magazine asked graduate students Mark Collins, Yanica Faustin, Pablo Miño, Sonny Kelly and Heidi Vuletich to share from their perspectives as graduate student parents.
Pablo Miño, a doctoral student in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, says parental support groups have been very helpful in his transition into his graduate program and new life as a graduate student parent.
“When we first came to Chapel Hill from Chile, it was just my wife, our oldest son and me. Lola Tasar, founder of the UNC Spouses and Partners Group, was instrumental in making this feel like home in our first two years at Carolina. My wife was feeling homesick, but Lola made sure to connect us with a host family in town and made her feel welcome to Chapel Hill.”
Heidi Vuletich, a doctoral student in psychology, says her department’s support and flexible schedule made parenting a newborn more manageable. She also noted the benefits of support groups.
“It hasn’t been easy balancing everything, but graduate school turned out to be a great time for us to start our family because my schedule allowed me the flexibility to make these choices. One of the key challenges for me has been scheduling my work and professional activities around feeding and pumping. Luckily, we attended a parent group organized by UNC Hospitals, and that was really helpful the first few months as we were adjusting to parenting.”
Sonny Kelly, a doctoral student in communication, says that his support system within The Graduate School’s Initiative for Minority Excellence has helped him stay focused and find community on campus.
“As I was learning about my field and meeting new colleagues, my family often felt left out and disoriented when it came to academic life. When I had big deadlines like comprehensive exams and the defense of my prospectus, I had to stay in Chapel Hill throughout the week just to focus. You come back home and you feel a little disoriented every time. The Initiative for Minority Excellence and the Military-Affiliated Grads staff members actively sought me out and wanted to connect with me. I love the fact that there are always activities where I can connect with other non-traditional graduate students. It has been an enriching and encouraging experience getting to know other veterans, parents, older students and students of color who are trying to get through this challenging experience together.”
Yanica Faustin, a doctoral student in maternal and child health, says her cohort and campus resources have offered her and her family support and guidance throughout her graduate school journey.
“I have some great friends that I met in grad school who will babysit my kids at times and/or come over to do work at my place during kids’ nap times. The accountability that this provides is essential to productivity. Plus, my kids have literally known them since they were days old and love them! The Initiative for Minority Excellence has also been an amazing resource. They are always family friendly and have allowed me to bring my kids to events before, including Writing Wednesday. I also attended an informative event through the Carolina Women’s Center that had a panel of grad school parents. I made some connections there and learned about some resources that might be helpful in the future.”
Mark Collins, a doctoral student in English and comparative literature, says his department and the Carolina Women’s Center have played integral roles in supporting and guiding his family.
“My fellow English graduate students have been very helpful. Whether it was bringing us dinner in those early months with Finnegan or even just giving us our fill of adult conversation, our friends in the department have been really supportive. Finally, I want to give a shout-out to the Carolina Women’s Center on campus. They hosted a great ‘What to Expect’ workshop that had some useful advice for navigating UNC as a parent. It also featured a panel with UNC professors and employees, sharing lessons and tips that they had learned.”
By Lauren Houston