College is stressful. Raising children is stressful. Combine the two, and a person’s stress levels can be off the charts.
“Sometimes, when I was juggling school and work and kids, I would just break down and cry,” recalled Sonyna Castillo, who gave birth to three children while earning her undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota. Her children’s father works out of state for several months of each year, so she often parented alone. “By the time I was pregnant with my third child, it was overwhelming. I remember being so exhausted that I started taking it out on my kids.”
Today, Castillo, who graduated in 2014 with a degree in family social science, works as an office specialist for the university’s President’s Emerging Scholars Program, but during the exhausting days when she was going to school full time, working 30 hours a week and raising her family, she needed all the support she could get. That support came from the university’s Student Parent HELP Center, a program that began in 1967 as Higher Education for Low Income People, part of the university’s General College. In 1984, the program evolved into a parent-only assistance program to help undergraduate students with children complete their degrees.
“Our goal is to be here for student parents, to be a place where they can get the support and assistance they need,” said Susan Warfield, Student Parent HELP Center director. “We are often the first place that student parents come if they are having emotional or mental health issues because of the strong community we create for them. They feel safe here.”
Even during her most stressful periods, Castillo never harmed her children, but there were moments when HELP center staff counseled her through tough times.
“They understood what I was going through,” she said. “The extra support and listening time was important. I was a good student, but I wanted to be a good parent, too. It was stressful. The HELP Center helped me figure out how to be both a good mom and a good student.”
‘Just like me’
Located in Appleby Hall on the university’s East Bank, the HELP Center has a study lounge, a meeting space, a kitchenette and a computer lab. Students drop by to do homework, print papers (printing for is free for school or family business), seek assistance from center staff or attend weekly Parents As Student Support group (PASS) meetings.
The meetings are popular, drawing as many as 20 student parents each week for a free lunch and a discussion of parenting topics. Meeting other student parents is invaluable, Warfield said, because undergraduates with children often feel isolated among their more carefree, childless peers. Student parents build strong bonds through shared experiences and common challenges.
“Students say the PASS group is the one of the most valuable things we offer,” Warfield said. “This is a group of moms and dads who are also university students. They are so busy that they literally think of themselves last. Recently, a student mom told us, ‘I’m so busy and stressed. This is the only time I eat lunch all week.’”
Castillo didn’t know about the Student Parent HELP center during her first pregnancy, but she learned about it through a staff member at Circle of Indigenous Nations, a support organization for American Indian students, when she was pregnant with her second child. Castillo jumped at the chance to meet other undergrads with kids.
“It was amazing,” she said. “When I visited the HELP Center, I saw all the resources that were there for me. I saw other students that were like me, that had kids and were going to work and were pregnant just like me.” Going to her first PASS group, Castillo said, “was a sigh of relief. I found out that I wasn’t the only one at home with kids and homework and work and cooking dinner for kids that didn’t want to eat it. It was great.”
At PASS, Castillo met other student parents who were focused on finishing their degrees — despite significant challenges. If they could do it, then so could she.
That kind of unique support and bonding is key for the HELP Center’s student population, which leans heavily toward first-generation college students, a group that often faces significant roadblocks to completing an undergraduate degree.
Unlike students who live in residence halls and stay up late bonding with their roommates, HELP Center students are more likely to be up late with fussy children and to live off campus with their families and partners.
The center’s large space is prime real estate on the U’s busy Minneapolis campus, and most days several students are there, studying, taking a break on one of the center’s comfortable couches while their children occupy themselves in the play area, or just spending time talking to staff.
“When a student is having a bad day, when nothing is going right, they’re able to come in and we can spend an hour talking to them,” Warfield said. “I’ve held students’ hands while they’ve cried. I talked to them and encouraged them. If they are dealing with a financial issue, we can offer them an emergency assistance grant. That can lift the stress off their shoulders.” When students are having a hard time putting food on the table or buying diapers, the center also has a stash of gift cards for Cub Foods or Target.
Warfield puts it this way: “We offer three things: cash, community and couches.”
Benefits extend to the children
Is offering cash, community and couches worth it? Warfield thinks so. Research shows that economic assistance and providing a community of like peers are needed to retain and graduate student parents. She said that she and other center staff see their work as extending beyond the educational success of the student parents they serve to their overall welfare of their children.
“If you look at any markers of a child’s life, it is all greatly influenced by the educational success of the parents, and the mother in particular,” Warfield said. “When a mother completes college, her child will be living in a better neighborhood, attending a better school and be more likely to go to college themselves. I have seen our students come in and struggle. But I’ve also seen them graduate. They’ve kept in touch and they’ll say, ‘We are buying our first home’ or coming back for grad school or starting a business. That’s just what we are hoping for.”
Every fall, a group of HELP Center student parents and their children march in the university’s homecoming parade. People are always happy to see a gaggle of cute kids dressed in Goldy costumes accompanied by their proud parents. While Warfield appreciates the happy, family-friendly feeling created by their participation in the event, she also likes to think that it serves a larger, more important purpose.
“By being out there and being part of the campus culture, we are also exposing that second generation to the idea that this is their university, that like their parents, they will go to college one day.”
More than anyone, Castillo understands the important message her college success sends to her children.
“When I was growing up, my parents wanted me to go to college, but I always thought they had no right to pressure me because they didn’t go to college themselves,” she said. “When I had my kids, my dad never thought I’d finish school. He was so disappointed. But I did it. When I graduated, I took a picture of my three kids and I held it up when I crossed the stage. I said, ‘I told you I could do it and I did.’ ”