New MU organization advocates for student parents

Thursday, December 10, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST
Naomi Clark and her 7-month-old daughter, Liberty, at the Student Parent Center in University Village on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2009. Clark is a member of MIZFIT, an organization that helps MU student-parents network and support one another.

COLUMBIA — Mornings start early for Kristy Ensley. The 23-year-old MU senior is up between 4:30 and 5 a.m. to get her two children, Jasmine and Jayden, ready to leave at 6 for their hour or so drive to Columbia from California, Mo.

Ensley hopes to graduate in May with a degree in biology and has applied to MU’s accelerated nursing program. If accepted, she will begin in June.

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For now, she’d like to find a study partner. At the mention of her children, her classmates shy away.

“As soon as I say that,” Ensley said, “no one wants to study with me.”

Ensley is part of a group of MU student parents who joined forces this summer to address challenges unique to their population. They’ve adopted the acronym MIZFIT, which stands for Mizzou Families Involved Together, but the "misfit" implication of the name is intentional.

Student parents feel isolated from the student body at large and from each other, said Julie Shea, director of the Student Parent Center, a day care facility for MU students. And because of their family responsibilities, their time is extremely limited.

“We want to be able to support each other,” Ensley said.

To this end, MIZFIT, which was recently formally recognized as a student organization, has created a Facebook group, MIZFIT at MU, to connect student parents and share resources.

The group also aims to increase awareness of the student-parent population at MU and its particular needs. “Student parents don’t have the opportunity to speak up for themselves,” Shea said.

The numbers

The challenge is compounded by the fact that no one knows exactly how many MU students are also parents. The university does not track the number of parents on campus, MU spokesman Christian Basi said.

Financial aid forms, such as the Free Application for Federal Student Financial Aid, ask for information about student dependents because family size does play a role in determining student aid eligibility. Jim Brooks, director of the MU Office of Student Aid, confirmed that the office does not track the number of students who report dependents.

On a national level, student parents account for nearly 12 percent of undergraduates at four-year public universities and colleges, and they comprise nearly 30 percent of graduate and professional students at public institutions, according to a 2007-08 study by the U.S. Department of Education.

If MU’s student-parent population corresponded to the national average, this would translate to more than 2,500 undergraduate student parents and nearly 2,000 graduate or professional student parents, according to university enrollment numbers in 2007 and 2008.

There is no evidence to suggest that MU’s student parent enrollment is this large, but there is no evidence to the contrary, either. The uncertainty makes planning for student parents difficult, Ensley said, because “we don’t know what we’re dealing with.”

Campus support

Support services for student parents are decentralized on campus, which means that student parents may have markedly different experiences depending on their field of study.

Nicholas Gage, MIZFIT's president, is a doctoral student in the department of special education. Gage, 29, said he made the importance of his two children, 6-year-old River Preston-Gage and 4-year-old Scout Preston-Gage, clear to his department.

“I said to my adviser, 'I have two little kids; they’re first priority,'” Gage said.

His adviser replied that they should be.

Gage, a self-described “perpetual student,” encountered some difficulties when he previously studied for a master’s degree in the Harry S Truman School of Public Affairs.He then developed his own approach to balance child care needs and group meetings with classmates.

“I’d say, 'You have to come to my house for dinner,'” Gage said.

Support from the English department and the women's and gender studies departments has been “fantastic” for the most part, said Naomi Clark, a doctoral student and new mother who is a member of MIZFIT.

But friends of hers in MU’s School of Law have developed an “underground system for determining who is a family-friendly faculty member and who isn’t,” Clark said.

Part of the problem is scheduling. Many classes and help sessions are scheduled for the evening, Ensley said, when MU day care is not available.

Clark, Ensley and Gage all use the Student Parent Center, which closes at 5 p.m. “A lot of parents struggle with that,” Gage said, referring to the closing time.

Another concern is the cost. Gage pays between $1,300 and $1,400 each month for day care for his two children. “And that’s cheap,” he said.

Space is also limited; the day care is licensed for 44 children. Shea, the center’s director, keeps a waiting list for interested student parents.

Still, students who use the facility appreciate what it offers.

“Having her nearby is huge,” Clark said of her daughter, Liberty Faye Clark, who is 9 months old. “It’s something that I wish other parents could have.”

Family living situations

The Student Parent Center is housed on the ground floor of one of the University Village apartment buildings, which are managed by Residential Life. The center is operated by Student Auxiliary Services, which rents space from Residential Life, said Frankie Minor, director of Residential Life.

Minor said renovations of University Village and the two other family-friendly student apartment complexes — University Heights and Tara Apartments — are long overdue. Combined, these three complexes house about 40 MU families with children, he said.

Minor said the most recent significant renovations of University Village or University Heights were 12 years ago. He hopes to develop a long-range renovation or replacement plan for University Student Apartments along the lines of the Residential Life Master Plan for residential halls that most recently yielded three renovated midcampus dorms.

“We’ve been trying to do this for the last five years,” he said.

It’s unclear when or how renovations will occur.

In the past, renovations have proceeded one building at a time, but renovating all three facilities at once would allow for economies of scale, Minor said, with reduced costs for materials and services.

If University Village were to be closed for renovations, it isn’t clear where the Student Parent Center would be located and renovation plans wouldn’t necessarily include a new day care facility.

“We can help contribute,” Minor said, “but we can’t fully fund it.”

Parent community

Beyond day care services, the Student Parent Center creates a sense of community among parents, Gage said. He and other parents celebrate their children’s birthdays, have Halloween parties and coordinate trips to events such as the Hartsburg Pumpkin Festival, Gage said.

“I’ve made a lot of friends through my kids having friends,” Gage said.

Clark said that, historically, the university has been designed for single, unattached students. And nontraditional students have different social needs, she said.

“Friday night, I’m thinking about what am I going to feed my kid,” Gage said.

MIZFIT's organizers hope to extend this sense of community to other parents on campus, but the organization aims to have more practical benefits, also, Clark said, such as facilitating networking and child care swaps.

“For these kinds of relationships to exist,” Clark said, “there has to be some kind of awareness of each other and a sense of security.”

Future support

MIZFIT may be aided in its goal by a new Web site called Project Student-Parent Success, which is being developed by ParentLink, an MU College of Education program that provides support to families across the state, with special attention paid to “high-need families," said Carol Mertensmeyer, ParentLink’s director.

With a grant from MU’s Interdisciplinary Innovations Fund, ParentLink is working with MU students to develop and market a Ning network, a social networking Web site that allows for various specialized subcommunities within the site.

The site would provide e-mentoring — connecting student parents and experts on campus — and research-based articles as well as opportunities for parents to connect with and support each other, said Patrick Lockwood, a senior psychology student at MU who has helped coordinate the project.

This support could take the form of child care and clothing swaps, as well as sharing tips on academic resources, health care or even family-friendly restaurants, Mertensmeyer said.

ParentLink hopes to roll out the Web site at MU this spring and plans to connect to the other three campuses in the University of Missouri System soon after, he said.

Mertensmeyer eagerly anticipates the release of the site.

“All of our audiences will benefit from a site like this,” Mertensmeyer said. “To think about how you can bring together academics with clothes swapping, that’s what I get excited about.”


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