COLUMBIA — For Kristy Ensley, graduating from college has been an eight-year dream.
But Ensley, who majored in biology at MU, will not walk across the stage at Saturday's commencement ceremony for the College of Arts and Science. Instead, she will be at her daughter’s dance recital.
Ensley, 25, is among the group of student parents who will graduate in the next couple of days having spent much or all of their college careers balancing school and child-rearing. As graduation nears, however, they are able to say the struggle is ultimately worth it.
No one knows exactly how many MU students are also parents. As previously reported in the Missourian, the university does not track that number, MU spokesman Christian Basi said.
Ensley spent a year at East Carolina University but took time off for financial reasons. Then, she moved to New Orleans, where she met her fiance, Lucas Wilkes, and attended community college during the summer and fall before having her daughter, Jasmine, when she was 20. After Hurricane Katrina, they moved closer to Wilkes' family in Missouri, and in the fall of 2005, she enrolled at MU — a one-hour commute from her home in California, Mo.
Then came the birth of son Jayden, and Ensley took another year off, returning to school in the fall of 2008.
“There were times where I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to come back, but I knew if I didn’t, then it would never happen,” Ensley said.
Having children rearranged her priorities, she said. “I thought about doing the Senior Sendoff," she said of the ritual on Francis Quadrangle. "But I had to pick the kids up.”
Education decisions are a family affair
Ensley, whose children are now 2 and 5, said she felt like “the girl with the kid” in college.
Justine Guyer, who is graduating from the MU School of Law on Sunday, said she wanted to keep her school and her home lives separate. So when Guyer started law school, she felt she shouldn’t tell anyone she was also a parent.
Guyer, 25, said that instead of joining her classmates at bars after class, she goes home to her 3-year-old daughter, Hazel. They play with chalk and draw pictures, and she sees it as an escape her classmates without children do not have.
She said, in retrospect, she realizes that being open about having a child was important in finding people she could ask for advice, help and support. But she still appreciates the divide between her college and home lives.
“It makes me realize there is just so much more to life than sitting in the classroom,” Guyer said.
When Guyer graduated from Truman State University, she was valedictorian and could have been accepted to her pick of law schools. But she said she chose MU because it best fit her family’s needs.
“Law school meant the family was going,” said Guyer, who lives in Columbia. She said she also chose MU because Columbia is a family-friendly environment, and having a degree from MU will allow her family to stay in Missouri where she would like to practice law.
Support is key to success
Myra Hicks will wear a new dress and yellow sweater to the College of Education commencement ceremony Friday, though her mother isn’t sure whether she’ll be awake for the pomp and circumstance. Myra, who is 10 months old, and her father, Matt Hicks, will watch as Sarah Hicks is hooded for her doctorate.
Hicks, 28, attended a five-year program at MU and earned master's and doctoral degrees in mathematics curriculum and instruction.
“I’m proud of myself,” she said. “My education has really broadened my perspective.”
Hicks started in the program at MU in 2005. Myra was born in 2009, but because it was June, Hicks was able to spend two months with her new baby before returning to class in August. Then, Myra went to the MU Student Parent Center from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays while her mother went to class, worked on her dissertation and served as a graduate research assistant.
“She’s not too far away from me during the day,” Hicks said.
The center is one of the few resources on campus to help student parents. The center's staff care for nearly 40 children each semester, director Julie Shea said.
For Hicks, finding time to study was a family affair. Her husband quit coaching high school soccer when he learned she was pregnant. Together, they coordinate weekend days, so she can study while he takes care of Myra.
When Myra was born, Hicks' mother said, “Your baby is only that small once.” Hicks remembered her words and said she was glad for those precious two months before she returned to school. But she does not regret her decision to pursue her education.
"It was hard," she acknowledged, "but I was determined to finish my dissertation."
Obstacles in finishing work
For some student parents, a determination to reach their educational goals can be heavily challenged by the realities of parenthood. Guyer said that especially during her first year of law school, her daughter was often sick. When Hazel was hospitalized with pneumonia, Guyer missed class to be with her.
Attendance policies were hard on Guyer, and she said there were many times she was just a “body in a chair.”
Guyer said that one year, severe weather closed the Student Parent Center on a day she had a final. She scrambled to find a babysitter for Hazel, in addition to worrying about passing the one test she had all semester.
In these situations, some student parents found it important to have a reliable person or place to go for support. Guyer found support with another mother in the law school. Once at finals, they took care of each others' children while the other mother took her exam.
Hicks found support in the mothers at the Student Parent Center, especially for personal issues unrelated to school or work.
“It’s really nice to meet other moms on campus,” Hicks said.
Hicks said networking with other mothers can happen at events planned by the Student Parent Center, such as moms’ luncheons and events for mothers and their children, such as Mommy and Me yoga.
Shea said the Student Parent Center often collaborates with ParentLink and MIZFIT to create events for student parents. They have held date nights during which a restaurant offers specials for couples, and child care is provided elsewhere. Shea said a "Party at the Park" event is being planned during which families can get together to socialize at different parks on Friday afternoons.
Ensley said children at the center become friends and attend one another’s birthday parties.
Bright futures anticipated
Hicks and her family are planning to move to Kansas City where she plans to work at her alma mater, Rockhurst University, as an assistant professor of math education in the School of Graduate and Professional Studies.
“I’ll be teaching teachers,” Hicks said.
Guyer plans to work for Missouri Protection Advocacy Services, a nonprofit organization in Jefferson City that helps people with disabilities. At the same time, Hazel is expected to start preschool.
“I have a great feeling of finally being settled,” Guyer said.
In October, Ensley expects to find out whether she is accepted to the MU accelerated nursing program. She and Wilkes still plan to marry; she said Jasmine hopes it will be soon because she wants to be a flower girl.
In the meantime, the family is planning a move to Osage Beach where Jasmine will start kindergarten in the fall. Ensley said she is proud of what she has achieved and hopes she can serve as an example for other student parents.
"I just want to tell parents that are contemplating college or that are struggling in college, I am proof that obtaining a college degree can be done," Ensley said. "It may have taken me eight years, but I am graduating, and this is something I will be able to share with my children."