Omega McNeese is getting her master’s degree at MU on five hours of sleep every night.
McNeese wakes every morning at 5:30. In 30 minutes, she’s about ready for class and turns her attention to getting her 19-month-old son, Makari, ready for the day. She drops the toddler at day care and arrives at her office in MU’s Clark Hall by 7:30. She attends class and does work for her research assistantship in health management.
McNeese leaves campus at 5 p.m. to retrieve Makari and heads home for dinner and play time. After Makari goes to bed around 9 p.m., she crams in more studying until around midnight, when she finally goes to sleep.
Five hours later, she starts all over again.
“I catch up on sleep on weekends,” McNeese said.
As a 23-year-old single mom, McNeese is one of about 40 students who recently joined Graduate Students as Parents, a new MU student organization dedicated to providing a forum for graduate and professional students with children.
Kristy Wendt, a doctoral student in veterinary pathobiology, started the organization this fall while pregnant with her daughter, Ella. When she was told that MU’s child development lab had a three-year waiting list, Wendt began to worry about finding day care. She began to have other concerns as well, such as maintaining her relationship with her faculty adviser.
In September, Wendt sent out an e-mail through MU’s Graduate Professional Council list to inquire about similar concerns of other graduate or professional students. About 20 students responded and a month later the university recognized them as an official student organization.
“Our hope is that with Graduate Students as Parents, we will have a chance to lobby for issues and provide a forum for discussion,” Wendt said.
Pam Benoit, the organization’s faculty advisor and associate dean of MU’s graduate school, said the group provides a good support system.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Benoit said. “It’s hard enough to go to graduate school, anyway. You have incredible time crunches in graduate school, and kids don’t wait.”
In March, MU’s graduate faculty senate passed a policy statement on the rights and responsibilities of graduate teaching assistants. Assistantships provide a monthly stipend for living expenses and come with a tuition waiver, but they do not include sick time or maternity/paternity leave.
The senate’s statement reads: “A graduate assistant unable to fulfill the duties of her or his appointment because of birth or adoption of a child shall notify the administrator of her or his major unit as soon as circumstances permit. The appointing unit may adjust the graduate assistant’s workload duties as the assistant’s physical circumstances reasonably dictate.”
In other words, leave is not guaranteed — it is up to the department.
“It is our hope that professors will continue to be understanding of graduate students who need time away from their academic pursuits because of illness or the birth of a child,” said Nathan Brummel, president of the GPC.
Brummel said the issue is complex because graduate students, although they technically work for MU, are not considered university employees, thus they do not receive the same leave benefits.
“The great thing about my boss is that if (Makari) gets sick, I’m allowed to stay at home and do my work,” McNeese said of the professor who oversees her graduate research assistantship. “My boss is very family friendly. For parents, I feel that’s almost essential, someone who understands that married or unmarried, when a child is sick, you have to take care of them.”
Jacquelyn Litt, director of MU’s women’s and gender studies program, said universities are inching toward parental leave options for faculty and staff, but most are far from having them in place for graduate students.
Litt, whose research focuses primarily on faculty, said that if the institutional climate is good for faculty with families, it can be good for graduate and professional students as well, male or female.
“It’s not just a women’s issue,” Litt said. “Men are concerned about policies, too.”
Drew Hillhouse, a doctoral student in molecular microbiology and immunology, is one of those men. He and his wife, Katrina, are expecting their first child in April. Hillhouse, 24, said the lab he works in is flexible with regards to his family. His concern lies more in being new to Columbia and not having relatives and friends here. He plans to join Graduate Students as Parents for the social support.
“When (Kristy) sent out that e-mail, I thought, ‘This is right up our alley,’” Hillhouse said.
McNeese finds comfort in the new network provided by Graduate Students as Parents.
“It’s kind of like a support group, you can call people who are dealing with the same issues,” she said.