Ashlee Hernandez is a Masters Candidate in the Higher Education Counseling and Student Affairs program. She completed her undergraduate degree at Cal Poly in the College of Liberal Arts, Social Science department. The views reflected in this letter to the editor do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News’ editorial coverage. This letter has been edited for clarity.
I made a deliberate decision not to share my status as a student-parent when I first enrolled at Cal Poly. I was already overwhelmed by navigating this institution as a first-generation, low-income woman of color. I did not need another marker of diversity — another potential source of bias — as a part of my identity.
Yet, during my first quarter, I was forced to expose my identity to my professor when my son was unexpectedly sent home with a fever. When I requested to care for my sick child, the options were untenable. Missing class to care for my sick child was considered an “unexcused” absence, which on that date, meant that I would not be able to make up the in-class assignment that was 25 percent of my grade. This experience was devastating. It forced me to choose between being a ‘good’ parent and a ‘good’ student — two identities that do not necessarily complement each other in institutions where student-parents are made to feel invisible.
We could all do a better job of recognizing that student-parents exist across all of the six colleges and in our classrooms. We need inclusive policies that allow student-parents to thrive both as students and as parents. The amount of effort we put into being a student while balancing our caregiving duties is what propels us to do what it takes to succeed. I promise the last thing we want to do is to miss a class — we fought too hard to get here. We want the same opportunity to make up missed classwork when our dependents are sick.
Some of these circumstances are beyond our control. Childcare facilities and public schools are mandated by law to exclude sick children from care for a minimum of 24 hours, creating unintended consequences for students with dependents. For example, if my son becomes suddenly ill, it is difficult to find and afford back-up childcare. Students who care for their ailing adult family members face similar challenges — torn between caring for their ill-family members or attending class. Student-parents should not be penalized for taking care of our family members when they fall ill.
The current class attendance policy omits any mention of students with caregiving duties, thus impacting our ability to both care for sick dependents and have the opportunity to remain in good academic standing. Our current attendance policy is in direct contrast to other California State Universities (CSUs) like Fresno State University and CSU Long Beach, with class attendance policies that support students so that they can care for their family members when they fall ill without the pervasive fear of being punished.
While diversity and inclusion is a core tenet of the values of Cal Poly’s campus, student-parents are absent from these conversations. As a result, this population is made to be unseen, advertently erasing the narratives of those who can occupy and thrive at Cal Poly. Institutions reap the benefits when students can bring their authentic selves to school. We all benefit when students feel like they belong and aren’t penalized for their student-parent status.
With the support of the Educational Opportunity Program, Associated Students, Inc. and Student Affairs, we have offered greater clarity in the language in the class attendance policy to be inclusive of students with caretaking responsibilities. As this resolution moves to the Academic Senate, I urge faculty members to take into consideration policies that recognize this student population and enact practices that can better include student-parents and the diverse personhoods we bring into our learning spaces.