English junior Holley Hochman wakes up as the sun rises at 5:40 a.m. but before she can prepare for her own day as a student, she must first prepare for her own kids.
She gets ready and makes lunches for her four children between the ages of 5 and 13. They all shuffle into the car and the family makes four stops, one for each school.
Around 8 a.m., she starts the drive from Paso Robles to Cal Poly. The rest of her day includes attending classes, picking up her children from school or after-school activities, dinner, bathtime and, finally, storytime. She gets around to her homework in the late hours of the night and is ready for bed at 11 p.m. — ready to start the cycle all over again when she wakes up.
This routine may seem unusual to the typical Cal Poly student, however, this is everyday life for those with children, Hochman said. Now with the reintroduction of in-person classes, student parents have to juggle their education and home life, while reconciling their dual identities.
Child development senior Tara Hendricks has two sons, one 15-year-old and one 11-year-old.
She prefers having her classes scheduled close to one another or virtually to allow more flexibility and time with her kids. Yet, this limits her ability to participate in the typical college life: studying at the library, working out at the Recreational Center or attending club meetings, she said.
“I’m just there to do my classes and then I leave and I have a whole other day full of activities to do,” Hendricks said. “I would love to participate, but my life doesn’t allow for that.”
Maintaining a sense of structure was essential for Hendricks and her family, especially during the height of the pandemic and now with her school schedule.
“I had each of my kids create a plan for themselves, so that they stayed on track, because if they didn’t have things to do, I wouldn’t have been able to get anything done myself,” she said.
Although given her unique situation, Hendricks said she feels no need to shy away from her parental status.
“I don’t hide anything about my identity. I tell people from the get go [that] I have kids. It’s such a part of who I am,” Hendricks said. “There’s no way I could hide it and people have been receptive.”
Hendricks said being around college-age students gives her an intimate perspective others her age might miss out on.
“It gives me this insight into [their life], ‘Okay, this is what [my son’s] experience might be like [and] that this [is what this] age group worries about or what they’re concerned with,’” she said.
Student parents deal with extra considerations weighing on their mind, like higher-education graduate student Maya Valree, who has a 16-month old daughter.
Valree said she lacks focus since she is a mom, particularly at school.
“I always feel I’m on that time constraint. [When I get] her from the Children’s Center, I’m like, ‘Okay, it’s at this time. I need to walk to my car,’” she said. “I’m always looking at the clock.”
Some changes that Valree thinks could aid student parents, like herself, would be extending The Children’s Center hours. Many graduate students who have night classes are forced to leave class early since it closes at 5:30 p.m. and parking by the center closes. Valree said not having to undergo the walk from the commuter lot would be ideal.
Valree said she dealt with discriminatory practices when looking for housing in San Luis Obispo being a black woman. The landlords she connected with did not look at her credit and said an apartment was no longer available, although it was still listed. After this experience, Valree said Cal Poly should also prioritize family housing on campus.
“The responsibility rests on [the] institution to one: to mitigate [discriminatory practices when looking for housing] from ever happening by providing housing,” Valree said. “I also feel I’ve incurred unnecessary debt too because I’m going to have to take out a loan [to pay for off-campus housing].”
Juggling the pandemic and school presented unique and challenging situations for many, including sociology senior Esme Vasquez said. She has four kids, ranging from three to 22-years-old.
“I would constantly tell my toddlers to be quiet. ‘Mommy’s not available right now,’” Vasquez said. “It was heartbreaking to see their faces – ‘how can you tell me you can’t be with me when I see clearly you’re here?’”
Vasquez mainly opts for a Zoom option for her classes due to being high risk and the recent closure of her child’s daycare, but this decision requires making sacrifices.
“Do I go to class when I know I’m going to get a better grade or do I just protect myself?” Vasquez said. “My body is definitely feeling the stress of not being able to fully be there and not getting the material completely because of it.”
Vasquez said she would like to see more support for the student parent community with a unified support group, a designated place to study that students can bring their children to and financial support as well.
“If we don’t have those things for our family, then that means we have to take on more hours at work, which takes away from education, which makes our long term educational goal extended because we can’t take the classes we need [or we do badly and have to retake a course],” Vasquez said.
Vasquez said she feels disconnected from the rest of the student body — whether it’s a weird look because of her older age, no one to talk to in class or not knowing where to go between classes.
“We [student parents] have to prove ourselves that much harder to show them we are here because we deserve to be here,” she said. “It’s been very hard to be there and feel like sometimes when you need services, you don’t know where to look, and you feel alone.”
Hochman said a major concern was more opportunity for potential exposure to COVID-19 — one that almost made her drop out of Cal Poly.
“In week three, when we went back in person, I was like, ‘I can’t do this. I am scared of COVID,’ because my daughter is immunocompromised, so why would I infect her or affect her or endanger her because of my own ambition?” she said.
Yet, through talking to the English department, Hochman was accommodated and felt safe enough to continue.
“We were able to get a different classroom and then my other class got a different classroom and I just don’t touch anything [and sanitize myself when I get home],” Hochman said. “That was the biggest determination: if I could keep her safe.”
Coming to Cal Poly initially presented culture shock for Hochman, who came from living on a farm in Paso Robles to a campus that looks like “a little city,” but she said she now loves the experience.
“I do love the change of pace and I love being surrounded by people who want to better their lives and are like-minded. My brain has always really starved for educational and stimulating conversation and I get my fill of that here,” Hochman said.
Her decision to attend Cal Poly was ultimately one of her own ambitions, but she always orients her studies around her children.
“I’m already very solid. I make really good money. I own a home,” Hochman said. “I don’t need to do this, but I want to do this because I’m bored and because I want to set a good example for my kids.