By Dr. Queena Hoang

Dr. Adrian Huerta, Assistant Professor, University of Southern California (USC), Rossier School of Education, recently joined Dr. Queena Hoang, Michelson 20MM Senior Program Manager for Student Basic Needs, to discuss the pregnant and parenting student landscape, as well as the need to shift perspectives and assumptions within it. We hope you enjoy the highlights from the conversation and draw inspiration from them.

Dr. Hoang: Dr. Huerta, can you please introduce yourself and share a little bit about your background and research interests? 

Dr. Huerta: Broadly speaking, I’m trying to help two-year and four-year institutions think differently about student parents and how we can help student parents from a structural perspective. Often, we point the finger at students like, ”Figure it out, just graduate, just take your classes.” With the needs of student parents, they’re really juggling everything every day to get to class, to find time to write that paper, to become successful. 

Dr. Hoang: Yes, there’s a lot of expectation on the student to be successful, but often we don’t think about what institutions can do to structurally help students become successful. Can you tell us a little more about your experiences as a student parent? 

“The lingering questions were: How do student parents do this? What can institutions do better to be an advocate or a champion for student parents?”

Dr. Huerta: As a little context, when I was a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), I had two kids in diapers. I often wondered, how do students do it? Being a Ph.D. student at UCLA, you don’t get paid a lot. Luckily, my partner had a full time job, but I always wondered how parents who are in college do this. What if they don’t have reliable transportation or don’t know how to navigate the bureaucracy of college—how to pay for college, how to find scholarships for college?  When I was at UCLA, childcare was $1,400 a month, plus diapers, formula, just stuff that kids need—that was basically my entire stipend as a Ph.D. student. The lingering questions were: How do student parents do this? What can institutions do better to be an advocate or a champion for student parents?

The Student Father’s Perspective 

Dr. Hoang: It’s definitely expensive and time consuming—time to study, time to go to class, time to meet with professors and classmates. On top of that, if you need money, you probably have to work, whether it’s your internships, research assistantships, or other jobs. Can you share a little bit more about this from the perspective of a student father? 

Dr. Huerta: Being a man of color, or being a father of color, I often wondered if I would see other men of color at UCLA that were fathers as well. I often wondered how they were making sense of this experience? For many folks, becoming college-educated gives you an opportunity to learn and push the boundaries and paradigms with which you grew up. I would often think, “What does masculinity mean? How do I model masculinity for my son? How do I model healthy parenting for my daughter?” All these pieces, that again, lingered for many years before my colleague and I finally had an opportunity to apply for a grant to focus on student parents. 

How Data Collection Can Be the Night and Day Difference Between How a College Supports Parenting Students

Dr. Hoang: Can you tell me more about how you transferred these personal narratives into your scholarly research?

Dr. Huerta: One of the biggest challenges in doing research on student parents was a lack of data collection: Most community colleges weren’t collecting data on how many student parents they had. We would often talk to deans of community colleges, and they would just start throwing out numbers when we asked how many student parents they have. How do you guess that you have 30 or 40 thousand students on your campus? How do you really figure out how to allocate resources or pivot resources to get the conversation going with this population? 

After a couple of times, we found a campus that was interested in working with us to focus on student parents, specifically doing environmental scans, seeing what the culture was like, trying to figure out what the cultural signals of that institution say about how they value student parents on their campus. Now, the college that we worked with asks every semester if a student is a student parent. They also ask if students are experiencing basic new challenges? Are they experiencing housing challenges? The college has really cemented equity in their mission, and it’s helped them become a bigger advocate because now they have the data to have those conversations with students.

What the Data Reveals About Parenting Students

Dr. Hoang: Data is so important in order to know who you are serving and the data informs you on how to serve those students based on their highest needs. Institutions need better infrastructure and mechanisms to collect and analyze all that information. Tell us more about what the data is saying and how data can help change perceptions or assumptions of student parents? 

“When we were interviewing these hundreds of student parents, the question that made them cry the most was, ‘Describe graduation for us. What is this graduation going to look like for you and your family?’” 

Dr. Huerta: Student parents have intersectional identities, so their experiences could be racialized, it could be gendered, there are so many things that can lead to a student feeling like they don’t belong in that space. Many times, however, student parents are there for social mobility to get the skills that they need to move forward with their lives for their own sense of self and purpose. 

When we were interviewing hundreds of student parents, the question that made them cry the most was, “Describe graduation for us. What is this graduation going to look like for you and your family?” They’d say, “I’m gonna be holding my son.” “I’m gonna be holding my daughter.” “They’re gonna see me and be like, ‘there’s my mom’ [or ‘there’s my dad’].” That was the question that we’re really trying to focus on with the student parents: How do you envision a better future for yourself? 

Shifting the Narrative to Encourage Student Fathers to Participate in Family-Friendly Programs

Dr. Hoang: Can you tell us a little bit more about these policies and practices on campuses that aren’t super family-friendly or family-serving? 

Dr. Huerta:  Institutions often think, “How do we prevent student parents from suing us if their kid gets hurt on our campus?” So they’re always leaning into safety to make sure they reduce risk. They’re thinking, “We don’t need little kids in the libraries or in the computer labs. We don’t need little kids in the counseling centers or in academic advising.” One of the colleges that we worked with had signs that said, “You bring your kid, you cancel your appointment.” 

“In California, we often try to be thought and equity leaders. How can we teach other systems of higher education how to do it better, how to do it differently? How do we create resources and spaces to normalize helping?”

There have to be very basic things that we can do to make student parents feel welcome. Something we told that particular community college partner was, “It costs you this much to print out coloring sheets, to get crayons, to get Goldfish crackers or little snacks for kids, little age appropriate toys that can stick to the wall. Think about dentist offices or doctor’s offices. Why can’t we do that on campus? Why can’t we have dedicated spaces on college campuses, like in the library that is the family learning area or family learning center, where student parents can go to study and their kids have things to also do?” We need to be forward thinking. 

In California, we often try to be thought and equity leaders. How can we teach other systems of higher education how to do it better, how to do it differently? How do we create resources and spaces to normalize helping? 

One of the biggest things that we often miss is that some men really subscribe to ”traditional gender norms.” How do we push back and introduce new ways to help student parents, especially student fathers, think about masculinity, fatherhood, and role modeling in a different way?

Some of the challenges that we experienced as researchers was the limited number of student fathers that are enrolled in CalWorks or other programs because of the social stigma of getting help. How do we make a big, big, big, cultural shift of normalizing asking for help for men? How do we think differently about race, ethnicity, and gender? How do we make sure that when we create resources or programs on campus, fathers see themselves in these opportunities? How do we make sure that there’s messaging that speaks to them in a way that says that college is for them? Things that say, “I can be a father here, a father of color. I can be vulnerable. I can grow. I can get the resources that I need to be successful at this college.”

Advice for Current Student Parents

Dr. Hoang: What advice do you have for prospective or current student parents while they’re navigating college?

Dr. Huerta: I think one of the biggest challenges for student parents is time poverty. They might be able to go to the library or computer lab to work on a computer, and then they gotta go. How do we get students to stay on campus longer? How do we provide them access to childcare centers or resources for their kids that are a little bit older? How do we market it to the students? How do we normalize it for student fathers to see these on-campus resources as a benefit to the learning experience? How do we make sure students know that this is not an additional cost for them—that’s a game changer when we try to entice people to participate in the abundance of resources that are offered.

My suggestion for students is to see a counselor or an academic advisor to figure out what you qualify for. What are the five or seven resources on this campus that you can use to help you be successful? My push for colleges is if you are offering tutoring, or a math lab, what time do the office hours close? How do we think about shifting our hours of operation to meet the needs of working parents, especially student fathers? 

The Future of Pregnant and Parenting Student Research

Dr. Hoang: Lastly, what is on the horizon for you and what are your next plans for research on student parents? 

Dr. Huerta: We have a lot of data. We have surveys and interviews with student parents at two different time points. We actually have longitudinal data on student parents pre-pandemic and during the pandemic. It would be interesting to know how many student parents left during spring 2020—whether they withdrew or took incompletes—and what are colleges doing differently to bring them back? There are so many opportunities for inquiry on so many different levels related to student parents at this point in time.

Dr. Hoang: Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and expertise with us. We are excited to continue to engage in this conversation and help build an avenue where student parents feel seen and heard. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

To learn more about the Pregnant and Parenting Student Initiative, visit our website.

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation working toward equity for underserved and historically underrepresented communities by expanding access to educational and employment opportunities, increasing affordability of educational programs, and ensuring the necessary supports are in place for individuals to thrive. To do so, we work in the following verticals: Digital Equity, Intellectual Property, Smart Justice, Student Basic Needs, and Open Educational Resources (OER). Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.

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