The secret life of student parents

UTM students share what it means to raise a child and attend university simultaneously

These past few weeks have been a revelation. I was able to research a cohort of UTM students whose presence was unknown to me: student parents. I believe I speak for the majority of undergraduates on campus when I say that most of us have never really considered that a number of our classmates have a lot more on their minds than tests, essays, and bar-hopping—namely, their own children.

Let me urge you to drop all notions that you might have accrued about young single parents from closed-minded sources like MTV. The student parents I’ve interviewed are nothing like what our society judges them to be.

In many cultures—mine included—having a child at 18 or 19 is nothing astonishing. But in the West, our generation has become creatures of road-mapping, habit, preparation, and the “one-step-at-a-time” lifestyle. But life rarely goes as planned, and when it doesn’t, we let go of the steering wheel and hold up our hands in exasperation, thinking the world is over. The three student parents I’ve interviewed make me doubt this approach, though, because all three have managed to take charge of the new direction their lives have unexpectedly taken without compromising their own dreams or the well-being of their children.

Patricia Clerigo is a fourth-year UTM student in CTEP; her dream is to become a teacher. She had her son right after high school and after taking two years off, she decided to return to school.

She said that she had always known she wanted to be a mother, although her pregnancy came as a surprise. “When I found out that I was pregnant as a very young person […] It was just like no question—yeah, I’m gonna be a mother,” Clerigo says.

The support of her ex-partner, as well as her parents, was crucial in helping her regain her footing during the months following her son’s birth. “I knew that I would have his support,” Clerigo says of her ex-partner’s attitude about her attending university.

During her first few years at UTM, Clerigo was living in Toronto with her partner and child, commuting each day. “I used to wake up at like 6:30 a.m. just to get the day started, having my son be in daycare by 7:30 a.m., having to get to a 9 a.m. class,” she says.

But as a teacher candidate, she is also expected to be involved in the community through extracurriculars in addition to keeping on top of her schoolwork, and this all needed to be done before picking up her son from daycare at 3:30 p.m. Such tight scheduling made for a marathon every single day.

As she progressed in her degree, Clerigo discovered that she needed to take evening classes. Thus she decided to move closer to UTM and her ex-partner became her son’s primary caregiver, because he was the one with the “stable job”.

When asked how early motherhood has changed her, Clerigo is prompt to reply that it has given her purpose and a firm sense of direction in life. “I’m doing all of this because I want to be successful and because I want to provide for my son,” she says. “Knowing that my education is benefiting him, [and] helps him grow as a person as well” keeps her motivated. “There’s a vision I have for convocation, thinking that he’ll be there, he’ll see me convocate.”

The most important lesson she has learned from her sudden leap into motherhood is that the greatest blessings often come in disguise. “This isn’t the path that my parents imagined for me, nor was it the path that I’ve imagined for myself,” Clerigo confesses. “But this has been the best path to have taken. I could not imagine not having my son.”

When asked about the stigma in our society on young mothers, Clerigo says people would often give her telling looks during her pregnancy, but she says she learned to not let that bother her because she believed in her own ability to make it work.

Clerigo is an ambitious young woman trying to balance child-rearing with the start of a career, and thus I asked her whether she believes professional women can “have it all” and combine motherhood with a fulfilling career.

“I think women can definitely try,” she says. “As far as reaching a balance, it’s just knowing that everything you’re doing is intentional.”

If the message is that trying is half the battle, then the story of Nathaniel Voll certainly confirms it. A third-year theatre and drama studies specialist and English minor, Voll unexpectedly became a father shortly after high school.

“I knew that I wanted to be a father—not necessarily the way that it panned out, but I’m so glad and so blessed to be one now,” he says.

Voll is originally from Kitchener and has been living on campus since he started university. His three-year-old son, Ben, is being raised by his ex-partner in Kitchener, while Voll commutes for home on weekends. He says he relies a lot on his parents and those of his ex-partner and did so especially during the early months following Ben’s birth. “I was just a kid,” Voll explains. “I had to grow up fast.”

Voll shares Clerigo’s opinion that being a parent helps him be a better student. “It’s all about time management and being able to accept help from others,” he says. Coming to UTM, Voll knew that he “needed to keep [his] priorities in check—family and school were the two biggest things and friends had to come after.”

For Voll, the most challenging part of being a young father has been the self-doubt. “The feeling that I’m a bad dad—the feeling that I was selfish to come here, to let his mom do most of the caregiving” was something he has struggled with over the years.

Voll had to learn to justify his choice of dedicating four years of his life—years when he does not get to spend as much time with his son as he would like—to getting a university education. “It does come down to allowing other people to do things for you, to take that village and use that village in order to raise that child. I don’t want him to grow up thinking that the only reason why I didn’t chase my dream was because I had him. I mean, what kind of message is that?”

He also takes comfort in the fact that his son will look back on what was a stressful time in his father’s life and realize the sacrifices his father made, including the two-hour trip each way by bus on his only days off to see his son.

Voll’s dream of becoming an actor is as important to him as his dedication to raising his son. Here is a man who feels that contrary to what society may think, the two are not in conflict. “I want Ben to grow up with a dad whom he can aspire to be, someone who is chasing his dreams while being there for his family,” he says.

When asked about the wisdom that parenthood has brought him, Voll is quick to respond. “It’s okay to be vulnerable,” he says. “It’s okay to not be okay all the time. The biggest thing is that just because I’m a dad doesn’t mean that I can’t make mistakes. I’m still a 21-year-old guy.”

Voll agrees that the stigma of being a young single parent is alive and well. “Whenever I tell people that I’m a dad and no, I don’t live with my son full-time, people think, ‘Oh, deadbeat dad, typical male […] shirking responsibilities.’ I think I did believe that for the first little while and it was tough to tell people that I was a father,” he says. “I was scared what they would think of me, but now I just say it because it is what it is and I’m proud of it.”

Voll says his ex-partner plays a huge part in helping him cope. She was able to complete a degree in nursing while parenting Ben full-time. Voll calls her a superwoman. “If Ben’s mom wasn’t in my life, my life wouldn’t be the same. I’m so grateful for everything that she does,” he said.

The Early Learning Centre

One resource available to student parents is the Early Learning Centre at UTM, a daycare facility for childen aged 18 months to five years that is fully licensed by the Ministry of Education, with priority spots for UTM students.

I got in touch with Teresa Silva, the ELC’s supervisor, to find out more.

“We offer a play-based emergent curriculum developed and implemented by our registered early childhood educators,” Silva says. “Once here, children engage in planned activities [such as] art, science, reading/writing, block play, dramatic and sensory play.” The activities focus, she says, on “different areas of development—cognitive, social, emotional, gross motor, etc.”, and include an outside play break and food throughout the day.

Teresa says that enrollment has been consistent since they opened, so I ask about how parents typically choose to manage the financial side of things.

“We accept families who qualify for a childcare subsidy with the region,” Silva says. “Parents must first place their child on our centre’s waitlist and then apply to the Region of Peel for the subsidy.” This means that both the parent and child have to reside in Peel. For those who do not qualify, Silva adds that they are “entitled to receive the ELC direct rate subsidy when their child is enrolled in the ELC at UTM. At this time, full-time toddler parents receive a subsidy of $150 per month and preschool parents receive a subsidy of $100 per month.”

Neither Clerigo nor Voll have their children living in the area, so it’s hard for them to take advantage of the daycare. But I spoke with one more student parent, Melissa Kaups, who is in her early 30s and about to complete a major in gender studies.

“The ELC [has] been a godsend for us, because without it we wouldn’t have been able to attend school,” says Kaups. She explains that their original daycare backed out on them, but that ELC supervisor Teresa Silva said she would make a spot for her child after she called Silva in a total panic. “All the love and attention that [my son] gets there is invaluable for us.”

Kaups clarifies that since she lives in Toronto, she is not eligible for the Peel District daycare subsidy. She relies on the UTMSU grant for students with children to cover the ELC costs. As she describes it, the amount of coverage depends on the number of hours her son spends in daycare. Kaups adds that she has to do no paperwork in order to receive it. “I just get the cheque in the mail, which is perfect for me,” she says.

The lives of student parents are infinitely diverse, but they all revolve around the shared desire to make compatible one’s own pursuit of education—and hence one’s dreams and ability to succeed—with the undertaking of perhaps the grandest human endeavour: the raising of a child.

 Being a student parent gives a whole new importance to crossing the stage at Con Hall.

Being a student parent gives a whole new importance to crossing the stage at Con Hall.

This article has been corrected from the print edition. It read “husband” for one instance of “ex-partner”. A notice will be printed in the February 16, 2015 issue.