Grads on the Go – Balancing School and Parenting

PhD research shows need for strong relationships

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Trudy Smit Quosai

University students who are also parents face unique challenges, such as dividing their time and energy amongst their children, their academic responsibilities and their jobs.

For her PhD thesis in U of G’s Department of Family Relations and Nutrition, Trudy Smit Quosai looked at the barriers facing student parents and how they dealt with them. Although time and financial constraints are common among many students, “It’s a bigger issue for parents,” says Smit Quosai. Instead of supporting only themselves, some student parents may also be required to support their families while going to school. They also face financial barriers in the form of tuition, and they may not be eligible for financial aid if they have assets such as a home or a car.

Prior to completing her PhD in 2010, Smit Quosai was associate director of the Centre for Students with Disabilities at U of G. She completed a master’s degree here in rural extension studies in 1991 and has an undergraduate degree in kinesiology from the University of Waterloo. She is currently working at Waterloo’s Renison University College as associate director of research.

Smit Quosai has managed diverse research projects related to university students with disabilities and parent-child relationships, as well as access to post-secondary education for student parents.

The latter related to her PhD research, where she looked at data sets from Statistics Canada and interviewed 40 student parents to learn how they managed their college or university studies.

For those who were in long-term relationships, had a stable income and could afford childcare and housekeeping services, being a student was more manageable than for those who were single parents.

“Particularly for single mothers, it was a very stressful time,” she says. “Fathers tend to maintain their connection to the work force whereas mothers tend to give up their jobs and take on loans.”

Some parents did their assignments while their children were in school or asleep at night; others cut back on their own sleep. In some cases, parents did their homework together with their children. Smit Quosai recalls interviewing a mother who read her biology textbook to her son as a bedtime story. “People were very creative about integrating their learning with their child, and they really felt that in this way, they were making their child a part of their learning and contributing to the child’s beliefs about learning in a very positive way.”

Smit Quosai says post-secondary institutions need to be more accommodating of student parents by adopting policies that reflect their needs. Recognizing life experience in the admissions process, offering courses through distance education and providing resources for student parents can be helpful. She advises them to get support from a variety of sources, such as their partners, extended family, friends and campus services. “It all comes down to relationships,” she says, and a strong support network can help student parents succeed.