Center offers support for U student-parents

Robyn Repya

After a long day juggling classes, work and social life, most University students relish the opportunity to relax at the end of the day. But for student-parents, that chance seldom arises.

Dijana Zukic, a General College sophomore, knows this scenario all too well. After discovering she was pregnant in Oct. 2000 – her freshman year of college – Zukic’s life was never the same.

“I made a decision to have a child,” she said. “It is actually the hardest thing to do in life.”

“All those little things that used to matter to you don’t matter anymore. Now it’s about getting food on the table,” she said.

But deciding to have her child was only the first in a series of difficult times during her pregnancy. When she told her family, they ostracized her.

“They turned their back on me when I was pregnant. That made everything worse,” she said.

Zukic said she had to take off school during spring semester of her freshman year after the difficult pregnancy left her bed-ridden.

Since the birth of her son Amar, now 9 months old, Zukic said, school hasn’t gotten any easier. She said she is financially and emotionally drained.

“I mostly live off loans I get for school. The little money I make I use for food,” she said.

The University helped Zukic find housing and a job that accommodated her complex schedule.

She lives with her son in the University’s Commonwealth Terrace Cooperative, housing she found through the General College Student Parent HELP Center – where she is also an office employee.

Zukic said without the HELP center, located in Appleby Hall, she might not still be in school.

“If I didn’t have the people here, I wouldn’t have made it,” she said.

Susan Warfield, a HELP counselor advocate, was one of those people.

Since its inception in 1967, the HELP center has provided undergraduate students with counseling services, housing, day care and health care resources and moral support.

The center has a student lounge where parents can bring their kids and study or have lunch.

It also hosts a student-parent support group, which meets every Friday. Group members discuss their lives and hear speakers discuss topics such as financial workshops, parenting, time and stress management and domestic violence.

“(The group) provides camaraderie, knowing there are other people juggling kids and school,” Warfield said.

One of the largest resources for student-parents, she said, is the Post Secondary Child-Care Grant available from the state. She said students can receive $1,300 per child each semester if they meet a certain income requirement.

Warfield said if students don’t meet the requirement, the center will work with them to find aid through private grants.

In an average semester, Warfield said, at least 200 student-parents venture into the center seeking information about the grant.

She said she also works closely with the University Housing and Residential Life office to help student-parents find affordable housing at places such as the Como and Commonwealth Terrace Housing Cooperatives.

“They’re significantly less expensive than what you’d find looking for an apartment on your own,” she said.

Warfield said there is a misconception that the center is only for GC students because of its location. She said all student-parents are welcome and can benefit form the center’s resources.

One of those services is helping students find day care for their kids.

Tucked in the Como student family housing complex is the Como Community Child Care Center, a day care primarily occupied by the children of University students, which gets referrals from the HELP center.

Nicole Kemp, University graduate and executive director of the child-care center, said the center is unique because of its low costs and flexibility with student-parent school schedules.

Prices for day care vary depending on the child’s age and whether they’re enrolled part time or full time.

For example, a toddler enrolled in the program full time costs $175 per week – $9,100 per year.

Because the center receives Student Services Fees, Kemp said, it is able to keep prices especially low for University students.

“A lot of parents don’t know about the resources that are out there,” Kemp said.

Heather Johnson, a former University student, has enrolled her 3-year-old daughter Ellah Noelle in the Como day care since she was one and a half years old.

Ellah was born during Johnson’s last year of school, when she only had two classes left.

She said she was glad she had Ellah at the end of her college career.

“If I had any more than two classes to go, I couldn’t have done it,” Johnson said.

Because her family lived nearby and was accepting, Johnson said, she was able to rely on them quite a bit for help during her pregnancy and afterward, which allowed her to finish school.

“I was only able to do what I did because of my family,” she said.

Now self-sufficient and living in a house with her daughter, Johnson said although she wouldn’t recommend being a single parent and going to school, it made her realize her potential.

“I guess I just realized how much I was actually capable of after having a kid,” she said.

Robyn Repya welcomes comments at [email protected]