Weeks before the fall semester, CSUN student Dandrea Safford was anxious. Like thousands of other CSUN students, she didn’t know what this semester had in store for her.
Unlike many of those same students, she would be facing school with a newborn in tow.
“I had to put my baby in the carrier and take him with me to class,” said the mother of two. “I remember a professor telling me I really wasn’t going to let anything get in my way.”
Safford has a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies and is pursuing a Pan African studies minor. She hopes to get into the campus’ teaching credential program.
Like many women on campus, Safford lives a dual life. Juggling diapers and deadlines, she and other student mothers rely on whatever resources they can.
For many CSUN student mothers the Associated Students Children’s Center helps ease their burderns. The center was established in 1973 because students and faculty needed affordable and reliable childcare.
Arlene Rhine has been the A.S. Children’s Center director for 15 years.
“My husband would like me to retire, but I love it here,” Rhine said. “The parents and staff, being with the children all day, and being on a college campus; (it’s) fulfilling.”
The center, with about 50 people on the teaching staff, serves a maximum of 78 children each semester, ranging in ages from 3 months to 5 years old.
“Learning is done through doing, with a lot of hands-on activities and individualized attention,” Rhine said.
Some mothers must leave their children in the center 10 hours a day.
Aimee Leff, master teacher for the toddler room at the children’s center, said she knows how difficult it can be for parents to let go of their children.
“It’s especially hard to leave your infant or toddler because they can’t tell you how their day went or what they did, so communication is very important,” Leff said.
Leff said each child is given personal attention.
“If a child gains an attachment to a specific teacher, we let them have it,” she said. “We see each child as an individual.”
Rhine said she understands how difficult continuing an education can be for student mothers. She finished her master’s degree while raising three children.
“The hardest part is finding the time to study while fitting in your children’s activities,” Rhine said.
When scheduling their child’s care at the children’s center, each parent receives two hours a week of allotted study time per unit.
Kate Bell is a double major in deaf studies and psychology, and mom to daughters, Elizabeth, 4, and Persephone, 6 months.
“I was so glad when I found out the center gave me study time,” Bell said. “If I don’t get my school work done here, it’s not getting done.”
The proximity of the center provides another benefit.
“There have been times when I forgot my baby’s pacifier, and I can just go home and get it,” Bell said.
Bell transferred to CSUN from a Vermont community college this semester and said she has been in school since she was pregnant with her first daughter, Elizabeth. For Bell, juggling school and work has become second nature.
“My daughter plays homework now,” she said.
Bell said she refuses to allow people to look at her different just because she is a mother.
“Perhaps on some level I purposely don’t say I’m a mom because I don’t want anyone thinking it’s going to affect my abilities,” Bell said.
Forty percent of the parents who take their children to the center receive full financial subsidies for their childcare while another 10 percent have to pay a small co-payment of about one to two dollars per day.
Joni Wilson is one of approximately 50 percent of the parents at the center who receive some type of subsidized assistance. Mother to 2-year-old daughter, Simone, and 1-year-old daughter, Savannah, Wilson said she would be unable to go to school if she had to pay for childcare.
A stay-at-home mom before starting school, Wilson struggles with feelings of guilt.
“In my mind I am disappointed because I really want to teach them things,” Wilson said.
She said she tries to compensate by devoting as much time as she can to her girls.
“I get home and it’s all about my children,” Wilson said.
Wilson is finishing her first semester at CSUN as a Pan-African studies major and plans to continue on to graduate school and obtain a master’s degree in social work. She is also working a part-time job at the Pan-African studies department office to make ends meet for her family.
Full-time school and a part-time job have begun to take a toll on her.
“Sometimes I find myself breaking down,” Wilson said. “(I) was kind of thrust back into it too quick. It’s hectic.”
Wilson’s car has been in the shop for months, and without it, hectic mornings have become chaotic. Wilson has to be up by four to make it in time for her daughter’s 7:30 a.m. drop-off at the center.
“When it was raining (earlier this month), I was pushing the double stroller, getting soaking wet because I was using my jacket to make sure my girls were dry,” Wilson said.
Wilson also struggles with her self-identity in her newfound role of student mother. She remembers how embarrassed she was when she had to walk across campus with her double stroller.
“I remember people staring and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, she has children,'” Wilson said. “I felt really old and uncomfortable.”
Wilson is currently the president of the parent advisory board at the A.S. Children’s Center. This gives her a way of maintaining an active role in her daughters’ education.
While pursuing their own education, student mothers can feel isolated in a campus predominatly populated by classmates without children.
Dandrea Safford realizes that some people exclude her from social gatherings, assuming she can’t go.
“People think, ‘poor teenage mom,’ and don’t invite me,” Safford said.
In an advanced writing class a few years ago, Safford discovered that she could find support in places she did not imagine. The writing course had a very demanding workload, and Safford was immediately intimidated.
“The first homework assignment took me five hours to complete,” Stafford said.
The class had to break up into small groups. They also had to meet twice a week outside of class to put together power-point presentations.
“From the get-go I told them, ‘This is what I have to offer. This is my life,'” Safford said.
At the time, Safford’s daughter had just turned 2 and she told the group, if she was going to participate, they would have to meet at her home.
Meetings turned into potlucks, and Safford gained a support group out of the experience.
She also ended up with the best grade in class.
“I’m not asking for pity,” Safford said. “This is the decision I made. I knew there would be challenges.”
With double the work to be a good mother and a good student, women like Safford cannot afford to waste time.
“I have been so pushed up against the wall, having to come back and take classes,” Safford said. “In the midst, I get pregnant and have a brand new baby.”
“Sometimes I have to go into prayer and get my motivation from there. If he’s brought me this far, no reason for me to stop. I have two children that are totally dependent on me.”
Safford said all the effort will be worth it in the end.
“It’s worth it because we (student mothers) are taking on the opportunity that not many women feel they can take on,” Safford said. “Those who think that because of their situation, it’s not possible, you have to find those resources.”
Safford is unwilling to let her children down.
“I determine the future of my kids,” Safford said. “Losing an hour of sleep will make that difference. When we are mothers, you take the time to put forth the extra effort. It all adds up. Not just for me, but for them.”< /p>
Safford wants to one day help others.
“I see myself owning my own home and hopefully getting involved in non-profit organization shelters for single mothers who are trying to get on their own two feet,” Safford said.
“Sometimes women make that wrong decision that can ruin the rest of our lives. I want to be that liaison for them to find help.”
But for now, she will continue to get no sleep, rush to daycare and class, juggle errands in-between classes, rush home to make dinner, give baths, wake up the next morning and do it all over again.
Just like all the other moms walking around campus.
Connie Llanos can be reached at email@example.com.