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Pursuing a Ph.D. and becoming a parent can both be isolating experiences. When they occur at the same time, that isolation can feel overwhelming. In our case, that shared isolation has brought us together as friends and colleagues, forming respective Student Parent Alliances at Northwestern University and Stanford University.

To be clear, we have never met in person. We live thousands of miles apart, work at different universities and research in different fields. But the one thing we have in common is that both of us, even as “lowly” graduate students, took on our respective universities to improve support for pregnant and parenting students.

Although both of us attended elite, private universities with significant endowments and rhetoric of diversity and inclusion, we felt we initially encountered relatively little support for parenting students, to our great disappointment and frustration. At times, the distinct barriers of being new mothers in the academy seemed insurmountable. We questioned whether parenthood and an academic research career were compatible. But as we talked to more people, we realized that the challenges we faced -- such as trying to afford childcare on a graduate student stipend or finding lactation rooms on our campus -- were structural and needed an institutional response.

So as we stayed up writing our dissertations and nursing our infants, we simultaneously researched paid leave and lactation room policies, collected data and testimonies from parenting students, brainstormed solutions and set up meetings with administrators across campus. We built websites and established social media accounts. We wrote op-eds and reached out to journalists. We advocated for task forces and found back channels and allies when we were shut out of those task forces.

Once we found each other, we vented and strategized in long-distance phone calls.

Finally, we shared quiet moments of celebration and satisfaction, as both Northwestern and Stanford eventually listened -- and developed and increased paid family leave policies, expanded financial support for families, created policy and program supports for lactation needs, and established clear points of contact for parenting students. Those new resources have made huge differences in the lives of the graduate students who have come after us, and we hope other colleges and universities now look to Northwestern and Stanford as models of how to support graduate student families.

Years after we started these advocacy efforts, here is what we have learned.

Support for parents is a social justice issue. Parenting status is an identity that intersects with all others, especially gender, race, class, sexual orientation and citizenship. If a person is marginalized as a parent, it compounds all other forms of marginalization.

For example, if a college or university does not provide paid leave or financial support for childcare, that affects low-income parents, who are then forced to choose between caring for their children and their jobs. Low-income students often take on extraordinary amounts of debt that compounds financial troubles down the road.

Similarly, if a family leave policy does not include adoptive parents, that can be an inequity for same-sex couples. When a university does not provide lactation rooms for women to pump breast milk while their babies are in childcare, that puts women in a difficult position of having to advocate for themselves when they are not in a position of power to do so. If a family member is not a U.S. citizen, it can complicate health insurance, rights to work and the financial stability of graduate student families. Over all, a campus environment where parenting issues are swept under the rug hurts everyone, but especially women, who still bear the brunt of child-rearing duties.

Support for families is good business. Especially in the field of STEM, researchers have found that leaving academe for family formation accounts for the largest “leak” in the pipeline for women, from graduate school to tenure. And a common reason given for the absence of resources to prevent that leak -- like paid leave, childcare or staff support -- is the high cost.

But the cost of doing nothing is also high. When students lack support, it often takes them longer to finish their degree, if they finish at all. When students drop out, that is a loss not only for the student and their families, but also the advisers and funding agencies that have invested in their financial success. This can cost the institution more in the long run, not to mention society as a whole. A wide range of opinions, perspectives and experiences is essential to innovation, problem solving and knowledge building.

Colleges and universities should strengthen Title IX’s role in preventing discrimination against pregnant and parenting students. Few administrators, faculty members or students know about Title IX’s protections for pregnant and parenting students. Title IX coordinators should work closely with other offices to develop and explain the need for excused absences for pregnancy, childbirth or related conditions; lactation rooms and policies; and protections against discrimination against pregnant and parenting students. If existing infrastructures and policies are in place, pregnant and parenting students will less likely need to rely on Title IX and the Office for Civil Rights as a tool for communication, and ultimately, a venue to resolve legal disputes.

Colleges and universities need structures that genuinely address the concerns of students. Students shouldn’t have to launch years-long media campaigns to get the attention of their administrators. That goes not only for parenting students but also other groups as well. (The continued struggles of black students on campuses nationwide come to mind.) We understand that change can be slow, but we both felt at times that some administrators were more concerned with PR than genuinely working with us to find solutions. It took significant outside pressure to make ourselves heard and get results.

Civic engagement among graduate students is a good thing. Many people advised both of us to abandon our campaigns and focus on our research (although each of us had support from key mentors, not to mention our families). It is true that taking on this advocacy work took time away from our families and our scholarship. At the same time, it also kept us engaged in our community and gave us a sense of urgency and agency, teaching us how to be tempered radicals -- serving as institutional change agents as graduate students.

We learned a good deal about how to influence our peers and those in power, and how to build and mobilize networks toward systemic change -- lessons we will not forget after graduation. Over all, our campuses are stronger and more inclusive because of our work, and we hope this continues to ripple out to other higher education institutions. In other words, it was worth it.

For students, don’t be afraid to speak up and advocate for yourselves. Things will never change while parents -- especially women -- suffer in silence. For graduate students without children, it is in your interest to make sure that parenting students are supported, not only because it means your colleagues and department will benefit, but you might need those resources yourselves one day.

For faculty members and administrators, ask yourselves, is your institution family-friendly? Does it offer paid family leave, lactation rooms and childcare support? Are those resources easy to find? Do you collect data about parents to make sure that these resources meet the need? Is there support for families not just for faculty, but for all members of the university community, including graduate students, staff and contract workers? If not, what can you do to change it?

We recognize that we could not have accomplished what we did without the public support of our allies, including key faculty and student groups, and external organizations including unions, parenting rights organizations and national advocacy groups.

We must try to remember to pay this forward by speaking up for other groups who are struggling to be heard.

Over all, we take to heart Margaret Mead's quote “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

We took on these challenges even though we knew we would likely graduate before being able to benefit from these changes personally. Like the women who came before us, we did this work, in part, so our daughters won’t have to.


Inside Higher Ed reached out to Stanford and Northwestern for their responses, and here are their comments.

At Stanford, we've appreciated working with our student leaders, who persuasively conveyed the needs of students supporting families. Together, we’ve been identifying priorities: For example, we've launched a new Family Grant of up to $10K per year toward child care, health care, housing, or other expenses, as well as increased lactation resources and extended the childbirth accommodation period for birth parents to receive academic and financial support. Close collaboration with our graduate students will remain central as Stanford works to address a range of affordability challenges and provide resources that enable our students to thrive.

Northwestern University appreciates the advocacy of members of our campus community as they identify the ways in which we can become a more accessible and inclusive university. We are pleased to have several units on campus, including the Women's Center and the Work-Life program in Human Resources, that are working to make family friendly practices, policies and spaces integral elements of our institution's success.

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