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A mother holds her child, both smiling.

One of the parents in the docuseries, identified as Abby, plays with her child.

Three Frame Media

Parenting students make up at least one-fifth of U.S. undergraduates, roughly 3.8 million students, according to a 2019 report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and Ascend at the Aspen Institute, a program focused on social mobility.

Yet, too often such students confront extra hurdles to earning their degrees, and their needs go unmet on campuses, says filmmaker Jaye Fenderson, co-founder of the independent production company Three Frame Media and a former admissions officer at Columbia University.

Fenderson directed and produced a new five-part docuseries, called Raising Up, which follows four student parents and their families as they juggle academics, childcare and work. The short films shine a spotlight on some of the barriers student parents face in higher ed, including limited access to affordable housing and childcare, and strains on their mental health. The films, to be released online one-by-one between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, also explore potential solutions to those challenges through interviews with campus administrators and student-parent advocates, in addition to students themselves.

Fenderson spoke with Inside Higher Ed via Zoom about the roadblocks that affect student parents, what colleges can do to help, and how producing the series changed her perspective on her own family. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: What motivated you to focus your docuseries on parenting students?

A: A couple of years ago, my college roommate brought a young woman she was mentoring over to our place for dinner. She was in community college, she was applying to Columbia University, and I was really moved by her story. And when she got into Columbia in the spring, she was also pregnant.

I had been a former admissions officer at Columbia, and in what little way I could, although it had been years, I was like, “Let me try to help you navigate this unique situation.” I reached out to the admissions office, and just tried to find out what kinds of scholarships, what kinds of accommodations, do they have for pregnant or parenting students. It really was quite difficult and challenging to get in touch with someone. It made me think, for someone who doesn’t have an advocate for them, this could be really challenging and a setback situation.

And so, of course, I’m a filmmaker. And whenever I encounter something where I’m like, “This system is not right,” or “This needs to be elevated in some way,” I’m like, “How can we tell this story?”

So I originally approached a couple of the foundations that have funded our work previously and said, “I met this student parent; I think that there could be a feature doc here. Can we tell this story?” And the feedback that I got back was, “We love her story, but there really are a myriad of different student parent experiences. So how can we tell this in a bigger way?”

Q: What was it like for you to have in-depth conversations with parenting students and take this really intimate look into their day-to-day lives?

A: My mom was a student parent herself. She graduated from college a year before I did. So, I lived through that experience as a child. And so, talking to these parents who are going through that, I actually felt like I was seeing kind of what my mom experienced as she was going through it in a way that I couldn’t really understand when I was a kid.

It was so easy to get connected to these parents and to hear their stories. And that’s one of my favorite things about the work that I do as a filmmaker: getting to know people and earning their trust. None of these stories are mine. I want to steward their story and help uplift their story in a way that might not be possible otherwise. I really enjoy that work and getting to know people and also the nuances of things that I might not have thought of just from an outside perspective, not having been a parent and in school myself.

Q: What were some of the nuances of student parents’ experiences that maybe surprised you or that you might not have been expecting?

A: Little things that came up. For instance, parking being really far away, if you have a child and you’re trying to get to class and there’s no designated parking near the childcare centers to make that walk easier—just those added things. There are these little things that schools can do to just make life easier for parents. I have four kids myself, so I know that hustle. It’s just about being intentional about how do we design campuses? What do we offer?

And the same thing with bathrooms. We interviewed fathers and mothers, and [they talked about] how many times there isn’t a changing table in a men’s restroom or all-gender restroom. And just thinking about those things as we’re designing institutions to signal that student parents are welcome here, and we have resources and supports so that you can just be who you are and you have the basic needs to get through your day.

In the film about mental health [one of the five in the docuseries], there was a term that Haley Myers-Dillon [director of Sacramento State University’s Parents and Families Program] used called “time poverty.” And when you’re programming for student parents, it’s not necessarily about adding one more thing for them to do to create community but how to integrate their community into what they already have to do throughout the day. There’s just so much that parents have to do, and school is just one more thing.

Q: Given you have a personal connection to the subject through your mother, did following parenting students make you see her experience differently in any way? Do you think your experience with her informed your work?

A: She was at community college, she stopped out, she got pregnant with me. And then she went back to community college and then she ended up going to a four-year. It was a long journey. So, I’ve lived with that narrative very close in my mind. But as I was working on this film, I remember I found this picture of me and my dad. I was two years old, and I was at his graduation. And I realized that both of my parents had been student parents.

And just seeing the parents that I met in this process and how challenging it is gave me a lot more empathy for my parents and what they were trying to do as they were raising me and they were kids themselves. I think that is what I love about film, too, is that it gives people an opportunity to step into another person’s world and have a little bit more empathy or understanding for what they're going through. I kind of did that for myself as well in this process. That wasn't expected.

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing this population of students today?

A: Being recognized by institutions is really the biggest. Being seen and feeling that sense of belonging and value. In all the conversations that we had, there is a sense of isolation and loneliness, that you’re on your own, that the institution doesn’t necessarily see you or recognize you, the supports aren’t there. The big call to action for this series is that we see the student parents that are on our campuses. One in five students are parenting or pregnant. And if we can see them, then they can feel as if they belong here. That’s really the biggest step. Everyone wants to feel like they are seen and belong.

Q: You touched on this earlier, but what are some things that you think colleges could do to foster that sense of belonging and make student parents’ lives easier when there’s that time poverty and so many challenges on top of the already challenging role of being a student?

A: Making student parents visible, even in marketing publications, and also having a space on campus that is specifically for students who are parenting or pregnant, having a resource center, like I saw at Sacramento State. Even if students don’t have time to go to the programming, just knowing that the resource is there and they could stop by on their own time and find diapers or find another parent that could be studying, I think having that is really important.

And I know that there are different views on this, but having a designation of “student-parent-serving institution” … I think institutions want to have pride in who they serve and the work that they’re doing, and if serving student parents is a source of pride, then I think [a designation] could go a long way to signal to not only students but also to higher education at large that this is a population that we care about and that we’re proud to serve and that we’re proud that they’re on our campus.

Q: Who do you hope watches this documentary series and what do you hope their biggest takeaways are going to be?

A: It was really meant to be shown to educators, institutions, policymakers. I think we really want to educate people who are working in leadership about who’s going to college, what their needs are. And particularly with student parents, and the fact that there’s time poverty, this is a population that can’t go out and advocate for themselves. They’re taking care of their children. They’re going to school. They’re going to work. They have a lot of responsibilities. So, I think this series can be a source of advocacy, to be a voice in a way that multiplies the four voices of the students, and even some of the experts in the film, to really amplify them.

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