Student parents are a growing group of students at the University of Toronto, and they face unique challenges that are invisible to those who do not share their experiences. These challenges create emotional and mental pressures which are exasperated by the limited support available for their practical needs.
To capture these challenges and the overall experiences of student parents at the university, the Innovation Hub partnered with the Family Care Office last year. Through that partnership, we showed that student parents are often unable to find a sense of belonging during their time at U of T. A sense of belonging is important for forming meaningful interpersonal connections, better coping with school and life challenges, and deriving comfort from the knowledge that one is not alone.
The project also identified the burdens student parents face when they try to access support services. Because they find it difficult to navigate and negotiate between the different offices at U of T, many student parents seek departmental or external support, rather than consulting the larger existing resources at the university.
Sometimes, emotional and mental challenges actually prevent students from wanting to get more support, which then negatively affects their academic success and increases their feeling of isolation. The challenge of integrating school and family responsibilities causes many student parents to feel guilty that they are unable to be a “good parent” and a “good student”.
Finally, we identified a need for practical support services. Many student parents feel stressed by a lack of time, financial constraints, and difficulty in finding childcare. Constantly having to find ways to meet their practical needs hinders student parents’ abilities to integrate their dual responsibilities as parents and students.
These insights describe the main areas in which student parents face barriers, and suggest ways that the university community can alleviate their burdens. There are many small- and large-scale changes that the university as a whole, and departments and divisions specifically, can implement to improve the day-to-day experience of student parents.
Some of these solutions may require a big budget and structural changes, but there are also many easier changes. To design these solutions, we need to hear the voices of student parents. This summer, we’ll be continuing this project by inviting student parents to help us brainstorm solutions that would better address their needs. This bottom-up approach will allow us to connect with genuine student experiences, and learn from those experiences to design environments that student parents consider family-friendly.
We hosted our first participatory action event on June 19th, and we’re excited about what we achieved by including the voices of those who are directly affected. To learn more about the event, check out our next blog post!
This post is part of the Project Primer series, in which we introduce the projects the Innovation Hub is conducting this summer. To learn about our other work, check out our last post, and subscribe for more!