The Redefining Traditional Backstory: How Design Thinkers Created a Virtual Community of Student Parents and Supporters During COVID-19

Redefining Traditional: Making Higher Education Family Friendly

By Celeste Pang, Sauliha Alli, Sanja Ivanov and Heather Watts

Design thinkers at the Innovation Hub share the backstory of the Redefining Traditional virtual community of student parents and their supporters.

This month, Redefining Traditional: Making Higher Education Family Friendly’s virtual community of student parents and supporters across departments and institutions was launched.

This initiative was imagined by several partners at the University of Toronto, including the Innovation Hub, Family Care Office, U of T Libraries, School of Graduate Studies, Department of Student Life, Student Family Housing and KPE Sport and Recreation.

This space consists of a website and blog with curated content and stories, as well as a Facebook group of student parents, faculty and staff committed to making higher education more family-friendly. We share resources on academic success, childcare, financial literacy, health, homeschooling, recreation, and current research on the experiences of student parents in post-secondary education, with the ultimate goal of imagining and jointly work towards family-friendly campuses across the world.

As the member of our group responsible for creating and sharing our community, I (Sauliha) am excited about the level of interest and engagement we have received within the first two weeks of our launch. This testifies to the eagerness of many individuals, departments, and institutions to contribute to a family-friendly culture across campuses in North America.

This initiative is a continuation of the Innovation Hub’s previous projects to support students who have children. These endeavours include research and a national conference on family-friendly higher education (now postponed due to COVID-19).

This journey began in 2019 when we interviewed graduate student parents and their supporters on their experiences at the University of Toronto. We found that student parents struggle to find belonging, navigate university systems, face emotional pressures, and address practical needs. Staff and student representatives, tasked with supporting these students, also faced similar challenges. The need to redefine the traditional university experience into one that is more inclusive of families became immediately evident.

In our subsequent project, we worked with multiple partners to explore ways of encouraging conversation between staff, students, and student representatives. They enthusiastically worked towards challenging perceived ideas of a ‘traditional’ higher education culture. Over six months, we developed our study methods, interviewed stakeholders, analyzed data, and designed some core principles and draft solutions. We spoke to people from four universities across two Canadian provinces.

As the team member in charge of interviewing university personnel, what struck me (Celeste) most across conversations was the depth of feeling with which participants related their experiences, and the intensity of their desire to support student parents. While personnel came from many backgrounds, they all shared a common commitment to their students. They had a vision of higher education that makes space for students with family responsibilities and eases their journeys. They shared, too, significant challenges in their work. These challenges were frustrating and isolating, and which they creatively faced on behalf of the students they serve.

Students, the staff and representatives who support them share common conundrums around their visibility and value in university culture. They seek support but do not always find it. These needs are encapsulated in our themes:

  • “I Want to Know Who You Are” (the lack of understanding of the needs of student parents on the part of faculty and staff)
  • “We Are Resources, We Need Access to Them Too,” (the lack of resources to support student parents at institutions)
  • “Building Community Across Divides” (the need for greater collaboration between departments and institutions on this matter)

The themes from our research project informed the creation of this virtual community. By connecting student parents, their advocates, and support staff, each person can better understand the needs of others.

As of present, our Facebook group alone consists of students that yield from over 16 institutions across Canada, the United States and other parts of the world and is rapidly expanding! We encourage readers to share this group, along with our blog and website to staff, faculty and student parents at their institution.

With more collaborators involved, we can have the conversations needed to begin transforming the higher education landscape into one that is fully inclusive of all families.

Our Team & Contributors:

Celeste is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology. She is a cultural anthropologist with a background in aging and health-related research, and has had the pleasure of supporting a variety of faculty-led social science and humanities projects and student initiatives during her time at the University of Toronto. She enjoys bringing her experience in ethnographic research and qualitative methods to support student life on campus.

Sauliha Alli is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto Scarborough’s Department of Psychology. She is also the Conference and Event Coordinator at the Innovation Hub. As the child of a student parent, Sauliha finds meaning in being able to improve the sense of belonging and community for female student parents like her mother.

Sanja Ivanov is completing a Ph.D. at the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto. As a mother and an international student, she works towards empowering students with family responsibilities and creating more family-friendly, inclusive, and equitable campuses.

Heather Watts (Mohawk & Anishinaabe) is a doctoral student in the Social Justice Education department at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. As a student parent herself, Heather is passionate about reimagining higher education experiences through a lens of equity and inclusion for students with family responsibilities.

Links to our resources:

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