A dozen young parents will soon launch campaigns on their college campuses that highlight their unique experiences as college students raising children.
These campaigns, part of the “Our Campus, Our Voice” challenge, will call on college administrators to provide a more supportive environment for student parents.
Generation Hope, a local nonprofit for teen parents and their children, coordinated the “Our Campus, Our Voice” challenge to give some of their student parents the chance to amplify their voices and those of others who have experienced difficulty navigating the traditional college setting.
Though a number of young parents have matriculated to college with the help of Generation Hope, some, like Sholachauntel Shoda, said they continue to face hurdles in systems that haven’t fully taken into account the special circumstances facing student parents.
“When I got accepted to Trinity and applied for EBT, I was told that I couldn’t receive the benefits because I didn’t work full-time or [enroll] in one of their workforce programs,” Shoda said as she explained her inspiration for a virtual seminar that shows student parents at Trinity Washington University in Northeast how to obtain SNAP benefits and other seemingly out-of-reach government resources.
Shoda, who will graduate in May, enrolled in Generation Hope and Trinity in 2019 shortly after giving birth to her son and transferring from another college. Although she extolled Trinity administrators and one professor in particular for understanding her situation, Shoda said student parents, especially those who attend school full time, often struggle to meet the demands of their family and academic lives without institutional support.
“I told [the university] that I was a full-time student who couldn’t work [but] they couldn’t help me without me being in the workforce,” said Shoda, 23, who’s studying international relations and Africana studies.
“That pushed me to figure out things on my own. There are a few [student parents] on campus [and] we’re learning information from each other. Trinity has the resources to help us but I felt like it wasn’t enough.”
Highlighting a Unique College Experience
An Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) report showed that one-of-five college students raise children while attending school, with more than half raising children under the age of six.
The dropout rate among student parents stands at nearly 52 percent for reasons unrelated to academics. IWPR researchers cite lack of childcare access, financial instability and time constraints as impediments to college completion.
For more than a decade, Generation Hope, based in Northeast, has provided emotional support and financial resources for teen parents as they enter college and their children start school. Since its inception, 60 student parents have graduated from college. The nonprofit currently helps more than 120 young mothers and fathers who attend 20 D.C.-area colleges and universities.
Last year, Generation Hope received $50,000 from the Black Voices for Black Justice Fund, $30,000 of which founder and CEO Nicole Lynn Lewis used to launch the “Our Campus, Our Voice” challenge. The campaign involves nine schools, including Trinity in Northeast and Howard University and George Washington University in Northwest.
“We’re working hard not only to support these young people but we also [believe] that colleges and universities [should] become more embracing and inclusive of all parents,” Lewis said. “One of the ways to do that is to ask teen and student parents what they think needs to happen on these campuses.”
An Opportunity to Facilitate Greater Understanding
The protests that erupted in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder sparked not only conversation about racial injustice but an influx of funds into groups fighting for racial equity.
Generation Hope counts among a slew of Black Voices for Black Justice Fund recipients, including Wildflower Montessori and Dreaming Out Loud, both based in the District.
For Briana Whitfield, a 26-year-old Generation Hope alumna and winner of the “Our Campus, Our Voice” challenge, the last few years have revealed the need for institutions to better understand and empathize with people from all walks of life.
Whitfield will host a book club where students and staff members will read Lewis’ book, “Pregnant Girl: A Story of Teen Motherhood, College and Creating a Better Future for Young Families.”
In 2018, she graduated from George Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a minor in public health. During her freshman and sophomore years, Whitfield’s grades plummeted as she, on a scholarship that didn’t pay for family housing, struggled to take care of her infant son in a tumultuous home environment.
Though she would later find her footing after joining Generation Hope, Whitfield lamented having to explain to professors the parental obligations that kept her from turning in assignments on time. In an environment where so few full-time students had children, Whitfield said she felt ostracized for going to college while caring for a child.
“Generation Hope encouraged me to let my teachers know about my parenting status. I was a novelty [so teachers] either didn’t care or pitied me; I didn’t like that,” Whitfield said. “They were unaware about how to handle my situation. [That’s why] I would like to discuss trends [in the book club] and what GW can do as a campus to help students who have children.”