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Linda Yu for Spectator

Amber Erwin, GS ’15, and Katharine Celentano, GS ’17, work to make attending Columbia easier for students with children.

During the college application process, I was immediately drawn to Columbia due to its celebration of a diverse undergraduate student body. I looked forward to studying with “traditional” students straight out of high school and “nontraditional” students, like military veterans, artists, and entrepreneurs. I wanted to learn not only with them but from them, because like Columbia, I believe that diversity extends to life experiences. Despite its desire for a diverse student body, Columbia's lack of a centralized support system means that not all demographics have equal opportunities to achieve academic success.

One group of students that contributes a unique experience to our community are those raising families. Columbia is a stimulating and challenging place—with that often comes stress. Who hasn't had a sleepless night or three while studying for exams and writing papers? My first semester, a friend noticed that I seemed overworked and anxious due to impending midterms, and suggested that I take a break and help with the Columbia University Family Support Network's Halloween party. I went and was surprised by the number of my peers who had children.  I quickly understood the need for CUFSN. I overheard many exchanges of advice about balancing academics with family life, which daycares and food markets were both of quality and low cost, and where family-friendly parks and other activities could be found.

I left impressed by these student parents but also concerned by their unique issues. Even for a single student with no family to support, handling Columbia's workload is a challenge and the resulting stress has at times profoundly and negatively impacted my academic, social, and professional spheres. I cannot imagine how students manage to balance the same work as I do while raising a family, and how significant others and children are affected by such stress. Knowing that small things—like going to the post office or cooking a complex dinner—can disrupt study sessions, the thought of having to navigate the logistics of childcare during exam season is frightening. 

Evidence from the University-wide quality of life surveys and a childcare survey conducted within the School of General Studies demonstrate the extent to which students with families struggle to balance family and academic requirements. Fears of discrimination from peers and mentors lead many students with families to elect not to be a visible part of the Columbia community. The apparent lack of University support for students with families also negatively influences the decisions many students make with regards to starting a family at Columbia. Those already with families may be discouraged from applying to Columbia. Many students reported suffering emotional distress over having to make this decision or deal with the looming biases.

Despite these challenges, I am continually heartened by the many positive examples of students rallying to support their peers. Informal baby-sitting networks have sprung up around campus, student-led groups are emerging, and student parents are beginning to find the confidence to identify themselves as a much-valued part of the Columbia community.

The role of promoting and supporting a diverse student body, however, is fundamentally the responsibility of the University administration. The only way that students with families can experience Columbia in the same way their peers do is by making education accesible to all­—with family or without. Some steps have already been taken to provide graduate students some support for use in emergencies, such as making available emergency childcare funds for doctoral students within the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Yet, as students face these challenges across the University, these resources need to be, at a minimum, equalized across the other schools.

All four undergraduate student councils have now unanimously passed a resolution calling for equal access to resources like those provided to some graduate students. This is sending a powerful message: This is an issue that concerns all members of the student community. This overwhelming show of support is evidence that we, as a united student body, have recognized that when one of us struggles, we all struggle. It demonstrates that we welcome students with families and are concerned by their unique challenges. It also delivers a broader message to the type of community we want Columbia to be: one that promotes diversity and equality and one that provides adequate support to all of its members to fulfill their academic potentials.

The author is a General Studies junior majoring in political science. She is the chief of policy for the Columbia University Family Support Network. 

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