Naomi Lindsay, a second-year in social work, reads a story to her 5-year-old son, Dominic in front of their Christmas tree. Lindsay is a single mother working on getting her undergraduate degree from Ohio State. Credit: Amal Saeed | Photo Editor

Essays and exams make up a tiny fraction of Naomi Lindsay’s stressors at Ohio State.

She also has to make sure the Spiderman costume, canisters of Play-Doh and Buzz Lightyear action figures are cleaned up from her living room floor. 

Lindsay, a second-year in social work, returns to her two-bedroom apartment every day after picking up her 5-year-old son, Dominic, from school at the Columbus Bilingual Academy.

After cooking dinner, giving Dominic a bath, reading bedtime stories and tucking him into bed, Lindsay is finally ready to start her pile of homework that is due the next day. If she’s lucky, she goes to bed by 1 a.m.

She wakes up grudgingly, five hours later, at 6 a.m., drives Dominic to school and starts her day jam-packed with classes. Then it repeats. 

“It’s stressful as a student-parent; it’s a lot of stress,” Lindsay said. “You have to handle five classes of homework, and then my son’s in kindergarten. So by the time I get him from school, we get home, you have to do his homework with him, you wanna spend time with your child. So then you’re pushing your stuff back.”

Although it’s easy to feel alone as a single student-parent in a sea of 66,000 college students, Lindsay has company. 

Approximately 1 in 5 undergraduate college students nationwide are parents, according to Molly Peirano, the deputy Title IX coordinator for the Office of Institutional Equity at Ohio State.

That’s about 22 percent of the undergraduate population in the U.S. — or more than 4 million people — according to an April 2019 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. 

A little more than 40 percent of student-parents attend community colleges. 

The exact number of student-parents at Ohio State, however, isn’t clear. University officials suspect it’s far more than the 300 students who reported a dependent on financial aid forms. They think the low number is largely due to the perception that comes with reporting oneself as a student-parent.

As Lindsay illustrates, the college life of a student-parent is far from easy. Access to affordable housing, cost of child care and transportation are just a few of the many challenges they face. 

There’s also the stigmatization — a feeling that they don’t belong at Ohio State because they don’t fit the typical description of a college student. 

All of these obstacles lead to a significant discrepancy between those with and without children when it comes to graduating. Nationwide, the six-year graduation rate for student-parents is about 33 percent, which is roughly half that of students without children, Peirano said.

To combat the barriers faced by the student-parent population, Ohio State offers a support program called A Comprehensive College Experience for Single-Parent Students. Created in 1989 under the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, it provides single student-parents with services and accommodations, ACCESS Director Traci Lewis said.

The program hosts events every Tuesday night and support groups throughout the week to provide single student-parents help and understanding about academic resources, financial literacy, programs geared toward their kids and more.

“That’s the purpose of ACCESS, and that’s how we try to help them make it through the university, by giving them the support and the encouragement and the empowerment that they need to know, ‘Hey, I belong here,’” Lewis said.

Once she was further along in her pregnancy, Walker, at one point, felt as though she was at risk for homelessness due to the Ohio State housing policy that barred her from having a child in Baker Hall. However, thanks to help from Title IX and ACCESS, she was able to secure housing in the ACCESS apartments. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Managing Editor for Multimedia

Lindsay and Nahla Walker, a second-year in exploration, are among the approximately 50 single parents who participate in the program. Discovering she was pregnant shortly after graduating high school, Walker was unsure if she could attend Ohio State.

“My family, my friends were kind of doubting me, thinking I was going to stay home,” Walker said. “But I didn’t really have to because I found out about ACCESS.”

Her 9-month-old son, Carson, sports a contagious grin and enormous blue eyes. Despite his adorable demeanor and the support she receives from ACCESS, Walker said balancing school and parenting is a handful.

“I don’t really give myself enough time for self care. I’m constantly spending time with my son as much as possible because I feel like he’s already in day care most of the day anyway,” Walker said. “So when I can spend time with him, I really set aside that time, sometimes neglecting my homework and responsibilities as a student.”

“Stares and whispers”

Although the more tangible obstacles, like housing, child care and transportation, are evident in the lives of student-parents at Ohio State, the stigma and judgment they face from peers and professors for being pregnant or parenting on a college campus is sometimes even more impactful.

Jillian Deas, a graduate student in educational policy and graduate assistant for ACCESS, said her journey with pregnancy and parenting her 2-year-old son, Jahlil, often feels isolating.

“You feel alone, and it becomes very depressing, builds anxiety,” Deas said. “It adds another barrier that’s more psychological than anything else.”

Deas said that after becoming pregnant during her third year at Ohio State, navigating her way around the campus community felt lonely because professors and academic advisers don’t always accommodate the needs of student-parents.

“They might say, ‘You know what, our program’s really hard. Maybe you should try this one.’ Or, ‘That’s a big change. Maybe this program isn’t for you,’” Deas said. 

Although Deas stuck with her program during undergrad, she said many student-parents do change course when confronted with similar comments from their professors and advisers.

The rights of pregnant and parenting students are protected under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1982 —  a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational settings — but Peirano said many students and even some faculty and staff are unaware that the protections from sex discrimination also extend to the student-parent population.

“A lot of folks don’t know that because some of the laws that people typically talk about are the employee-related pregnancy laws,” Peirano said.

Due to this common misconception, Peirano said the Office of Institutional Equity is working with faculty to raise awareness on student-parents’ rights and has incorporated language into some Ohio State policies, including the excused absence policy, to more explicitly encompass pregnant and parenting students as a protected class.

Peirano said the Office of Institutional Equity most commonly assists student-parents with “interim measures,” or academic accommodations, that are sought as a result of a variety of pregnancy-related medical reasons — morning sickness, miscarriages, abortion, giving birth or recovering from a C-section. 

”We have to be really thoughtful and be good partners with faculty and instructors to make sure that students are still learning what they’re supposed to be learning and can take care of themselves,” Peirano said.

Because student-parents must still achieve the “fundamental learning objectives” of a class, Peirano said there is not a specific model when it comes to Title IX accommodations, so assisting pregnant and parenting students largely happens on a case-by-case basis. 

“It’s not like a one size fits all; every person has different needs and has different courses,” Peirano said. “If you’re in a traditional lecture-style class, that accommodation is going to be very different than a lab where you’re doing dissections.”

During her pregnancy, Deas found it frustrating that some professors seemed apathetic toward her needs and failed to make an effort to help her succeed in class.

“I would have professors who were like, ‘Oh, you’re pregnant? Is that why you were always tired in class last semester?’ And I’m like, ‘You know, yes, maybe you would have known that if you asked and didn’t assume,’” Deas said.

Not only does Deas feel isolated at times by faculty members, but the stigma she faces from her peers can be even more intimidating.

When she was in the third trimester of her pregnancy, Deas said fitting into the traditional lecture-style seats was nearly impossible, and more often than not, she had to ask her peers to move so she could find a seat.

“I had to beg other students, ‘Hey, can I sit here?’ because students are just gonna run in and put their bag at a table, and I’m like, ‘Hey, can your bag not have a seat today?’” Deas said.

Jennifer Wojdacz, director of education for Planned Parenthood Ohio, said the stigma surrounding student-parents often comes from the underlying notion that sexual activity is shameful or unhealthy, which alters the perceptions of people who decide to continue their pregnancy.

“Instead of looking at young parents as somebody that we should be investing support in so that they are able and empowered to engage in parenting and raise their kids in a loving and stable way, people feel like it’s the punishment for them deciding to have sex in the first place,” Wojdacz said.

After Lindsay became pregnant, she said she felt shame simply because she gave birth.

Dominic admires his Marvel superhero poster in his room. Lindsay said that one of the most rewarding parts about being his mom is watching him grow from infancy to a child with his own unique personality. Credit: Amal Saeed | Photo Editor

“When I found out I was pregnant, I was scared. I was 16,” Lindsay said. “You kinda feel — this sounds weird — you feel ashamed at first because you’re pregnant, and everyone else has a normal life.”

Due to the occasional issues with scheduling at Dominic’s school or with baby sitters, Lindsay said there have been days when she had to bring him to class with her.

Lindsay said that when she’s with Dominic — especially on campus — stares and whispers are a common occurrence.

“I think people are used to traditional college students at OSU, so when you see someone with a kid, they just, like, you get looks,” Lindsay said.

Cost of child care

Because of the rising costs of child care, many pregnant and parenting students choose not to go to college at all or end up dropping out before obtaining a degree.

“When I was researching the statistics about single parents in school or single parents in general, it was discouraging to see that the only typical way that an individual was able to finish school was to quit school,” Walker said.

The number of student-parents enrolled in college in the U.S. declined about 20 percent between 2011-12 and 2015-16 school years, whereas the percentage of total undergraduate college students in the U.S. only saw a 6 percent decline, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research report.

“If day care wasn’t an option, I’d probably be a stay-at-home mom,” Walker said.

According to the nonprofit Child Care Aware of America, the average cost of child care per year in at least 30 states exceeds the cost of in-state tuition at public colleges, deterring many pregnant and parenting students from pursuing higher education.

In Ohio, the average annual cost of full-time child care for an infant is about $10,000, which is almost as expensive as the approximately $11,000 in-state tuition for the 2018-19 school year at Ohio State, according to a January 2019 report from Child Care Aware of America.

“Finances get tricky when you’re a full-time student, so I just try to save money and live off that money,” Lindsay said. “But by the time you get done with your bills, it gets tricky.”

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that during the 2015-16 school year, debt among student-parents was about 2.5 times higher than debt among students without children.

Yolanda Zepeda, assistant vice provost for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, said it’s important to acknowledge the seemingly “invisible” population of student-parents at Ohio State in order to combat the financial insecurities they face.

“For a number of the families that we served in the past, they are coming from sometimes multiple generations of poverty,” Zepeda said. “And when they get the degree, they can change the trajectory not only for themselves, but for their children in the generations to follow.”

To combat the cost of child care, the U.S. Department of Education enacted the Child Care Means Parents in School program in 1998 under the Higher Education Act. The program provides federal funds to some colleges and universities to help low-income student-parents pay for child care, according to an August 2019 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Ohio State was first allocated CCAMPIS funds in 2018, totaling about $1.4 million, which assists about 45 low-income families with funding that makes child care “as close as possible to free,” Zepeda said.

Lewis said to qualify for CCAMPIS funding, a person must be eligible for a Pell Grant, enrolled full-time at a Columbus university and send their child to a nationally accredited child care program.

Although Congress has designated more funds to the CCAMPIS program throughout the years — from $15 million to $50 million in 2018 — the funds are provided to about 300 colleges and universities across the country, according to Inside Higher Ed. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that the funds help about 11,000 student-parents, which is only about 1 percent of the student-parent population that could be eligible for CCAMPIS funds. 

Carson hangs out with his mom in the ACCESS office building’s playroom, complete with yellow walls, alphabet posters and every toy imaginable. Along with the playroom, participants in ACCESS also can use the computer lab, exercise machines and kitchen. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Managing Editor for Multimedia

Lewis said she hopes Ohio State can establish a drop-in day care center on campus to make child care facilities more affordable and accessible for student-parents.

In the immediate on-campus area, there are two Ohio State child care centers, the Ackerman Road and Buckeye Village facilities, she said. However, the wait lists for both locations are lengthy, and they only accept children under the age of 5, eliminating options for student parents who have school-aged children. 

Although there is another Ohio State facility — the Schoenbaum Family Center — that provides child care for school-aged children, accessibility may be difficult because it is located farther off campus near Summit Street and Seventh Avenue, Lewis said.

She said she hopes there will eventually be on-campus drop-in care.

“We have it at the RPAC for folks that want to go over and work out,” Lewis said. “Why can’t we have it for on campus for folks who want to study or need to study or need to go to class?”

Lindsay said having a drop-in day care center would be helpful, especially for emergency situations, when she needs to take Dominic to class with her.

ACCESS participants also receive priority scheduling for classes to accommodate their hectic routines. However, Lindsay said taking night classes is sometimes her only option due to a lack of class offerings in her social work major, which makes it challenging to coordinate where Dominic can stay after he gets out of school.

“What makes me nervous is now in the fall next year, I’ll probably have night classes, but that gets a little tricky because the day cares that are open at night sometimes aren’t the best,” Lindsay said. 

One semester, Lindsay had no choice but to push her major and consequently her graduation date back because she was unable to enroll in a major requirement class that ran until 8:30 p.m. 

“We have a bedtime; we have things we have to do. I can’t send him to a baby sitter at 8:30 [p.m.],” Lindsay said.

Home is where the housing is

Ohio State’s housing policy bars student-parents from living in residence halls on campus with their children, so access to safe and affordable housing often becomes a significant obstacle for single parents, Lindsay said.

Although there are some available off-campus locations, living near fraternity row, where the almost daily spectacle of empty beer cans is inevitable, may not be the most nurturing environment for a child, Lindsay said.

The housing that is suitable for families, however, is often located farther from campus. Lindsay said this presents challenges with transportation and makes it difficult for student parents to return to their apartments between classes or work.

Walker, who lived in Baker Hall East during the first semester of her freshman year, said she had to move out of the dorm shortly before winter break as she neared her February due date.

Because of problems that arose with signing a lease off campus before winter break, Walker said she contacted the Title IX office, which later referred her to ACCESS, to help her secure a roof over her head.

“I’m sure all [ACCESS participants] can attest to this — we’ve been in situations where we’re at risk for homelessness, at least I was,” Walker said. “They basically said that I had to move out of the dorm, and I didn’t really have any place to go. So basically, if I wouldn’t have found ACCESS, I would’ve had to go back to Canton.” 

To address the need for adequate housing, ACCESS has a partnership with Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority and Community Properties of Ohio that provides student-parents with 38 two- and three-bedroom apartments located above or near the ACCESS office, Lewis said.

Located at 84 N. 17th Ave., about a 20-minute drive from campus, apartment dwellers can use ACCESS resources, which include a kitchen, lounge area, children’s playroom, computer lab and exercise machines.

According to Community Properties of Ohio’s website, tenants pay rent based on 30 percent of their adjusted annual income. Residents must fall under 50 percent of the area’s median income of $24,739, according to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2017. 

Lindsay said that living in the apartments, collectively called Columbus Scholar House, surrounded by other single parents provides her with the support that she often struggles to find at Ohio State.

“Scholar House is just a great place for us to breathe,” Lindsay said. “You have a safe place for you and your child; you have people who want to see you succeed; you have people around you who are going through the same struggles as you, so you’re not alone.”

Lewis said that in the future, she hopes ACCESS works with the university to set aside an underused dorm to house single parents.

“I have this vision in my head where Lincoln Tower, Morrill Tower, that area will be great [for student-parents] because it’s on campus, but it’s not necessarily on campus,” Lewis said. “It will be a great place for families because it doesn’t have all of that stuff that goes on in your dorms that are more centrally located on campus.”

There was outrage from many students with children when Ohio State announced its decision on Oct. 28 to close Buckeye Village, a housing complex on Olentangy River Road, where many student-parents live, and replace it with athletic facilities. 

Currently, there are 89 occupied units in Buckeye Village, according to previous Lantern reporting. Its location near campus and proximity to the Buckeye Village child care center makes it a convenient place for many families.

Although the university is in the process of negotiating a lease agreement for current Buckeye Village residents to move to University Village apartments about half a mile down the road, Deas said the announcement from the university makes her and other student-parents feel invisible.

Nahla Walker, a second-year in exploration, plays with her 9-month-old son, Carson, outside the ACCESS office building at 84 N. 17th Ave. Discovering she was pregnant just after her high school graduation, Walker was unsure if she could still attend Ohio State. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Managing Editor for Multimedia

“It doesn’t send a good message that you want families here,” Deas said.

With recently appointed Vice President for Student Life Melissa Shivers assuming the position Jan. 6 at Ohio State, Zepeda said she hopes the Office of Diversity and Inclusion can collaborate with her to speak about other options for single-parent and family housing that is closer to campus.

“The center of the dorm life, that’s not, you can’t have children,” Zepeda said. “But maybe there are some spaces, maybe there’s a space somewhere else on campus where we can make some housing available for families.”

Despite the greater probability that student-parents can stay enrolled in college thanks to the apartments available to ACCESS participants, housing — especially the location — still presents a challenge for student-parents at Ohio State.

“It takes me sometimes 30 minutes to get to OSU because the traffic is so bad here,” Lindsay said. “So by the time I get [Dominic] to school, me back to OSU, it’s like 30 minutes. I gotta go park in the Carmack lot, then I gotta wait for the bus. And if I barely missed the bus, you gotta wait 10 to 15 minutes for the next one.”

Parking on Ohio State’s campus is another challenge, Walker said. Because of her class rank as a second-year, she was not permitted to park in the C-parking lot, which is adjacent to a child care center.

“I think it’s kind of irritating that the students who are not parents, the access to the parking that is right outside the Ackerman Child Care Center, they have access to that when me, a parent myself, I don’t have access to that,” Walker said.

Looking forward

Overall, Deas said she hopes Ohio State can become a more family-friendly campus in the near future to support her own needs as a student, as well as Jahlil’s needs as a developing toddler.

“When you deal with anybody from a marginalized or minoritized group, there’s a lot of baggage that comes with,” Deas said. “So being ready and being equipped to handle that stuff that comes, it’s part of being a land-grant institution.”

Making friends and dating are also challenges, Lindsay said, especially when she lives far from campus and can’t exactly hit the bars on High Street on a Saturday night.

“You find people who get scared that you have a child … because they don’t want to commit to a child, or they assume that they have to be a stepfather automatically,” Lindsay said. “I think it’s hard to meet good people at campus because a lot of them are living in the dorms, or they’re in the fraternities.”

Despite the social struggles she faces, Lindsay said she tries to look on the bright side and would much rather have a few quality friends than those who aren’t truly committed to supporting her journey as a student-parent. When it comes to dating, she said her relationship with Dominic is much more important than trying to find dates.

“I’m single, like Beyoncé, just single. I gotta be happy, you know? Eventually I’d like to meet someone, but this time, I’m not expecting nothing from nobody at OSU any time soon,” Lindsay said.

Littered with Marvel action figures and race cars, Naomi Lindsay’s 5-year-old son, Dominic, poses in his room with his beloved Spiderman costume. Credit: Amal Saeed | Photo Editor

Even though the obstacles in her path as a student-parent can feel insurmountable, Lindsay said the “normal” college experience could never come close to exceeding the joy she’s experienced as Dominic’s mom.

“I think everything changed when I saw Dominic’s face. I think everything just came together,” Lindsay said. “God really blessed me with him. God really put him in my life at the right time.”

As Dominic runs around the ACCESS office giggling in a Sheriff Woody costume, Lindsay reminisces about how rewarding it has been to watch him grow from an infant to a child with his own personality.

She said she hopes to instill her values in Dominic and raise him to be the best possible version of himself, regardless of the sacrifices she must make along the way. 

Deas said she hopes Ohio State will offer more student-parent-oriented programs on campus and eventually establish housing on or closer to campus. Not only would moving housing improve the lives of student-parents, but it would also improve Jahlil’s perception of college.

“When you start having some of these programming things and housing on campus, the kids understand, like, ‘Wow, I am living on a college campus,’ and as they get older, dorms don’t seem so new,” Deas said. 

For her and Dominic’s future, Lindsay knows that no matter what, there is one constant in her life. 

“It’s hard being a single mom and a parent because no matter what happens, I’m always a caregiver. I’m always a mom, no matter what,” Lindsay said. “So the world’s crashing down? I have to be a mom.”