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Graduate student parents reflect on community building

Parents forge connections amid pandemic despite isolation, social barriers

<p>The University estimates that there are about 75 graduate student parents enrolled in academic programs for graduate students at any given time.</p>

The University estimates that there are about 75 graduate student parents enrolled in academic programs for graduate students at any given time.

When entering graduate school, Arielle Nitenson ScM’15 MAT’16 PhD’17 wanted to make sure that she was choosing a community that would support her as she started her family. During her application process, she felt that the culture of support created by other graduate student parents at Brown would help her begin her journey as a mother.

“One of the things that drew me to Brown was that one of the people I talked to during interview weekend was talking about how she was going to try to start having a kid soon even though she was still in her program,” she said. “Another girl already had a daughter that was three or four.”

Community connection is particularly important for graduate student parents, who often feel isolated because of the financial and schedule constraints they navigate as well as the small proportion of the graduate student body that shares their experience.

An isolating experience

While Brown does not census graduate student parents, the University estimates that there are roughly 75 parents enrolled in academic programs for graduate students at any given time, said ​​associate dean of student development Vanessa Ryan. This number is also affected by the number of graduate students who take parental relief  — Brown’s semester-long paid leave program — which Ryan added is typically around 15 per year.

Of these graduate student parents, about 90% have children under the age of six, and about one-third have two or more children, Ryan said.

“There aren’t that many parents on campus when you think of the full population,” Ryan said. “The first challenge that I often hear from graduate students who are parents is finding other students who have that experience, who are a little bit ahead of them.”

Because parents account for a small proportion of the graduate school population, finding community can be difficult, she added.

“Isolation is a big thing with parents,” noted Elsie Gibson GS, a third-year computational biology PhD candidate.

Ivana Petrovic ScM’13 PhD’18, who had her son in 2017, agreed that the transition to being a parent leads easily to isolation from friends, which to her felt a bit “destabilizing” at first. 

“I was the first in my closest friends ... to have a child,” she said. “All of those friends kept having all their social events in the evenings where I was exhausted and I could not come, and then on the other hand, it’s not like I could call them to come join me on the playground. It was a whole different world.” 

Nitenson, on the other hand, said that she did not experience isolation from her community at Brown after becoming a parent.

“I felt like we were still included in everything,” she said. “Obviously some things we couldn’t do anymore, but honestly, for the most part, we were even more social because of people wanting to see” our baby.

Support within academic program communities

Nitenson, who had a baby shortly before graduating from her neuroscience program, said that her department was full of other parents who supported and shared experiences with one another.

“Our department had quite a few (parents) compared to ...some of the other grad school programs — about half a dozen parents” while Nitenson was attending, she said. “Seeing other students who have successfully managed the parenthood-graduate situation helps.”

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Nitenson added that having a supervisor who understood the experience of being a graduate student parent helped her feel supported.

“Even when I was pregnant, I had a lot of doctor’s appointments, and my boss never once made it seem like any of that was an issue,” she said. “He also had a relatively young son. He said that when he was a grad student and his son was born, he was not able to take time off and he said, ‘That is not the experience I want anyone to have.’”

Gibson, who had a son in April, similarly found that her experience as a new parent has been positive so far, largely because many others in her department also have young children. In particular, she appreciates that her building houses one of Brown’s 12 on-campus lactation stations and that most departmental social events take place before 5 p.m.

Still, Gibson understands that these benefits may not be available to all graduate students in her position. 

The presence of role models for graduate student parents varies between departments, said Avery Morrow GS, who is currently on parental leave following the birth of his daughter.

“There’s no one else in the religion department who’s raising a small kid right now,” he said. “I can talk to people from four or five years ago, but that’s a very different experience.”

Gibson hopes that parent-friendly measures are codified in University policies or at least “implemented in other departments,” she said. “I feel like I ended up in a really parent-friendly center, but I’m just not convinced that’s the same everywhere. But, again, I don’t know any other parents because there’s not that kind of network.” 

Challenges of building community across programs

Gibson emphasized that, while she feels lucky to have other graduate student parents in her department, she would appreciate more organized methods to connect with parents from other departments outside of a “parent listserv” she is currently on. 

“I’m totally curious about who else is a parent (because) I have no idea. I get super excited when I get one of those parent emails” from the listserv, she said. 

Petrovic expressed that, more recently, she has found herself forming new friendships with parents of her son’s friends, both within and outside of the Brown community, which has made the experience of being a graduate student parent less isolating.

Torrey Truszkowski PhD’18 defended her PhD while her son was five months old. Though she personally did not feel disconnected from the graduate student parent community at large, she said, the time demand on people with care-taking responsibilities could get in the way of potentially important socializing and networking opportunities.

“Once I had my kid, there were some seminars where I just left early because that was when my childcare ended,” Truszkowski said. “I don’t think it had that much of a personal effect on me, (but) I wasn’t able to stay after seminars and network with people or talk to my colleagues, which is how collaborations kind of start to evolve.”

University, GSC support for parents

The Sarah Doyle Center seeks to build community among graduate student parents on a more formal level, Felicia Salinas-Moniz, senior assistant director of the Sarah Doyle Center, said.

“First and foremost, our center really provides a space for” graduate student parents, she said. “Sometimes they don’t feel like they can bring their kids to certain places, but in our space, they can come through and know that they’re not going to get any weird looks because they have a child in tow.”

The Sarah Doyle Center also offers programming for graduate student parents, which has included graduate parent meet-ups, reading groups, a workshop with a nutritionist on making healthy snacks and a local author book greeting, Salinas-Moniz said.

Many of these events are planned by Family Friendly Community Fellows like Miriam Paninski MA’20, who has two children ages four and six. Paninski said that these events are important because most social events for graduate students, such as the ones put on by the Graduate Student Council, are not family-friendly. 

“As a community, grad student parents fall into the danger of being more isolated from other grad student parents just because of the nature of their lives,” she said.

“I feel like more could be done by GSC,” Paninski said, referring to current structures of support for graduate student parents. “GSC has quite a substantial event budget that is spent on really nice events and parties, but they are not family friendly events. They’re mostly nighttime events, and those are sometimes difficult for parents to attend.”

Abdullah Rashed GS, chair of social events for the GSC, agreed that the GSC could improve on this front and will take steps to become more inclusive in the future. 

“Admittedly, our large social events could be made more family-friendly,” he said. “We will be seeking community input on how to do so.” 

Forging community and accessing support

Outside of Brown-run programming, graduate student parents have come together and organized their own ways to create community, Nitenson said.

A group of parents “had a clothing swap where once your child outgrows their clothing, you could donate it to the group,” she said. “We got a good portion of my son’s wardrobe from that.”

Morrow said that even with these efforts, graduate student parents, especially those who do not live in Providence, may struggle to find others in similar situations.

“I’ve joined a Facebook group, but they’re just starting to get back with events and they’re all in the Providence area, so I haven’t really met anyone,” Morrow said. “I could really benefit from learning from other parents.” 

Despite the challenges of being a graduate student parent, Paninski said that she can always rely on her kids to stay balanced.

“What has been the blessing is just the fact that kids are just an enormously grounding force,” she said. “A lot of anxieties that maybe other grad students are facing, we may face them too, but they’re put in perspective in some ways.”

“My priority is definitely to stay physically balanced, healthy, and sane,” she added, “because I have little people to care for.” 



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