Opinion Student Life

Advocating for Students with Children: A lesser-known legacy of student activism at the Graduate Institute

Pointing to a long history of their unanswered concerns at the Institute, student parents' lesser-known activism hopes to bear fruit.

by Alexa-Rae M. Burk

Ask around to your peers who have children, and you will learn that there are little institutional structures that seek to support them at the Institute. As it stands, most support is given at an ad-hoc or case-by-case basis under the prevailing assumption that there “just aren’t many student parents.” Further, there are assumptions that students have started organizing only recently for student parent interests. When one digs a bit into our alumni network and the archives of the student association since at least 2011, student parents at the Graduate Institute have been organizing for solutions to the same 5 key issues: 

  • lack of information provided prior and upon arrival to Geneva
  • lack of family-friendly spaces and atmosphere on campus
  • lack of child-care solutions
  • lack of structural support (i.e., ad hoc basis of financial support, leave, among others) 
  • lack of inclusivity for class times, rescheduled classes, registration dates and similar events for students with children.

As early as 2012, students under the initiative “IHEID Families” advocated to collect statistics on information on student parents to provide a stronger case for the admin to prioritize the institutionalization of support for parents. This largely came from a feeling that students with children felt that they were being treated as a “minority” and individual problem, often hearing things such as, “There’s only a couple students with children for your issues to be an institutional problem.” This resulted in a word-of-mouth survey in which they found that there were 19 student parents, with 8 pregnancies and 22 children, 15 of whom were under five years old. A similar survey was conducted in 2015 showing very similar numbers. In the most recent survey in autumn of 2019, the data showed that there were 29 self-identified student parents, where out of their 38 children, 30 were under the age of five. 

If there was any question about the feasibility of an IHEID crèche, we can conclude that it cannot be due to the oft-cited reason that there is a “lack of children of the correct age.” As the numbers show, IHEID students from 2012 until today consistently have among them between 15 and 30 children; that is 8 years of consistent and increasing numbers of children at the prime age for child-care. These numbers don’t even include staff and faculty with children under the age of 4. Thus, the cantonal requirement for IHEID to have enrollment of a minimum 20 children would have already been met by students alone. 

In 2015, student parents also reported their own challenges and stories in the survey conducted. The students reported that they felt they were made to feel like “the only student parent” at the Institute and reported exceptional amounts of stress attempting to carry out their studies due to the lack of affordable childcare solutions. Many reported only getting a couple hours a sleep at night, their research being subpar compared to their abilities, extreme financial stress, and a general feeling that they would fail if they do not sacrifice their well-being. In conversations with eight student parents this last semester, in addition to the results of the recent survey, the IHEID Parent Initiative found that these stories are all too familiar still. 

According to the Quality Assurance Standards, students are entitled to equal access to carry out their education. Policies that purposefully exclude student parent needs are no longer acceptable, and it is clear that the legacy of such policies has negatively impacted student parents and disproportionately disadvantaged them. 

Through the Parent Initiative, I hope to create networks for the community among students, staff, and faculty parents, which will first and foremost dispel the lonely myth that student parents are alone in this. Next, I hope to create a play area on campus, which could be used in a variety of ways such as child-care swaps, play dates, and even serve as a meeting spot. In an institutional way, it is a first step in forging a family-friendly environment on campus. In order to address the problem of lack of information provided prior to moving to Geneva, I created the IHEID parent initiative student guide, which I will ensure to be included in the Welcome Week and Admitted Student guides. In terms of childcare and financial support for student parents, I believe it realistic to create a special child care fund to help student parents who need it to cover the expenses of childcare. This stipend should at the minimum, cover the cost of babysitting for the hours the student needs to be in class. Based on a record dating back to 2015, it is clear that creating a crèche is a firm “no” from admin. Thus, I want to exhaust my already limited time towards other solutions. Turning the “no” into a “yes” will remain to be a consistent priority in the background of other issues.

No one can deny that IHEID students have organized and come up with solutions on behalf of student parent needs for close to a decade now. For 8 years, students with children have identified their shared challenges and proposed solutions. For example, the IHEID Parent Initiative, along with its predecessor IHEID Families, is an unpaid entity providing solutions such as the Student Parent Guide, which should arguably already be provided by the administration to student parents. Students with children are already disadvantaged in a variety of ways, and it should not be their burden alone to create and fund solutions to the challenges unique to students with children. It is now time for the administration to put resources towards supporting these. 

Students are already doing the mostly uncompensated work to help themselves. Now is the time for administration to institutionalize the solutions put forth by the IHEID Parent Initiative and Gender and Diversity Commission. Let’s not look back again in 8 years to see minimal change, but rather imagine a shift towards something powerfully inclusive and redeeming. 

This article was first released in the latest publication of the Graduate Press, entitled “Revolutions”. Download the Spring print edition here.

Feature Image by Riya Sarin

0 comments on “Advocating for Students with Children: A lesser-known legacy of student activism at the Graduate Institute

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: