Outside the SSMU daycare.
Outside the SSMU daycare.

Commentary | Student caregivers need support

McGill’s family care services leaves much to be desired

Last October, I was hired in a new position as the Family Care Commissioner of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU). This position was created to provide support for the interests of student caregivers by expanding the resources available to them. Though much headway has been made by individuals involved with family care at SSMU and McGill in general, McGill has shown that it has a long way to go in making the educational experience accessible to students who are also family caregivers.

The current status of family care at McGill

Family care at McGill is currently in a dire state. Because so many students are only here for a short four-year cycle and are often not directly impacted by family care policies and initiatives, there is a severe lack of institutional memory about the issue. Over the course of this year, I met with members of the McGill community who have been directly involved with family care over the years to try to rectify this.

The portfolio of the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) Member Services Officer has included family care for a long time. Tanya Lalonde, the Family Resources Coordinator at the Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) office (also a new position) has been making great progress in coordinating and centralizing the various family care initiatives on campus. However, the lack of prioritization of family care by the central administration makes it difficult to implement solutions to the issues facing caregivers. Many people in the McGill community provide family care in various ways – caring for children, elderly folks, ill family members, and financial dependents – and they all deserve support.

The prioritization of family care issues ebbs and flows with the movement of faculty, staff, and students at the university. This plays out as inconsistent support for caregivers across the university. For example, in some departments, most of the faculty do not have young children or elderly parents to care for, so accommodation for caregiving responsibilities is eschewed. Similarly, in departments where most of the faculty are older white men who do not typically bear the burden of direct childcare responsibility, the need for childcare or other caregiver support is not seen as a need at all. This is not to say that there is no support for any people with dependents anywhere at McGill, but the burden of proving that this need exists resides with the people who are already trying to juggle caregiving responsibilities with studies or work at the university.

The impact on undergrads

Undergraduate student caregivers as a population are particularly vulnerable to the erasure of their needs, which compounds the barriers facing undergraduate students with dependents.

One way to illustrate the particular burden that family care can place on undergraduates is by examining the role of financial burdens. A faculty member who is forced to reduce their work hours due to caregiving responsibilities inevitably faces a reduction in income as a result. These situations are difficult for anyone to deal with, but faculty members are sometimes able to make special arrangements, such as restructuring their teaching hours or focusing on research, which is still time consuming but is often more flexible and amenable to caregiving responsibilities. Graduate students may take a reduced workload based on the discretion of their supervisors. But, for undergraduate students who must pay, rather than be paid, to study, the financial imperative becomes more serious. Undergraduate students with caregiving responsibilities may want to take a part-time course load in order to ease stress and meet their responsibility. However, to do this means to sacrifice eligibility for in-course financial aid, which could jeopardize their ability to care for dependents or pursue their education.

The responsibilities of caregiving go far beyond financial responsibilities. Most of the work I’ve done has been with undergraduate student parents, and one problem that many of them face is sick notes. Most daycare facilities have a rule that, if a child has a fever above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, they cannot come to daycare or must go home if already there – at the McGill Childcare Centre, children must stay home for three days after having a fever. This rule is important to prevent other children from becoming sick. But, because of the medical note policy for most undergraduate students, if a parent has to keep a child home from daycare and does not bring them to the doctor, which is not always necessary for routine illnesses, they have no way of obtaining documents justifying absence from classes or exams.

Thus, the state of family care at McGill is already discriminatory in that it forces many people to choose between work, studies, and caregiving responsibilities. The situation is worse for undergraduate caregivers who are invisible to their peers and professors in this capacity, as the lack of recognition ultimately results in a lack of accommodation.

Solutions for caregivers

Students with dependents are in diverse situations, and there is no one solution that will be able to comprehensively address the problems they face when accessing education at McGill. However, there is a variety of potential solutions to caregiving problems on campus that the University could attempt to implement, though they vary in terms of financial costs and sustainability.

To start, the SSMU and McGill daycare waitlists are incredibly long. Some wait for as long as eight years, at which point daycare is no longer necessary. The SSMU daycare prioritizes undergraduate students but the McGill Childcare Centre does not. Because of provincial zoning laws, no more subsidized public daycares can be opened in the downtown area. The only option, then, is to pursue private daycare, which would have a fixed daily rate and could be a more viable choice for people in higher income brackets given. Were McGill to pursue this option, daycare space could be freed up in both the SSMU and McGill daycares for undergraduate and graduate students in need of those subsidized spaces. This option would be better for all people involved – more daycare space means parents who work at the university can be closer to their children, and more children can be accommodated.

Many of the issues facing student caregivers come down to the simple fact that these students are invisible, both to the administration and in their social environments. If there is one thing that I have taken away from this work, and that I would like to emphasize to my peers at McGill, it is to remember that students can be parents and caregivers, too. Destigmatization for student caregivers is crucial – too often the reaction to identifying oneself as a student parent is poorly disguised shock. As with other issues of access to, and comfort in, a space, the burden should not be on student caregivers to make themselves and their needs known.

Many of the new family care initiatives at McGill have been trying to create a centralized list of student caregivers; but, as of now, there is no such list. The administration must make an effort to account for student caregivers institutionally, and implement a policy to protect student caregivers, especially undergraduates, from the extra barriers they face when pursuing an education at McGill. Only then can the University effectively provide them with the services and support that they so clearly deserve. It is 2016, and it is time for family care to be prioritized at McGill.

Julia Pingeton is a U3 Psychology student and the outgoing SSMU Family Care Commissioner. To contact her, email juliapingeton@gmail.com.

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