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McGill to host forum on student parents in May

Administrators, student union representatives, facilities managers, and government officials will gather for the first-ever Student Parent Forum this May, to finally address the needs of student parents at McGill.

The McGill Student Parents’ Network (MSPN), a small support group run out of McGill Chaplaincy, is planning the forum with backing from the Senate Subcommittee on Women. It aims to accomodate the personal and institutional needs of student parents at McGill and in Quebec – the primary concerns of which are access to daycare services, problems with flexibility, and isolation of student and staff parents.

Rosemary Thomas, an international Social Work student with three children, said that student parents often faced psychological isolation in an academic environment.

“Once you get into a safe space, you begin to talk about it – the self esteem, the guilt, the high pressures at school,” Thomas said. “You cry at night and pull down the shutters and then you have to go to school and try to smile.”

Pamela Lilrio, a PhD student in Organizational Behaviour and a single parent, said that the University must do more to provide support structures for students taking classes at McGill.

“Sometimes it feels like you’re trying to do schoolwork with one hand tied behind your back,” Lirio said. “If the administration and faculty knew that, you’d have more professors that understand their needs. It’s about starting that awareness.”

Gwenda Wells, Ecumenical Reverend and former director of McGill Chaplaincy Service, has worked with the MSPN since its inception in 2001.

Wells said there was a need for more structured support for student parents at McGill, pointing to issues like access to daycare, a need for more structured flexibility for student parents, guidance for international students with children, access to baby-changing stations and lactation sites, and addressing problems of isolation of student parents.

“We’ve really been penalizing people who want to make the best choices as parents,” Wells said. She called for McGill to integrate its childcare services with research on child development to create a more holistic student parent centre, complete with a full-time staff.

“There’s so much more we could be doing to be a leader on family services and research,” Wells said, adding that the student parent organization at McGill is where disability issues were at 20 years ago.

Abby Lippman, Chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Women, said that McGill needs to take a more proactive stance to providing structural support for women and parents who want to enter the workforce with children.

“We need a society that allows women and parents to continue their work and studies, and are not jeopardized because there are not enough daycares,” she said.

“Is the University really prepared to have parents in its student body and its work staff?” Lippman questioned.

The McGill Daycare Centre has 106 spots, and prioritizes staff children. The SSMU Daycare gives priority to undergraduate students, but can accommodate fewer than three dozen children.

At other schools, such as the University of Alberta and the University of Victoria, there are many more childcare service options for students. The University of Alberta has five daycares, and the University of Victoria provides services for children up to 12.

At McGill, students have found that daycare and support networks – provided for those four months to four years old – are almost nonexistent.

Jay Ploss, a Master’s student in herpetology and Daily contributor, couldn’t bring his child to the McGill daycare because the waiting list is three years, and takes priority for McGill staff over its students.

“At McGill, daycare is almost irrelevant,” Ploss said. “Right now you have to sign up almost before your child is even born.”

Other services required by student parents include diaper changing stations and lactation areas, as well scheduling flexibility for student parents – including a special “student parent” designation, so student parents can have first choice for labs or tutorials. But above all, Wells

called for a broader recognition of the needs of student parents at McGill.

Student parents also expressed a need for greater flexibility for parents at McGill. Wells said that a more formal structure – such as a downloadable form, similar to one for religious observances or disability leaves – should be available for student parents who must postpone handing in a paper due to parental obligations.

“It would be brilliant, if we had a form that was consistent, where there are no questions asked,” Wells said. “I would hope that we can get enough of a profile, so that caring staff will interpret this into thinking about best practices in their area of the University.”

Lirio echoed this need.

“I’m doing as much as I can as fast as I can…. If they had some understanding of how the student-parent track might differ, that would be helpful to me,” Lirio said.

“I think it behooves McGill to have me graduate.”

The Student Parent Forum will run in early May, with the date to be determined.