Rutgers senior leads advocacy and support group for students with children
According to research presented last fall at the Undergraduate Research Symposium by Anjanette Vaidya, the president and founder of Rutgers Students with Children, the Rutgers community and university institutionally discriminate against young single mothers pursuing college degrees
The School of Arts and Sciences senior won the top award at the symposium and later presented her findings at an academic conference at the University of North Carolina.
“When Rutgers says, 'We support women,' when Douglass says, 'We have been supporting women for 100 years,' you have to ask, 'Which women?'” Vaidya said. “An intersectional approach to supporting women in higher education means supporting mothers in higher education.”
Vaidya informally started Rutgers Students with Children in Fall 2015 when she re-enrolled, having previously failed out of school when her eldest daughter was 2 years old. She said that when she had originally come to Rutgers she felt isolated due to “the social stigma associated with being a teen mother,” and she only told her dean and a few friends that she had a child.
“I still see this today,” she said. “A lot of young student parents attempt to pass as childless. Having a visible group can change that dynamic, where people can come forward and say, 'Hey, I face this too. This is me, too.'”
Vaidya said that she wrote over 500 emails to University administrators, hoping that they might address the challenges that young student parents face.
But they just advised her to take out an advertisement in The Daily Targum in order to determine the school's population of student parents. She was also told that even if the necessary data were available, there would be no resources to address the issue.
Instead, she posted flyers around campus that read: “RU A STUDENT PARENT?”
“People would see these flyers and email me, saying they were in tears because of how alone they had felt, of how little support they had. They would tell me their stories of just barely hanging on by a thread,” Vaidya said. “Many of us work full time, attend school full time and raise our children. When you are doing that solo without any support, and on top of that there is no office that will help you navigate requirements, it can become too much.”
Rutgers Students with Children formally became a student organization this past spring, affording them RUSA allocations and support from students who do not have children but who are interested in social justice and educational equity, Vaidya said. The organization now serves as a support group for members and as an activist and advocacy group.
She said that if someone has to take time off, the club does not let them lose contact and drop out, but rather suggests other resources. She said she has personally picked people up and drove them to facilities, made phone calls, tutored people and stayed on the phone with them until 3 a.m. just to listen to them.
“We aren't talking about just one person when a student parent drops out. Often we are talking about a loss of the ability to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. A four-year degree can do that. It can get you off of welfare for life, it can change your prospects and the prospects of your children. It's a game changer,” she said.
In October, Vaidya spoke on a panel at the Aspen Institute in Colorado for a policymakers forum on two-generation strategies. Among the audience were New Jersey government officials who were surprised by how little support New Jersey's state school provide young student parents, Vaidya said. Consequently, she and other members of Rutgers Students with Children will be meeting with the state commissioner and the Department of Higher Education in two weeks.
For the rest of the semester, the group is planning campaigns for visibility and outreach, including a social media campaign on Instagram called #ThisIsWhatARutgersStudentLooksLike, and an outreach program where they will meet with local pregnant and parenting high school students to educate them on how higher education is accessible for young parents.
“We don't wear signs that read, 'I have a child,' but we are still here,” Vaidya said. “Students can be parents too, and that never crosses anyone's mind.”