Breaking Barriers for Parenting Students is Goal of Professor’s Research
“Parenting students face numerous challenges on their way to degree completion; we can help remove many of those barriers and challenges.”
Being a college student is tough enough for most, but for those who are also parenting young children or caring for loved ones – in addition to other responsibilities like work, managing a household, and appointments – going to class and succeeding can seem like a daunting task.
Kent State University at Ashtabula Associate Professor of Sociology Jessica Leveto, Ph.D., understands the challenges faced by those students better than most. She earned her BA, MA, and Ph.D. as a single mother and, early in her career as a professor, had two additional children with her partner.
Without the mentorship and support of others, she recognizes that her journey would not have been possible. That’s one of the reasons she is centering her current research on understanding the needs and experiences of parenting and caregiving students to ensure the university and faculty are prepared to create accessible pathways for students to meet their goals.
It’s all part of her work through the Center for Teaching and Learning Fellowship at Kent State, culminating in a virtual workshop for faculty on April 21 titled “Breaking Barriers with Pedagogical Practice: Strategies for Faculty to Support Equity and Inclusion for Parenting and Caregiving Students.”
“I had a child and was raising him through my undergraduate and graduate school years. I worked three jobs back then, juggling being a professor with two young daughters now.” Leveto said. “I once had a professor tell me to drop his course because I missed class. My son was in the NICU, and I missed the first week of class to care for him while he was there; I know this struggle all too well.”
“There’s now some opportunity for real change, to understand things better and impact policy and practice,” she continued. “Parenting students face numerous challenges on their way to degree completion; we can help remove many of those barriers and challenges.”
Approximately 5.4 million students with dependent children are enrolled in postsecondary education, 1 in 5 undergraduate students and nearly 1 in 3 graduate students (2016 National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey). Those numbers are only expected to rise in the near future, as a too-often overlooked and underserved population increases.
Leveto always had an interest in this area; in the spring of 2015, she began organizing workshops at conferences on the topic of mothers in academia, and she started an affinity support group for mothers in academia online, Ph.D. Mamas.
COVID-19 accelerated her interests and work as a motherscholar. In March 2020, both of her daughters were in preschool, and her son was away at college until the COVID-19 disruptions brought everyone back home. Like many, Leveto and her family juggled remote learning, working from home, and staying safe – everyone's mental bandwidth was tested.
Ph.D. Mamas, the affinity group she had started several years earlier, grew exponentially during this time. Today, Ph.D. Mamas has over 18,000 members that identify as mothers in academia.
Leveto consulted with Professor Nicole Willey at the Tuscarawas Campus on a survey in March 2020; Willey was studying how academic parents were managing during the initial COVID-19 disruptions. Willey later invited Leveto to engage in a virtual panel discussion with a global audience and shared her data. Leveto replicated the survey in the spring of 2021 and again in the spring of 2022, gathering data on the prolonged impact of mothers and caregivers in academia during this time.
Leveto secured funding from the University Research Council in the summer of 2022 to conduct in-depth interviews with mothers in academia worldwide. She joined up with the Center for Adult and Veteran Services (CAVS) on the Family-Friendly Task Force. They are in the last year of a five-year plan focused on creating a family-friendly university. She is working with stakeholders throughout the Kent State system invested in making the university a supportive space for parenting students.
“I was always taught there was this bifurcation of personal and professional and being separate in those spaces,” she continued. “Then COVID hit, and we’re at home, and everybody is in everybody’s living room. There’s now a level of authenticity that you must bring into your teaching or to your learning; it’s the visibility of our complexity, that we are more than just a professor or student.”
“Our students, especially in the Regional Campus system, have complex lives. I thrived in my doctoral program because professors welcomed my son, Liam, who was in kindergarten at the time, with me to class. My program chair was supportive. Liam sat in the back of the room with his headphones on. He was a fixture in Merrill Hall during those years. He grew up on a college campus.”
Her focus as a Faculty Fellow for the Center for Teaching and Learning is to provide tangible ways faculty can support parenting and caregiving students. Her work continues, as she recently earned a foundations certificate from Case Western Reserve University in coaching; her goal is to create a pilot coaching circle for parenting students in the fall of 2024.
“There’s so much we can do; we can start by supporting parenting students. We can increase the number of parenting and caregiving students on our campuses. We should provide family-friendly spaces in libraries and around campus. Kid-friendly spaces are necessary, where parenting and caregiving students can go and study and feel safe being their authentic selves,” she offered.
There’s also a vital educational component for the awareness of the protections pregnant and parenting students receive under Title IX.
“Students have rights. Sometimes they don’t know about them,” she said. “Things like the professor suggesting I drop that class back in 2000; Title IX protected that, but I didn’t realize it then.”
Another area of importance in her work is the concept of the second-generation effect: children of college-educated parents are more likely to attain bachelor's and higher degrees.
“It’s important for children to see it, to see their parents achieve their goals, because it’s a catalyst for them as second-generation students,” Leveto explained. “Once we do it as first-generation graduates, it has exponential effects. If you want to change a region, to have true regional impact, these multigenerational impacts are how you do it.”
“And I see it with my students. When they are struggling and working so hard,” she continued. “Maybe because my story is that story, I see it. I know why it’s so important for them. It’s not just for themselves, but for their children.”
Leveto is publishing and presenting this work to worldwide audiences. She recently co-authored a chapter with a colleague in Kazakhstan in “Leading Change in Gender and Diversity in Higher Education Internationally from Margins to Mainstream “ (Routledge). She has a forthcoming chapter in “Making College Supportive Spaces for Pregnant and Parenting Students” (Routledge).
She recently hosted a workshop for the International Association of Maternal Action and Scholarship, held a session at Kent State’s Mid-Career Mentoring retreat hosted by the Tuscarawas Campus, and most recently, presented her research in Grand Rapids, MI, at the North Central Sociological Association.
Current parenting and/or caregiving students at Kent State – of any level (undergraduate, graduate, or other) and any campus or online – can participate in Leveto’s research survey about their experiences as parenting students. The survey is open through the second week in April.
Faculty can sign up for the workshop to learn ways to support parenting students; the Breaking Barriers with Pedagogical Practice workshop will be hosted on Microsoft Teams Friday, April 21, 2023, from 12-1:30 p.m. Register at the link below.