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Small Acts of Empathy Go a Long Way in Helping Student Parents Achieve Their Goals

Working on a campus that serves adult learners can mean many things for faculty and staff. For a former staff member at an institution serving a large population of adult learners, one of those things meant keeping a drawer full of stickers, pop-its, and other trinkets and toys. When a student has to come to a meeting on campus with their kids, it can often be a stressful situation. If they have their kids with them, it usually means that their child care plan has fallen through; they come for help and may be dealing with a time-sensitive issue that needs to be addressed ASAP. It also often means that the student’s attention is divided. Rather than focus on the topic the student has come to address, student parents are usually on high alert, keeping their children occupied and safe while attempting to focus on the matter at hand. In my advising role, if I could pull out stickers or a small toy, it could keep a child occupied for a short time, enough for the student to focus on the topic they have come to discuss.

More important than providing a quick distraction is that the extra step shows that the child is welcome — and that, in turn, creates a more accepting environment for the student. Even more, it demonstrates that the campus is an inclusive space that recognizes that students have lives outside of the campus and that we are prepared to have children drop into meetings from time to time.

Being an Adult Learner Ally Means Providing a Sense of Belonging
Research by Terrel Strayhorn (2019) on college students has shown that creating a sense of belonging helps with student retention. The Rankin Institute also highlights how faculty and staff play an important role in providing a welcoming and accepting culture that welcomes adults (Weber et al., 2022). CAEL's new ALLIES Framework (Adult Learner Leaders for Institutional Effectiveness), described along with research findings in a recent report, also recognizes the ways in which institutions can support the adult learner's transition to postsecondary study by providing that sense of belonging — in terms not only of policies and practices but also by ensuring faculty and staff understand how to create a culture of belonging for those students.

The Important Role of Faculty and Staff Development
Part of fostering a culture of acceptance for adults means recognizing their needs and knowing what the institution can provide to help its students. One of those resources is ensuring that its faculty and staff are prepared to provide direct assistance to adult learners through their support services. That support begins with a welcoming environment that makes students and their children feel appreciated and included.  

A Taste of My Own Medicine
I returned to school as the mother of three children in 2019. The biggest question I had for myself when deciding to return to school was how it would affect my children. In the middle of my program, the COVID-19 pandemic began. With school closures and the kids learning at home alongside me, for the first time, I did not feel like I had to apologize or explain interruptions by my kids during class time; these interruptions suddenly were normalized. As parents, we are often already on high guard. The period when I did not feel the need to apologize for having to be a mother really empowered me as a student.

In appreciating the kindness from my professors and peers under these challenging childcare circumstances, I felt like I had gotten a taste of my own medicine. But it also helped me see student parents and their challenges even more clearly -- and to consider what else I could and should be doing to support them. I wondered if my students felt as on guard as I did during class when they showed up at my office, apologizing that their child care fell through or perhaps that this was the only time they could meet. I reassured them – told them not to apologize for simply being who they were: a parent. I took many of the other lessons I learned from how I was made to feel that I belonged in my classes, and I worked hard to ensure that I provided that same sense of belonging to students during my meetings. 

Keeping stickers might not be for everyone, but as part of an adult and equity-focused campus plan, faculty and staff can take small steps to build an inclusive population that provides all students with the support and sense of belonging they need to be successful.

Alicia Myrick, Ed.D., is manager of initiatives for CAEL.

Sources:
Strayhorn, T. L. (2019). College students sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. Routledge. 

Weber, G., Malewski, E., & Rankin, S. (2022, September 20). ‘Do I Belong Here?' Students’ Service Experiences Through the Lens of Campus Climate. How campus climate and student services interactions connect (opinion). Retrieved October 10, 2022, from https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2022/09/20/how-campus-climate-and-student-services-interactions-connect-opinion

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