Addressing Racial Inequities Faced by Black Parenting Students in Higher Education

Student Parent Month Blog Spotlight
Blog Post
Illustration by Mandy Dean
Sept. 12, 2023

Nina Owolabi is a doctoral student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with 15 years of experience in education justice work that focused on student, program, and curriculum development. She is also a student parent. Her research centers on the Black student experience at community colleges, especially among student parents, students with disabilities, and students from historically excluded groups.

As part of New America’s ongoing Student Parent Spotlight blog series, we sat down with Nina to discuss the needs and experiences of student parents and how policymakers can advance equity for all student parents.

In celebration of Student Parent Month, we are rereleasing this blog, originally published in June 2023, with additional content from the interviewee.

Nina Owolabi, student parent and doctoral student at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign.

New America: Could you tell us about yourself, your work, and your postsecondary education?

Nina Owolabi: I am a mama-scholar pursuing a doctoral degree in education policy, organization, and leadership at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). While being a mother is a centering identity for me, it is not all of who I am, though it is entwined. My research centers on the Black student experience at community colleges, with strands of that work elevating the counternarratives of parenting students.

I have spent about 15 years in educational justice spaces, with many of those years as a college advisor at the community college level. I came to love community colleges for all the ways they are accessible. My mother benefited from community college as a working single mom years after being pushed out of other institutions not designed to support her. However, I also witnessed how community colleges act as an enclosure for many, which brought me to UIUC under the advisement of Dr. Eboni Zamani-Gallaher and connected me to the Office of Community College Research and Leadership (OCCRL).

My focus on Black parenting students came from my experience as a parenting student during the pandemic. Before becoming pregnant, I had some inkling of the difficulty of that journey. Still, I was not prepared for what I faced: extreme morning (really all day) sickness and exhaustion in the first trimester, violation of my Title IX rights during my pregnancy, and the literal panic I felt each sleepless night after my child was born, knowing I had doctoral milestones to complete, but unsure where the energy would come to finish them. I had a supportive community in my family, my advisor, colleagues, a close circle of friends (parents and non-parents alike), and a regular support group. Still, I struggled to find my bearings in those early months of motherhood, often called the fourth trimester. I vividly recall one night holding my little one (who seemed only to sleep if held), trying to plan the upcoming semester using the calendar on my phone. “How does anyone do this?” I wondered.

On the heels of multiple news reports of state-sanctioned violence against Black people, I pondered the realities of raising a Black child in this country. “How are others like me, Black parents pursuing degrees, making heads or tails of this situation?” It was this question that shifted my research energies. I realized that Black parenting students are concentrated at community colleges. Knowing that Black parenting students make up a third of the undergraduate student parents, additional questions bubbled for me:

● What does this mean for how they are supported?

● How are their identities as parents and students engaged or not?

● What happens when we incorporate the reality of anti-Blackness and its presence in what is supposed to be the most accessible of educational institutions?

I recognized my complicity as part of an inflexible system because I could not imagine what it means to hold that dual identity and how this is complicated by racialized and gendered experiences and influenced by socioeconomic status. I once turned away a parent from in-person orientation because of the rule that children could not be on campus. Though I was “just doing my job,” I can only imagine how even that small interaction could have derailed her motivation to continue the journey. It can take many resources and much courage for a student parent to return to or attend college for the first time, especially if they encounter basic needs insecurity. Indeed, parenting students at community colleges typically have several structural barriers impeding their ability to pursue higher education.

My personal experiences motivated me to join the work to make institutions of higher education more accessible, flexible, and welcoming places for parenting students to show up as their whole selves.

New America: What resources, supports, or programs have helped support you as a student parent, and which do you wish were available?

Nina Owolabi: While applying to doctoral programs, it became clear that resources or programs for parenting students rarely existed. One institution boasted a parenting group web page initiated and facilitated by students, but without institutionalized support and only relying on student participation, the group quickly folded. Faculty and staff often referred me to other parents in the program, who admitted that they relied on their communities for support. Some student parents waited until their children were older or in school before pursuing the degree. They were all tentative masters of their schedules, but that was because of a delicate balance that could be easily disrupted by their child’s illness, childcare unexpectedly falling through, or any number of life circumstances. My experience was no different.

Next to my husband and family (from afar), some of my biggest supporters have been my advisor, the team at OCCRL, local friends, and individual professors who understood the struggle and complications of being a new mama during the pandemic. These personal relationships, while notable, have their limits. These connections could not protect my schedule from going haywire when my son had a high fever or a babysitter had to cancel. Any support I received also relied on individual faculty members who could easily choose to be inflexible, which happened at one point during my pregnancy.

Being a parenting student can also be isolating, especially for those of us with younger children, as we are not always able to participate in community-building activities on campus. I wish that finding and implementing institutional support wasn’t solely the responsibility of students. Parenting students have a full plate as it is. By requiring student parents to formulate a specialized group versus institutionalizing the support through specific funds, advisement, community-building, and advocacy, the institution is not demonstrating its steadfast support of student parents. I am glad to see organizations such as Generation Hope doing the critical groundwork to support institutions in their efforts to be more family-friendly and -conscious, with an emphasis on racial justice.

New America: How can policymakers better support student parents?

Nina Owolabi: Policymakers must consider the holistic needs of student parents and their families at all levels. There is a need to emphasize anti-racist policy and racial justice work. This is paramount in a political climate that attacks diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts nationally. Black parents, in particular, regularly experience the tangible and intangible effects of racism in their own lives and through their children’s eyes, which has only heightened in the wake of the pandemic. With the highest concentration of student parents identifying as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), it is clear that student parent work must center racial justice work.

Federally, the expansion and management of the Child Care Access Means Parents in Schools (CCAMPIS) program is at a critical juncture. President Biden recently enacted an executive order that calls for greater compensation for early childhood care workers and more support for workforce training. It also encourages institutions to increase CCAMPIS awards to eligible students, among other supportive actions. Part of expanding CCAMPIS also means investing in early childhood development broadly. Affordable, quality child care not only supports parents being able to attend school, but it is a critical stepping stone for the development of the next generation. While it is exciting to see the administration elevate this issue, much work still needs to be done to ensure that these efforts are effectively implemented, evaluated, and not undermined by political infighting. Historically, CCAMPIS programs have not been widely publicized to the populations who would benefit.

The COVID-19 pandemic unearthed specific challenges parenting students experience, including basic needs insecurity. Yet, legislators scaled back many pandemic program adjustments, like SNAP emergency allotments, despite rising food costs and few states offering a living wage. Broadly, 60 percent of parenting students experience some form of needs insecurity. However, in a Hope Center Study, nearly 90 percent of single, Black, and Latinx student parents experienced basic needs insecurity. Healthy families need access to stable housing, food, clothing, child care, and mental health services, among other items critical to their well-being.

On a micro-level, institutions should examine academic practices that are inflexible and disadvantage parenting students who are limited in terms of time and resources. Institutions can creatively engage their parenting student populations in non exploitative ways.

New America: In celebration of student parent month, what is one thing you'd like others to know about advancing equity for student parents?

Nina Owolabi: There are so many important actions to be taken to continue advancing equity for student parents. One of the most crucial that more and more advocates are centering is the role of data collection. Institutions still have little idea of what their student population looks like, and systematized ways of collecting that information across multiple identity markers is an important initial step in better supporting their student parents.

The reality is that student parents are not a monolith. We have many different experiences, yet those are not always captured by research, literature, or mainstream media. Parenting students must be part of larger policy discussions and included as a special population at institutions. This means considering the intersectionality of race, gender, disability, and socioeconomic status, among other identity markers, and how this might impact the experience of being a parenting student. However, the work to advance equity for student parents does not stop at data collection. Pursuing equity for parenting students means also investigating how racial equity is elevated in all policy and educational spaces.

Finally, we must challenge false narratives about parenting students, particularly those who identify as Black Americans. Black parenthood has been and continues to be undermined, evidenced by the sociopolitical history of the transatlantic slave trade and by recent events. Narratives that center the tired tropes of the “welfare queen” or “absentee father” or depict Black parents as “unfit,” among others, continue to influence research, media portrayal, and available resources for Black student parents. It is critical to address these mischaracterizations directly if we desire to advance equity for all student parents.

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Related Topics
Student Parents Higher Education Access and Affordability