Last week we had our last Doctoral Discussion about the experiences of PhD students who have children here at Sussex. About 20 parents got together and shared their experiences and tried to find ways to improve our chances at actually making the most of our PhDs and to get some awfully needed support from each other and the university.
One of the main things we achieved was to agree o put together a mailing list. There are around 30 people included in that mailing list now, but you can always join. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org until the end of this month if you want to be included.
We discussed issues related to time management, mental health, financial issues, childcare problems, training difficulties, ideas for organising ourselves.
Joanna Wood, from the Equality and Diversity Committee at the School of Global Studies was our guest speaker and she shared her first experience with the group of student-parents seeking her support. In February this year, Jo was approached by 3 mothers from the School of Global Studies and a father from the School of Media to discuss issues relating the needs student parents have at Sussex. Jo went in head first into the issue and found many more walls than she expected: simple issues like sorting out some hazardous furniture in the family room became a mighty bureaucratic task that to this day (4 months later) still proves to be a challenge. Jo has managed to get the family room back on the cleaning rota, which has made a big difference. She has also managed to raise awareness within the School of Global Studies about the presence and needs of students parents, lobbying for them to be treated as “a priority rather than a minority” .
Lorena, a last year PhD student in Migration Studies was one of our PhD speakers and she shared her experiences of becoming a mother after starting her PhD. The lack of support she found at University surprised her, since she had been hearing all the time about the importance of equality (especially gender equality) within the institution. As if the emotional and financial challenges of becoming a parent were not big enough, she had to face the even more isolating experience of doing a PhD while being a parent. Lorena had to build her own network with other student parents on campus. She then talked about the importance that those networks have had for her and she confesses that after a year and a half of seeking institutional support (of any sort) she just simply doesn’t have the time to deal fight that fight anymore, she has a PhD to finish and kid to take care of, the bureaucratic maze that needs to be navigated to get things done is simply too time-consuming. Lorena raised some very interesting (although sad) issues about the reality of gender equality in academia and about the problem of gender roles in general, that often is directly related to the emotional and financial burden of having kids while trying to build a career within a world that turns its back on that reality.
Finally, Bea a first year PhD Student in Media and Migration Studies shared her experiences. She already had a kid when she started her PhD and she chose Sussex for its apparently very family friendly atmosphere. She then arrived to Sussex to find a different reality. Her expectations of being able to thrive in her studies while having a kid crashed with reality. She found herself not being able to attend the workshops she wanted to attend, not being able to make use of some of the advertised infrastructures for parent and to juggle issues related to finding accommodation in the private sector in Brighton as a student-parent coming from abroad, to work in order to be able to meet the financial challenges of having a family and studying, to attend her modules, to find affordable childcare and to have the head to study once all those things were dealt with.
These experiences and perspectives set the tone of a meeting that needed to be more than sharing our anxieties (which was already a great thing to have!), simple because we don’t have the time to sit and wait. We want to organise and get things moving, so that we can actually help ourselves in the present and maybe, those to come in the future. So here is what we came up with:
1. Mailing List
Everyone who signed up for the event (and many who couldn’t attend) agreed to be included in a mailing list that will facilitate communication with each other. This way, some small networks that are already functioning can come together and we can organise to give each other support, share events that are family friendly, organise study groups and sessions, etc. If you want to be part of this mailing list, please write an email to email@example.com until the end of the month. After that I won’t be a Hive Scholar anymore and won’t be able to guarantee that you are included.
This mailing list should at some point become self-sustained, so that everyone involved will be responsible for keeping it alive, sending messages and keeping it active.
2. Facebook page or similar
Since the mailing list is useful for some things and maybe not so efficient for others, the idea came up to create a platform where everyone could post ideas and events. I have created a Facebook Group as a test to see how it works, please join here. This will also be shared with the mailing list members. The idea of creating a blog arose as well, if this is something we can organise among each other it would be great. But maybe we need to get our networks going first.
3. Event to raise awareness: Flash mob or Exhibition
A first step to actually get any kind of support is to tell people we exist. This is why we thought up of an event to raise awareness about student-parents at Sussex. Ideas of organising a photographic exhibition with students from media or art, as well as organising a flash mob on campus came up. It sounds fun and useful, so let’s get to it!
4. Study direct
We need to be able to show that we have special needs, especially in terms of time and availability. For that reason, we thought that being able to say that we are student parents when we sign up for a module or workshop would be useful. That way, in the future, we could get some support in terms of childcare, audiovisual material, etc.
5. Networking/Co-operative initiatives
Everyone present was aware of the time and effort that getting official support takes. Many of us will finish our PhDs before we see things we ask for become a reality. This is all well and good, as long as somebody benefits from our efforts of course. However, we can’t just sit and wait. So everybody present said they would be happy to organise things with other parents, be it play sessions, study groups (where parents take turns to babysit and study), social events, support groups where parents can reach out to other parents for support to attend a meeting, a workshop, a module, etc. For that we need to get to know each other, know our families and start a community that will offer the much-needed support. The Facebook group, the mailing list, social events organised by the university, etc. can be our starting point. I make myself available to facilitate contacts and to share what I know, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org, so contact me if you want to be part of making this community a reality.
Student-parents share a lot of needs with other groups of this university: wheelchair/buggy accesses, alternative study/training material (e.g. podcasts, online workshops, advance planning to attend events, etc.) So we are happy to get together with other groups.
I honestly hope that our meeting was helpful for those who came and that it will be the beginning of a great community of families doing PhDs and parenting at Sussex. Like Lorena said, we are actually lucky to have a family! despite the challenges, and together we really can make the difference for each other!
Hope to see you soon!