Feminist Friday Guest Blogger: Scott Peska

When thinking about issues facing women, especially women college students I couldn’t settle on just one to discuss, so you get two!  The two topics that I would like to begin a blog dialogue about are the unique challenges facing female veteran college students and issues facing college students who are mothers.  

Female Veteran College Students

In my current position, I serve as the Director for the Military Student Services office at Northern Illinois University (NIU).  While I do not have prior background having served in the military I have done extensive research to understand this population that I serve.  One gap in the research that I found is the understanding the differences between male and female veterans as they transition to college.  The Department of Veteran Affairs reports that the largest group of female veterans (13%) served in the OEF/OIF/OND conflicts.

One can assume that the majority of veterans attending any particular institution are male.  This is certainly true at NIU, since approximately 25% of all veterans or military students are women.  Recently, women have shared that their experiences likely differ from that of men in the military and a wonderful book by Kore Press that captures some of the stories of women veterans is titled, “Powder.”  (http://www.korepress.org/PowderNews.htm). This is an engaging book that opened my eyes to struggles women in the military faced including rape, sexual harassment, challenges with competing identities, etc. 

As campuses across the country begin providing more student support services to help veterans transition to civilian and academic life, it is critical to also focus on the unique challenges that face our female student veterans.  The Department of Veteran Affairs suggests that approximately one out of five female service members experience, Military Sexual Trauma (MST), which by definition includes sexual harassment and sexual assault.  In addition, female veterans returning to civilian life may experience unique challenges as they reintegrate in regard to their identity.  A former female veteran student that was in one of my UNIV 201, “The Transfer University Experience” success courses, shared with me she was a soldier and now she needed to relearn how to be a civilian woman and meet or break societal expectations that friends, family, and classmates had of her.   

Traditional support services for veterans on many campuses are a student-run veterans club or group.  Since many of these are social in nature and give veterans an opportunity to be around other veterans that have shared similar experiences, they can be outstanding touch points for new student veterans integrating into the campus.  However, these clubs may not be able to fully meet the support needs of female veterans.  At NIU, focus group data was collected in spring 2010 and survey data collected in fall 2010 that provided empirical support that female veterans wanted to see a club or group for women.  Over 75% of the female veterans that responded to the survey felt it would be beneficial to have a female veteran group on campus.  Therefore, this fall Military Student Services at NIU is forming a women’s veteran group.  

Mothering College Students

The other issue I’d like to touch on in this blog is the challenges facing college students who are also mothers.  For the last seven years teaching UNIV 201 course at NIU, I always had at least one or two mothers in my class.  This is the first semester I actually have a student, who is a mother and is pregnant and will deliver her third child mid-semester…what an AMAZINGLY dedicated student!  Some of these women had adult children also in college, while the majority had young children that they were simultaneously providing direct care as part of a parenting team or as a single mother.   

In a course designed to help students succeed, the advice for a parent is much different than the traditional-aged community college transfer student. For example, getting involved in campus activities is likely less imperative to their success as a student, and may be extremely difficult.  Whereas, finding suitable daycare coverage and balancing work, family, and school responsibilities is of a much higher priority.  Some of the challenges expressed to me by these students were:

  • Difficulty prioritizing being a parent or being a student;
  • Making a connection with other college students;
  • Struggles with their identity as a mother or single mother and as a college student
  • Finding balance with work, parenting, and school responsibilities 
  • Confidence that they could do well, and fear of not setting a positive example for their students.

For many of the mothers that I taught, their children came first (as they should), which sometimes created conflict with other faculty members at the institution who were not gracious on deadlines or class attendance. Faculty development seminars need to be offered to help faculty understand the unique challenges these students face.  One particular student I remember talking with after class one day, shared how she struggled with getting to daycare after a class and needed to leave that class ten minutes early each day.   Her struggle with trying to be a good student was directly impacted by her need to be a good mother.

Another student I taught was a single mother taking care of two young boys and was turning her life around by overcoming a significant addiction challenge.  For her, attending college was an opportunity to serve as a positive role model to her children.  Her transition in the first semester was largely balancing the multiple responsibilities, and one solution she shared with me was that she studied with her kids as they were doing their assigned schoolwork. This was a means of balancing her competing priorities and serving as a positive role model to her kids. 

On a personal note, I am a parent of a three-year old and eight-month old.  I can attest that parenting changes nearly every facet of your life, regardless of gender.  However, for women returning to the classroom as mothers, I can only admire the strength and dedication they possess as they burn the metaphorical candle at both ends. An article I recently read by Kristin Wilson and Elizabeth Cox (2011) titled, “No Kids Allowed: Transforming Community Colleges to Support Mothering” substantiated and put in context the experiences I’ve had teaching student mothers. Their article builds on research that consistently found mothers struggle with finding balance and use the term “mothering student” to describe mothers who are attending college. One example they provide is a mother who described the balance of also being a college student as “hard,” and sees college as a way to positively role-model being a good student to her children.   Additionally, their study found that mothering students experienced difficulty connecting with traditional-age students who were not parents, and that mothering students have a desire to connect socially with other mothering students who can understand and relate to their experiences at the institution. 

Institutions of higher education can do more to help this specialized population of mothering students feel supported as they take on both roles as parent and college student.  For example, colleges and universities can make spaces available for mothering students to meet each other and to have space dedicated to allow their children to play while they study.  This could be day care centers, non-traditional student services, women resource centers, or perhaps a section of the student centers.  Faculty development seminars could also be offered to help faculty and staff understand the unique challenges facing mothering students.

With both female veteran college students and mothering college students there are plenty of opportunities for research and practices to be employed to better serve these unique populations of students. The sacrifices and perseverance demonstrated by these women is admirable.  The students who were veterans or mothers in my classes probably have taught me more about the strengths they needed to rely on to succeed at college than I taught them…and for that, I am thankful. 

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