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Student-parents juggle home life with kids, busy class schedules

DAVID HARDEN/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Student-parent Colleen Keefe sits at the dinner table with her daughter Kiley. Keefe says she doesn't usually go to bed until at least 11 p.m.
By Tessa Hill
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday February 11, 2003

Nearly two decades ago, Colleen Keefe sat in class in the Franklin building, staring at her typewriter and daydreaming about the upcoming weekend.

Now, 18 years later, Keefe sits in the same classroom and stares at her computer screen, wondering about her three children and the tasks she must complete for the day.

Keefe, a 37-year-old journalism junior, attended UA from 1982 through 1985, but left as an undergraduate when she became sidetracked by a promising job opportunity. She returned 15 years later with a family of her own, a new perspective on college and a whole new set of hardships.

Almost 10 percent of UA undergraduates are over the age of 28, according to the 2002-2003 UA Fact Book, and many of these students are student-parents like Keefe.

"My schedule never stays the same for any given day," said Keefe, who, as a single parent, juggles schoolwork, daycare for her 2-year-old, and after school activities for her 9- and 6-year-olds on a daily basis.

Keefe said the key to prioritizing family time with study time is to set aside a few hours after dinner for everyone in the family to do their homework.

"I want to teach them by example that it's important to set priorities and get their work done," she said.

The problem most student-parents have is realizing there are only so many hours in a day and not everything can be done everyday, said Gary Mahon, director of Executive Education.

"It's difficult because, generally, children of single parent-students have nowhere else to turn, so it is important for the parent to prioritize appropriately," said Mahon.

Although Keefe said most of her professors are sympathetic toward her struggles, her biggest concern is the often-changing absence policies.

"When the Spanish department changed their absence policy from five days to only three days, that was a huge burden," she said.

"I'm forced to sacrifice my sick days for those of my children," Keefe said. She added that last semester was particularly difficult because she was forced to take leave to help her son who suffers from Tourette's Syndrome.

"It's just a matter of managing my time and being organized while keeping my children my number one priority," she said.

Graduate student-parents also feel many of the same pressures and time-management difficulties that Keefe does.

Kat Sabine, 31, a women's studies graduate student, already has an 8-year-old son and is expecting her second child in April. Her husband is in the top 10 percent of his class at the James E. Rogers College of Law.

"I started at the beginning of the semester doing the homework that will be due around the time I'm expected to deliver," Sabine said, and added that although she informed her professors of her pregnancy, she really doesn't know how the semester will end.

In addition to her studies, family and pregnancy, Sabine also works as a teaching assistant.

"I basically get up really early and stay up really late, usually falling asleep reading," Sabine said.

Sabine finds it particularly difficult to balance childcare because her husband is also a full-time student.

"Several times a day my husband and I have to renegotiate our schedules to juggle our personal responsibilities as well as our responsibilities to our child."

Like Keefe, Sabine said her family sets aside time after dinner for everyone to study. However, unlike Keefe, Sabine said she finds professors aren't understanding at times, particularly with her husband.

"It's frustrating for my husband because some of his professors think fathers don't share equal childcare," Sabine said.

Both Keefe and Sabine said they often have to turn down involvement in extra-curricular activities because of their demanding schedules.

If Sabine could find the time, she said she would like to start an organization for student-parents to share concerns about childcare, time-management difficulties and how to maximize family time while in school.

"It's hard to be involved," said Keefe, who also finds it difficult to get involved in extra-curricular activities because meeting times often conflict with dinnertime for her family.

"You're not in the loop as a student-parent, so you don't have the connection other students have to the university."

However, both Keefe and Sabine realize that becoming more involved would increase the stress of their already packed schedules.

Mahon, who also organizes time-management classes, said rather than worrying about doing everything they want to do, student-parents should do what they can and be satisfied with that.

"It's important to have free time for friends and hobbies, and with student-parents this time is usually spent with their children," Mahon said.

Setting aside some time every day to plan and organize the day is most beneficial to balance schoolwork, children and personal relationships, he added.

Although the time-management classes Mahon oversees are currently only for business executives in the Eller College of Business and Public Administration, he hopes that if enough interest is expressed, they can offer a class catered to student-parents.

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