Challenges that single mothers face in pursuing higher education can be helped by changing college policies, expert says.
By Maria Gardner
The opening ceremony for Women’s History Month March 1 in the auditorium of McAllister Fine Arts Center — a talk by an expert on single mothers in higher education — was a disappointment for some in the audience because of the low turnout.
In the 1,000-seat auditorium, the audience consisted of three American Sign Language interpreters and an interpreter observer; a UTSA student; an unidentified adjunct; two stage crew members; and sociology professor Lisa K. Zottarelli, organizer of the event.
The audience was so small, the auditorium crew set up a circle on stage and invited attendees to join the presenter.
“It’s sad to see that there is not a single administrator to listen to this important topic,” staff interpreter Julienne Lagunas Ponce, one of the three interpreters hired to cover the event, said.
Jillian M. Duquaine-Watson, senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Dallas, presented her research on the challenges single mothers face in pursuit of higher education.
For her book, “Mothering Alone in the Chilly Climate: Single Mothers pursuing Postsecondary Education,” she interviewed 68 single mothers at three campuses and found constraints in time; lack of affordable, accessible childcare; and financial constraints the common challenges among the participants.
Another obstacle that she found was campus cultures that stigmatized single mothers.
“Single mothers face a unique challenge because they face the stigma of being a single mother in a society that has very conservative views of what a family is supposed to look like,” Duquaine -Watson explained.
“Ideas of single mothers have not changed that much in the course of 200 years,” she said. “We have a discourse of single mothers in the United States that is not a very flattering one. Single mothers are still defined as marginals.”
She said stereotypes dominate the view of single women as lazy, sluts, and having lots of children so that they can receive benefits from government programs.
These negative views of single mothers manifest themselves in postsecondary institutions in what she calls a “chilly climate.”
This chilly climate, she described as demeaning comments from faculty, staff or students and actions and policies that whether intentional or not, do not fully acknowledge and take into consideration the experience of single mothers.
“ ‘Why aren’t you home with your kids?’
‘Why aren’t you married?’
‘You should have stayed married,’ she recalled the response that one of the participants received from a professor.
She recalled another single mother’s experience, Serena Chen, whose adviser said “It’s unacceptable to be a single mother.’” These and other comments and behaviors left Chen isolated and feeling rejected, Duquaine-Watson said.
“‘Faculty only saw me as a single mother all of the time,’ she recalled. ‘That is who I was to them and nothing more. I just wanted to be a parent and a student and not have that considered unusual,’” the presenter recalled Chen saying.
“These challenges impact their college experience and can even jeopardize their ability to complete their education,” she said. “With the ever growing need for higher education to step out of poverty, institution’s role in supporting single mothers is even more vital.”
She said, the PRWORA Act of 1996 — Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act — made significant cuts to welfare including funds supporting single mothers entering higher education.
“It really changed the opportunities for women to go to school,” she said.
Duquaine-Watson said she was in awe of the women she interviewed who were not receiving much support, and despite that, were still pursuing higher education.
There are ways colleges can acknowledge the presence of single mothers such as add to their excused absences attending to a sick child, she said.
“We will excuse students from class to dribble a basketball and kick a soccer ball and swim,” she said, “but for a mother having to take care of a sick child, there is nothing.”
Single mothers don’t want to be treated differently but acknowledged and included as a valued part in the campus community, she said.
“Like college students, for single moms, academics matter,” she said. “They want to get a degree. They see going to college as a link to a career path, to pursue a career or as a natural step in their lives. It also has to do with self worth and self-esteem and value in accomplishing something.
“What makes single mothers unique from other students is that they define their academic pursuits as part of their mothering work. They get a college degree to be good mothers,” she said.
Duquaine-Watson said there are plenty of examples from other colleges and universities that have implemented programming that supports single mothers like accessible, affordable child care on campus, family housing and scholarships to offset the cost of books.
She said the first step for anyone committed to improving the climate for single mothers on their campus is to listen.
“We have to close our mouths and actually listen to what they say,” Duquaine-Watson said. “What they are going to tell us is going to be hard for us to hear, but we owe to all of our students to listen to what they have to say.”