At the age of 18, I welcomed a beautiful baby boy into the world and became a single parent. During that time, I was still learning, growing and healing, not yet aware of how mental health and the stigma of being a single mother would impact my overall well-being and future.
I wanted to make a better life for me and my son, so I eventually enrolled in college.
There are many like me on college campuses — more than one in five undergraduate students are parents. Although we number nearly four million undergraduates, we are often ignored or made to feel unwelcome on campus.
Student parents like me face unique stressors, particularly around time and money, that many students without children don’t feel as acutely. As a result, nearly four in 10 student parents have said they recently considered dropping out.
As colleges and universities prepare for a new school year amid the ongoing pandemic, some are rightly concerned about the mental health of their students. In order to meet the full needs of their student bodies, institutions of higher education must prioritize the unique needs of students with children.
Student parents like me face unique stressors, particularly around time and money, that many students without children don’t feel as acutely.
Growing up, I witnessed domestic violence and then experienced forms of abuse firsthand as a young adult. It wasn’t until I worked at Colorado’s health department that I developed a different understanding of mental well-being and acknowledged my own past traumas. Through self-reflection, I realized that I was living with unprocessed emotions that I masked in order to cope and survive. It was hard for me to admit that I was sad and depressed, but I decided to seek support and take antidepressants to improve my mental health. I needed to focus on myself in order to lead my family to better outcomes.
As you can imagine, being a single parent, working full-time, studying in school for a postsecondary degree and being involved in the community, I stayed busy. I balanced multiple projects, deadlines and thoughts at once. I kept my commitments to my son and school, with routines and schedules that kept me organized.
For the most part, I did just fine — my family’s basic needs were met, and our living situation, work and finances were fairly stable. But I was still feeling sad and found it extremely difficult to reconcile my depression and anxiety with the fact that we were living comfortably and no longer struggling to make ends meet. I had dealt with extreme levels of stress for years and faced more challenging hardships than balancing school, work and parenthood. I felt guilty for my feelings — it felt like I should have been happier to not be struggling when nearly nine in 10 single student mothers live in or near poverty.
And then Covid-19 arrived. I was not prepared for the mental health challenges I faced during the pandemic. When I found myself in my apartment alone with all my thoughts and deadlines, I buckled. At first, I felt guilt and shame for feeling anxious and depressed. I sought virtual therapy sessions, but finding a space to talk to my therapist became a challenge when Leo, my 10-year-old son, would come into my room asking why I was crying.
Single mothers have to extend ourselves to impossible lengths to make ends meet, and even then, society looks down on us as prime examples of what not to do.
Colleges have a role to play in helping to alleviate some of the difficult mental burdens we face. The first step is acknowledging that we exist. Very few colleges track the parenting status of their students, let alone information about our outcomes or what could support our success.
A second step is to train faculty, staff and counselors on the unique needs of student parents. Doing so would help create the community of support we need to thrive in school. In a recent report, 40 percent of student parents surveyed indicated that they felt isolated within their postsecondary journeys. More colleges should create family-friendly spaces and include us in campus orientation materials, making us feel more visible and welcome.
It’s amazing the difference it can make knowing that your school cares about your success. I’m proud to say that I recently finished my associate degree with Southern New Hampshire University in partnership with AdvanceEDU. Former teachers, co-workers and my AdvanceEDU student success coach helped me feel comfortable in sharing my mental health journey. They have been sources of support for me.
I’m committed to ensuring that other student parents get the support they need to thrive. Being strong doesn’t shield you from depression and other mental health challenges. I use my strength to admit when I’m struggling, to seek help and to share what I’ve learned. That is what I have always done with my many experiences as a single and former teen mother. Although my network of support has shifted throughout my educational journey, the constant factor I’ve experienced is having people who encourage me to show up as my authentic, multifaceted self.
For student parents, the campus community is a huge factor in our mental health and academic success. Colleges have a key role to play in ensuring that their student parents get the supports they need to thrive.
Lesley Del Rio graduated in May 2021 with an associate degree from AdvanceEDU, an online platform in partnership with Southern New Hampshire University and other competency-based programs. She is a parent advisor for Ascend at the Aspen Institute’s Postsecondary Success for Parents Initiative.
This story about student parents was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.