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Higher education leader Sheila Caldwell on helping student parents graduate college

As the inaugural vice president for antiracism, diversity, equity and inclusion at Southern Illinois University (SIU), Sheila Caldwell works to ensure that all policy, structures, and systems across the university system are equitable. That means overseeing diversity and equity programs and non-discrimination policies for 7,000 employees and 23,500 students, ensuring all aspects of the SIU experience are designed for students, faculty, and staff to thrive. Previously, she served as the inaugural Chief Intercultural Engagement Officer at Wheaton College, in Illinois, and an advisor to the president on diversity at the University of North Georgia.

She spoke with Carefully about how colleges and universities can better support students raising children.

CAREFULLY: At Southern Illinois University, how many students are also parents? What's college like for them?

About 15% of our students are parents, and the truth is they do not have the childcare services they need. Parents who are students need reliable and affordable childcare services, and the same goes for students whose parents rely on them as childcare providers for younger siblings.

Most parents want their kids to have a level playing field, but they don’t always have access to the same level. When you come in already behind—with vocabulary and other skill sets—it’s difficult to catch up. That’s why you see educational and institutional equity gaps starting at an early age.

Big picture, what is at stake when students who are also parents don’t get all the support they need in college?

Not having childcare is a barrier. More than 4 million parents in our U.S. education system have these multiple roles as students and parents. When we talk about global competitiveness and not being able to complete college, we can’t afford to lose one person. So if we can disrupt those harmful cycles early on, a student will be more prepared to engage in high quality education. If we’re not engaging in fixing childcare, we’re not engaged in solving the workforce or education problem.

What about students caring for much younger siblings? What challenges do they face?

Sheila Caldwell. Photo by Sheila Caldwell.

Students who are not parents, but are functioning as childcare providers for siblings, need time to study. They need time to build community on campus and fortify relationships with peers. College is one of the first times they're away from parents, and identity formation is important. When you remove students from that environment—when they’re going home on weeknights or weekends—they miss out on developing, advancing, and engaging in the education process.

We know they are often being required to do this by parents who are invested in them going to college. But it really disrupts what we’re trying to achieve from a holistic perspective at the college level. It’s not just what’s going on in the classroom, but also outside the classroom, in the evenings, and on the weekend, to prepare them for the workforce, graduate school, and the global world.

How do you approach solutions at SIU?

Carefully is a solution. We are officially launching a pilot with Carefully this fall to provide a flexible and affordable childcare resource to help strengthen faculty, staff, and students. Parents might need students to provide care for three to four years, and that’s what Carefully can help them with: To engage trusted community members for childcare, so the student can dedicate themselves fully to their studies and engage in the college environment.

We also know that, post-pandemic, a lot of childcare centers have closed. We have high quality childcare centers at SIU, and by their own admission, they have significant waiting lists. Even though we provide quality childcare, we can't serve all the students in need, because there are childcare deserts in our community.

I imagine that affects professors raising young kids as well?

We need to serve them better! Faculty with young children who cannot access care are more likely to leave the field. Faculty don’t typically have a 40-hour workweek in the classroom. They also have service and research requirements outside the classroom. Additionally, they need flexibility to do research or grade papers at home. Like a student, they might be on campus 20 hours a week, and they’re still working to be productive from home.This is another compelling reason to offer affordable childcare by engaging with trusted adults in the community who can ensure the safety and well-being of children.

“When you educate a mom, you educate a society."

What do families do when they’re waitlisted for childcare at SIU?

Probably connect with other parents and do bartering agreements. We need to do background checks and make sure the safety piece is there. We have some of that going on, but it’s not as organized and structured or safe as it should be, and we’re working on that.

For some students, not having childcare probably means they’re not coming to class that day. Some might choose to go fully online.

How can a college or university be part of the solution?

We need to take an integrative approach. We talk about wanting the next generation to have a bright future, but when they’re young, we don’t invest in them. How are we expecting all these great humans to be the next era of society, but we ignore them when they’re young?

Often there’s a culture of shame around asking for help. We need to normalize it. Say, ‘Hey, you’re having this issue.’ When we remove barriers, we want to be proactive about offering help. There are a lot of models. For example, soon we’ll offer the Carefully app as an option to students. And we have our childcare centers on campus and in the community.

“If you want the kid to be successful, you have to invest in the mom. And if you want the mom to be successful, you have to invest in the kid.”

We also need organizations for after hours. Often it’s very difficult to find childcare after 6:00 pm, and some people work or go to school at night. What would it look like to open an after-hours childcare center on site? We have the space available; it’s about hiring and paying people. Then serving students taking night classes, and opening it up to community members and faculty members, or students who want to study and bring their siblings rather than miss out on study or social time. I don’t know many colleges that have evening daycare centers. We have so many students who need those services.

What other solutions should colleges and universities consider?

We need to stop looking at kids as burdens. They’re humans. Globally, what does it look like to change our policies in higher ed? If you’re operating from a place of truth and you have students in your class who are parents, and maybe they don’t have the money for daycare, can they bring their kid to class? They’re not necessarily disruptive. Often parents are considerate and mindful. It’s time for us to stop looking at students who care for children as separate and instead look at the family and think, ‘How can we serve the family?’

When you educate a mom, you educate a society. If you want the kid to be successful, you have to invest in the mom, and if you want the mom to be successful, you have to invest in the kid.

College has a timeline. Some students may take four or six years to graduate. When they get through that process, they’ll be so much better off, as will their families and their kids, so why would we not want to invest short term for something that will reap benefits for generations? You’re talking about legacy building, and it starts with quality childcare.


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