Three years ago, Karolina Szymanski was working, studying part time at U of T and caring for her father, who had terminal cancer. She was also pregnant. The morning after her father’s funeral, she went into labour. Szymanski, now 26 and in her fourth year, balances a work-study position and a full course load while raising her nearly three-year-old son. Szymanski’s story may be dramatic, but as a student caregiver, she is far from unique.
“There is a general perception that the typical undergraduate doesn’t have family responsibilities, which is not true,” says Magdalena Rydzy, interim manager of U of T’s Family Care Office, which advises and advocates for caregivers on campus.
According to the National Survey of Student Engagement, 45 per cent of first- and fourth-year U of T students spend time each week caring for a dependent – a significantly higher proportion than at other Canadian universities. Some students, like Szymanski, are parents, while others look after siblings, sick or aging family members or disabled loved ones.
Some are mature students. Lindsay Foster, a 42-year-old single mother of five, wakes up at 5 a.m. instead of 6:30 on days when she really needs to get work done. “I dropped out of school in Grade 9. I was a drug addict for about 15 years, and was married to a biker,” she says. After leaving her husband, Foster entered treatment, high school and finally the Transitional Year Programme at U of T. She is graduating this spring, and hopes to go on to earn a master’s degree in social work.
Foster’s kids range in age from 11 to 20. The four that live at home attend three different schools. Some mornings, Foster makes two trips in her van before walking her youngest daughter to school. Then she hops on a bus for a 45-minute trip to campus. Driving is just too expensive.
The commute is a common stressor for student caregivers. U of T operates Student Family Housing, a 713-unit development east of campus. “If there was affordable housing close to campus, my life would be radically different in terms of having more time with my kids,” says Foster.
When her children were younger, Foster was able to depend on her mother to babysit. Other parents are not so lucky. Szymanski put her son on the waiting list for U of T daycare before he was born. It took about 17 months to secure a space. It also took 14 months to line up a childcare subsidy. “Most of our full-time students qualify for childcare subsidies, but if there is no space [in local daycares], they can’t really access that resource,” says Rydzy. There is a year-long wait to obtain a spot in on-campus daycare.
Daycare subsidies and grants are often restricted to full-time undergrads.The Family Care Office provided Szymanski with options, including full-time student status. “Without them, I would not have done it, and I would have been in a difficult situation,” she says.
Francesca Dobbin, director of family programs and services, says U of T is aware of the challenges student parents face and does its best to meet their needs. “The university’s Family Care Office assists students and employees to explore all available childcare options both on campus and in the community,” she says. A new facility at U of T Mississauga, slated to open in 2009, will bring the total number of childcare spaces at the three campuses to 309, up from 230 in 2002.
Students hope support for family services will come from somewhere. “The fact that we can attend school, raise a child and work – that shows you how valuable an investment we are as people and as students,” says Szymanski.
This story is adapted from an article published in Varsity Magazine.
Note: The print edition of this article stated that there is a waiting list for Student Family Housing, but that was not the case in early 2009.