Student-Parents and Academic Libraries | Peer to Peer Review

At many of our institutions, student-parents—students with one or more dependent children—are a growing population. Research in higher education has long demonstrated that student-parents face a number of obstacles to completing degrees and participating in college experiences. Academic librarians, however, have done little work to study what student-parents uniquely need to succeed academically.

Rachel E. Scott and brannen varner composite head shots
Rachel E. Scott (l.) and brannen varner (r.)

At many colleges and universities, student-parents—students with one or more dependent children—are a growing population. Research in higher education has long demonstrated that student-parents face obstacles to completing degrees and participating in college experiences. Academic librarians, however, have done little work to study what student-parents uniquely need to succeed academically, though, several academic libraries now offer family-friendly study spaces. As mothers and former student-parents ourselves, we witnessed students express self-consciousness or evince discomfort when their children accompanied them in our library. We identified the need to ask—and listen to—currently enrolled students at the University of Memphis (UofM) about their research and library needs ("Exploring the Research and Library Needs of Student-Parents").

We applied for and were awarded an Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Academic Library Impact Research Grant for a project titled “Empowering Parenting Students to Succeed.” When the news came through that our project would be funded, we decided that we needed to begin the process of supporting student-parents by amplifying their voices and needs to a broad audience of academic librarians. Having never conducted focus groups ourselves, we worked with an institutional colleague who specializes in qualitative methodologies. As a mother and active member on a campus taskforce to make the UofM more family-friendly, she was committed to our shared purpose of amplifying the voices and experiences of UofM’s student-parents. We jointly wrote our research questions, which informed the prompts used during the focus groups: “What does it take for student-parents to complete their academic work? What campus research resources do student-parents need to be successful and which are missing? To what extent do student-parents feel that their children are welcome in the library? How can the library support student-parents’ success as both a parent and a student? What services/resources would encourage student-parents to visit/use the library?” A total of 18 student-parents participated in one of four focus groups and provided responses that ranged from hilarious to devastating, but were consistently raw and reflected the reality of being simultaneously pulled in many directions.

The focus group sessions were intended to target different audiences: graduate versus undergraduate students and parents of older versus younger children. As with any voluntary study, we were limited to those who expressed interest in participating. Although an email invitation was sent out to all current UofM students whose FAFSA filings indicate that they have dependent children, only those who identified as mothers responded and participated. Our first focus group included graduate student mothers, and the remaining groups included undergraduate student mothers; we were not able to differentiate focus groups by the age of child(ren) because of scheduling challenges.



When asked what it takes for student-parents to complete their academic work, participants commented on the need for their child to be safe, their desire to be a role model, an acknowledgment that “something gets neglected,” schedules planned down to the minute, the struggle to find reliable childcare, finances and the financial strain of being both student and parent, advantages and disadvantages of online learning, designated study spaces, work (whether paid or not), and distribution of labor among family members.

Participants found campus research resources to be limited and expressed concerns around the stigma they felt about being a student-parent on our campus. They suggested that employees, and especially instructors, need training to support their students’ dual role as student-parents. Participants in each focus group pointed out the inadequacy of childcare on campus. Many noted that the campus culture excludes them and does not celebrate student-parents as it does other categories of students, and some noted restrictive policies that prevent children from entering most spaces on campus.

Of great interest to librarians is the question of whether student-parents feel that their children are welcome in the library. Most indicated that the library feels off-limits and could not imagine that their children would be welcome. The primary request was for a designated space where children (and noise) were welcome, and a space that promoted an understanding that learning is fun. Participants were also asked to recommend library services that would support their success as both a parent and a student. Several participants were unaware of existing library services relevant to them, such as research consultations, instant messaging service, text-to-speech functionality in databases, video tutorials, and asynchronous learning guides.

When we asked what services and resources would encourage student-parents to use the library, we were surprised to hear that some students would be willing to pay for specialized services. Participants indicated a desire to socialize with their children in programs focusing on learning, and they suggested that the library collaborate broadly to offer relevant programming; however, their tight schedules made the timing an important consideration. We closed the study with a list of participant-generated recommendations that relate to library spaces, programming, and services (see "Exploring the Research and Library Needs of Student-Parents," Recommendations/Action Points).



The first surprise was the amazing and almost instant sense of community in the focus groups. Childcare was offered for the two evening sessions, and the experience of having their children invited to the library, and provided with snacks, toys, and space, was welcome to participants. But more than incentives, many participants commented on how refreshing, and even therapeutic, it was to be among a group of women who understood so well the challenges, frustrations, and achievements that are common experiences as student-parents. Participants exchanged phone numbers and left the focus group together, talking and laughing. The act of student-parents gathering together to share and build on commonalities alone was worth the effort of our research.

The second surprise came as the manuscript was edited and reviewed. These processes revealed what might be understood as a defensiveness on behalf of readers regarding the accommodations, support, and services that librarians and library administrators currently provide to student-parents. By providing a robust and organized summary of participants’ words, we offered readers a variety of opportunities and examples to enhance support, not a prescriptive list which could only be addressed in full. Student-parents deserve the engaged support of librarians, and we hope that librarians and library administrators will hear them out.

We created an infographic to convey our findings to library administration. We hope to act on some of these findings soon, and would love to see any implementations you enact!

Rachel E. Scott is an Associate Professor and the Interim Coordinator for Cataloging, Collection Management, and Library Information Systems at the University of Memphis. brannen varner decided to put her library career on pause while she raises her four-month-old daughter; she was previously the Community Relations Coordinator at the University of Memphis University Libraries.

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