Official university policy states, “As a Catholic University, Notre Dame is committed to fostering a family-friendly environment for its graduate students, one that makes it possible for those students to balance successfully their parenting responsibilities and their academic pursuits.”
But is the University living up to its mission? When it came to how well Notre Dame is assisting its graduate students, members of the Notre Dame community claim a range of perspectives. I spent time in conversation over the past few weeks with both graduate students and administrators who support them, in order to better understand the challenges facing graduate students.
One of the biggest problems that graduate students face is insurance. Insuring dependents is tremendously expensive under Notre Dame insurance, so the majority of married graduate students have spouses and children enrolled in Medicaid. This is a workable solution for many students, but problems persist for others. For example, the pregnancy coverage provided by Medicaid only covers pregnancy-related health concerns. So, if a pregnant woman on Medicaid were to have some other health issue while on this coverage, she would be forced to pay all of those expenses out of pocket.
Another tough issue for graduate students with children is childcare. If both spouses are in graduate school, then childcare becomes an issue, especially for children under the age of two. The Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC) on campus provides childcare starting at the age of two, and its sliding tuition scale makes it a generally affordable option. For those who have a child under the age of two, however, childcare is more difficult. Infant care tends to be both costly and difficult to find.
Likewise, my conversations revealed that resources for married students with families seemed scarce. Notre Dame does provide some great resources and opportunities for this segment of the population, but no consolidated list of these resources exists. One of the students I interviewed mentioned that many of the links on a website about family life on campus were broken. Curiously, there is a similar problem with resources for pregnant undergraduate students. Although Notre Dame is fully committed to supporting all those who choose life, this commitment is not always communicated.
The most promising testimonies I heard revealed that Notre Dame’s culture tends to be very supportive of those who choose to parent as graduate students. In particular, the community at University Village is regarded as an environment where those students thrive and are able to come together to support one another. But even those students who live off-campus related that their peers are generally receptive towards news of a pregnancy. Although pregnancy is certainly viewed as a challenge, many of the graduate students found that their professors and peers usually tend to view it as a blessing, instead of a hindrance. I believe that this culture stems, in part, from the Catholic character of the university; in the future, administrative changes could be possible to align more with campus culture.
Through conversations, a few initial ideas of how to address the needs of the graduate student population were raised. One, which would be fairly easy to implement, would be to create a network of undergraduate students who would be willing to babysit for graduate students. Undergraduates rarely get the opportunity to see children, and many undergraduates would jump at the chance to babysit. By creating such a childcare system, both the undergraduates and the graduate students can benefit. This setup also increases the interactions between the two groups and creates an environment in which these interactions becomes more commonplace. Right to Life’s Parenthood Commission is exploring ways to implement such a program.
On the administrative level, looking into changes in the insurance policy would be a worthwhile venture. Because the University is self-insured, tweaking the relevant policies to make them more affordable for graduate students’ dependents must be possible.
Likewise, the administration should look into funding for parenting students. With the Pregnant and Parenting Assistance Fund no longer actively seeking donations, researching how to best assist financially those students is a worthwhile endeavor. The Right to Life club would be very interested in assisting those students in any way possible, whether through fundraisers on campus or reaching out to potential donors. But there would have to be some mechanism in place to disperse the funds.
Another aspect of funding that should be considered is how the graduate student funding is dispersed. Those students who are parenting should be able to extend their funding past the typical limits. It seems unreasonable to assume that a parenting graduate student will be able to finish a degree in the same amount of time as a non-parenting graduate student.
Our Catholic mission calls the university to do more to than we are to support these graduate students. We must be able to say that we are truly living out our Catholic mission to the fullest, and I believe that at this time, there is much room for growth.
Erin Stoyell-Mulholland is a junior theology major who receives approximately 32 emails from Michael Bradley every day. If you share a similar plight and would like to participate in a plan to flood Mike’s inbox, email Erin at firstname.lastname@example.org.