The quiet morning air is pierced by the sound of a pounding bassline coming from the apartment above Ashley Beatty-Smith’s. It’s fall 2012, and the party going on upstairs is causing the walls to shake. She rolls over and glares at the alarm clock that reads 5 a.m. She jumps out of bed at the familiar sound of her baby crying, but picking up newborn Ryleigh from the crib tucked in the bedroom corner does nothing to stop the baby’s screams. As the sounds of the party grows louder, so does her daughter’s crying.
For Beatty-Smith, who was a senior at Ohio University when she had Ryleigh with her now-husband Ian Smith, trying to take care of her child while other students celebrated Homecoming weekend was just one of many challenging experiences she faced as a student-parent. The Ohio University Women’s Center recognized that increased need for student-parent resources on campus and is continually working to provide support for students.
The Women’s Center, located on the fourth floor of Baker Center, offers services, programs and information specific to the concerns and needs of women at Ohio. Since taking over the Women’s Center in the fall of 2015, Director Geneva Murray has made it a priority for the center to not only be a resource for pregnant students and student-parents, but also the go-to place to get information about other support systems on campus.
The Women’s Center works with the Office for Equal Opportunities and Accessibilities to help students who are pregnant or parenting navigate the logistics of finishing their degrees. Murray says they advise students on issues ranging from classroom protocol for flexibly meeting course requirements to strategies for requesting support during the hiring process to questions about graduate stipends. The center also provides information on the Office of Equity and Civil Rights Compliance.
“The Office of Equity and Civil Rights Compliance … makes sure that there is no kind of discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy or recovery from any of those conditions,” Murray says.
Murray has also been working with an unofficial committee to increase the number of lactation rooms on campus for faculty, staff and students. With the addition of a new lactation room in the soon-to-be-reopened McCracken Hall, there will still only be three rooms available on campus. Murray says the university has been overwhelmingly supportive of the committee’s efforts to identify new spaces for lactation rooms in central campus locations.
During the summer of 2016, Murray created a child-friendly play station in the Women’s Center. The space is filled with toys and books to keep children entertained while their parent studies in the lounge, meets with staff members or uses any of the Women’s Center’s resources. Although it isn’t a childcare facility, it’s an additional short-term care option for student-parents.
But when Beatty-Smith was pregnant, play stations didn’t exist on campus. Although she visited the Women’s Center regularly to talk with staff members for moral support, along with Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Jenny Hall Jones and the former vice president for Student Affairs, Ryan Lombardi, she often felt alienated from other students. That is, until Beatty-Smith came across a tweet from the OU Confessions Twitter account in which a male student said he was going to be a father. She replied to the tweet and told the to-be father, Ethan Durham, to message her, and they bonded over the joys and struggles of parenting. Together, they formed PrOUd Parents, a student organization that served as a support network for student-parents.
Although the organization disbanded after Beatty-Smith graduated, she says meeting biweekly with a group of student-parents and their children created a solid support system for discussing and helping each other through different challenges.
The cultural differences between peers and nontraditional students can be devastating, especially when the pressures of social conformity influence many decisions regarding pregnancy. That’s why the Women’s Center has begun working with Abortion Recovery, a branch of Pregnancy Decision Health Centers (PDHC) in Columbus, to create post-abortion support groups on Ohio University’s campus.
“I have talked extensively with that group in terms of how they go about having discussions with students and making sure that we are not reproducing a cycle of shame, but really focusing on what we can do to help students who are struggling with post-abortion recovery,” Murray says.
Pegi Deeter, the director of Abortion Recovery Services at PDHC, says some women feel they have nowhere to go to share their grief.
“This complicated grief has never been processed in a healthy way … and more and more young women are self-aware of the need to be healthy,” she says.
Looking back at the progress that the Women’s Center has made, it might seem marginal because the population of students who have children as undergraduates remains undocumented and, for the most part, silent. But there are resources and growth to look forward to in the future.
The university in general has been very supportive of the work that the Women’s Center has started, but Murray says, “In terms of other resources, we are trying to figure out kind of where the gaps are and what we can do to try to assist.”
“It’s an invisible population,” Beatty-Smith says, “because a lot of people hide the fact that they are expecting or that they are a parent for fear of being ostracized.”
Even though there are so many gaps to be filled and steps to be taken toward equal opportunity, there is still hope. Beatty-Smith urges students to cling to that hope.
“It can feel really challenging, but there are people who care. Your faculty members do care, your dean of students’ office cares, the Women’s Center cares, and it’s really important to keep going,” she says. “I think the worst thing you can do is suffer in silence and not ask for help.”