‘Everything is just so clear to me now’: Students complete their degrees with their children in mind

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Every other Friday during the fall of her senior year, Micaela Clayton (senior) packed between 250–500 ounces of frozen breast milk, which she pumped over the last two-week period, into her car. She drove to Joe’s Ice in Pasadena, CA, where the employee, who began to recognize her face and her frequent purchase, knew to sell her dry ice. The dry ice kept the breast milk frozen for the six-hour drive ahead of her. She hit the I-210; she was on her way to Chandler, AZ, where Zion, her one-year-old son, lived.

Clayton was pregnant with Zion during the fall of her junior year. She lived in Newcomb Hall. Cayman Hunter (senior), an acquaintance, lived in the room across the hall. Coincidentally, Hunter was pregnant that same semester. They both said people at school often stared at them while they were pregnant.

“It was just nice that there was somebody else,” Hunter said. “Just because I feel like we’re at Oxy and people are open, but very closed at the same time … I definitely got stares and people would say things … So having somebody else was really nice and definitely, definitely brought us closer friendship-wise. I think our sons will be best friends.”

During the last four academic years at Occidental, there have been 1–2 students enrolled at Occidental College with a dependent, although it has not been the same student throughout all four years, according to Gina Becerril, director of financial aid. A student with a child can report having a dependent on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form if the child lives with them or receives more than half of their support from the student. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports in 2012, 26 percent of all undergraduate students are raising children and 71 percent of those student parents are women.

Clayton and Hunter shared similar stories about how peers, even ones they were not familiar with, would approach their friends and inappropriately inquire about their pregnancy. For example, they would question their ability to finance their child and ability to care for them. Clayton and Hunter both expressed shock at people’s concern around business that was not theirs.

“People would be like, ‘Why would you give up your life?’ I’m just like, ‘I’m definitely not,’” Hunter said. “I feel like outside people looking in really look at it like, ‘Why are Cayman and Mica giving up their life?’ And all this stuff. I’m just like, ‘I’m pretty sure we’re living pretty great.’”

Once during her pregnancy, Hunter witnessed two strangers in class texting about her on their laptop screens. She was surprised and upset that people she did not even know passed such harsh judgment. She learned to tune it out.

“People are going to think what they think and it doesn’t have anything to do with me,” Hunter said.

Now she notices when she is with her son Emery on campus, people will come up to her and acknowledge her baby and not her, including people she remembered giving her weird looks during her pregnancy. She finds this offputting.

Clayton said she was hanging out with her friend in his dorm room one day. As she sat there with her pregnant belly, the friend’s roommate told her he thought she would not be a good mom because he did not think anyone her age is mature enough or knows what they want in life yet. Clayton said she was certain what she wanted; she wanted to be a mother.

Micaela Clayton (senior) discusses how she balances being a student and a mother at Occidental College. Monday, April 15, 2019. Kathy Ou/The Occidental

Both Hunter and Clayton said their professors were extraordinarily understanding during and after their pregnancies in terms of accommodating to schedules and supporting them in finishing school. Before Clayton found out she was pregnant, she was already considering transferring to Arizona State University (ASU) because of cost and proximity to her home. After talking to her academic advisor, professor Marcella Raney of the kinesiology department, who convinced her to stay, Clayton decided against transferring. Professor Raney was the first person Clayton told at Occidental she was pregnant, and Raney was the first person who congratulated her.

“One thing [Raney] said to me was that, I was like, ‘Yeah, obviously this isn’t the best time,’ but then she was like, ‘Well, when you have a kid, there is no best time,’” Clayton said. “And that’s something that’s definitely stuck with me, especially with the career path that I’m on and what I’m planning to do. Obviously, there’s going to be a better time financially and things like that. But any time, you’re going to have to compromise something for having a child, which is a huge responsibility and a huge change in your life.”

After Clayton gave birth to Zion Tchilao Feb. 13, 2018, she took a leave of absence from school the spring semester of her junior year. The following summer, she took classes nearby at ASU. She breastfed during the hours at home and pumped milk during the day. ASU, like Occidental, does not have pumping rooms, but since she did not have a dorm room there, she pumped milk in the bathroom stalls. Clayton said she once stepped out of a science lab where she was working with cadavers, to pump milk in the restroom. A dramatic juxtaposition of tasks — from dissecting death to sustaining life. When she finished pumping, she returned to the cadavers — they were not going anywhere. Clayton followed all sanitary measures to ensure this was done safely.

When Clayton returned to Occidental Fall 2018, Zion stayed with her parents in Chandler, AZ. She said not being able to be with him takes an emotional toll, but finishing her education is what she needs to do right now. Her boyfriend, Don Tchilao, plays soccer for the LA Galaxy II team, so he is nearby for emotional support. Clayton and Zion FaceTime every day, and now he can recognize her face on the screen. She goes home every two weeks to see him and maximizes her time with him while she is there.

Micaela Clayton (senior) and her boyfriend Don Tchilao with their son, Zion Tchilao. Image courtesy of Micaela Clayton.

“It’s super hard, but when I’m here, I’m doing work and stuff. So it’s not like I’m just sitting here feeling sad for myself,” Clayton said. “I feel like I always have a purpose when I’m doing things and I think that helps alleviate the guilt of being away, or maybe sadness.”

Clayton adamantly wanted Zion to breastfeed for the first year of his life, or at least as long as possible. Living at Occidental in a Berkus tringle, 398 miles from him, required a highly regimented pumping schedule.

This past fall, she took four classes and spent six hours a week at a physical therapy internship at the Therapy Wellness Center. In between these commitments, Clayton pumped. She pumped breast milk six times a day, which took about 30 minutes per session. She only had three sets of pumping parts, and since the parts needed to be sterilized for each use, she had to sterilize the parts twice a day, which made it an hour-long process. Four hours of Clayton’s daily life was devoted to pumping milk, in addition to being a full-time student and an intern. Breast milk goes bad in 3–5 days, unless it is frozen, so she stored the milk in a separate freezer she bought. Every two weeks, Clayton drove home to see Zion and brought him the stores of milk, which she kept frozen during the drive with dry ice.

These bottles were precious to Clayton. The contents not only sustained the life of her child, but the process of breastfeeding was one of Clayton’s priorities in early motherhood, and it was not an easy one. Throughout Zion’s first year, Clayton developed mastitis four times, which is a painful inflammation of the breast tissue. Two times, the mastitis developed into a fever, which resulted in Clayton needing to take antibiotics. Clayton said the antibiotics then caused Zion to have terrible gastrointestinal issues.

The difficulty of breastfeeding prompted Clayton to go to a breastfeeding support group, which comforted her greatly and provided advice. She wants to start her own breastfeeding support group one day, later on in her career.

“That was the biggest thing that probably helped me within those first six months because it was just so helpful, so supportive,” Clayton said.

After seeing two doctors, a pediatric dentist finally determined Zion had a tongue tie, which meant the skin attaching his tongue to the bottom of his mouth was especially thick, making it difficult for him to latch on during breastfeeding. Once a doctor snipped the tie with a laser, the problem subsided.

Hunter gave birth to her son, Paul Timothy Emery Logan IV, who goes by “Emery” or “P4,” on Christmas, Dec. 25, 2017. When she was around seven months pregnant, she and her boyfriend, Paul Logan, purchased a house near Inglewood, CA.

Cayman Hunter (senior) and her son Emery at Occidental College. Emery loves to read and play outside. Tuesday, April 23, 2019. Kathy Ou/The Occidental

Residential Education (REHS) does not currently offer housing to students with children. While Hunter sought out REHS’ assistance in seeking living arrangements, she said they provided little support. According to Chad Myers, director of residential education, children are not allowed in student housing because there is a lack of adequate living situations to meet the needs of students with children.

“Our main concern is the safety and comfort of the child, parent, and other residents,” Myers said via email. “Communal restrooms are not conducive to bathing a child and residence hall rooms are not large enough to fit a crib and other essential baby equipment without causing a fire hazard. In addition, College policy prohibits family members (or anyone else) from residing in a residence hall with a student.”

Nov. 3, 2017, Occidental purchased properties intended to house veteran students and their families. According to Myers, the purchases were made possible through the Ahmanson Foundation, which explicitly states the housing units need to prioritize student veterans and their families and thus could not be offered to a student with a child who is not a veteran.

“There may be opportunities in the future to use these units for non-veteran family housing, but currently that is not an option,” Myers said.

It takes Hunter about an hour to commute to school, each way. She says the commute is one of the biggest challenges that has come out of being a student and a mother.

“I definitely feel like if I lived closer to school, I feel like a lot of things would be a lot easier,” Hunter said. “I wouldn’t have to stress about coming to school because … it would be a short distance away … I think that definitely would have made things easier.”

Cayman Hunter (senior) shares the joys and difficulties of being a student and a mother at Occidental College. Thursday, April 18, 2019. Kathy Ou/The Occidental

Hunter returned to Occidental her spring semester junior year, only taking an extra two weeks off.

“I debated taking a semester off to make things easier, but I just really wanted to just finish,” Hunter said.

While Hunter is at school, Emery stays at home with Logan, who runs a car rental business from home. She looked into Occidental’s Child Development Center (CDC), but it is only licensed to serve children from 2–5 years of age and thus is not currently a child care option for her.

According to Sara Semal, senior director at Emmons Wellness Center, the CDC has two pricing tiers — one for the Occidental community and one for non-Occidental children.

“There is often a waitlist to get kids into the CDC so we recommend (usually to employees) getting them on the waitlist as early as possible (some employees that I know have put their children on the list as soon as they have been born),” Semal said via email.

After Hunter graduates, Logan will return to school and finish his degree. Hunter played softball at Occidental for her first and sophomore year but took time off junior year. Hunter said her softball coach, Alison Haehnel, was the biggest source of support she received at Occidental.

“She would just point me and connected me with so many different people that I feel like without that, I would have just had no idea. And those people were super helpful,” Hunter said.

Hunter returned to the field first semester senior year but decided to take this last semester off. She worked at a bakery from 4 a.m. to noon from January to March of this year, so her job, the commute, focusing on school, being a mother and a partner left little time to spare.

Hunter also sought out support from Vivian Garay Santiago, assistant dean of students and director of student success, who connected her to counseling and disability services and even emailed her this semester to check up on her.

“More importantly, I think she was just a person to talk to,” Hunter said. “She’s just like, ‘No problem,’ no judgment, no anything.”

Disability Services provided Hunter a notetaker for her first semester after she had Emery, which she said was especially helpful. Hunter said Senior Associate Dean of Students Erica O’Neal Howard even sent baby clothes to her house. While these administrators offered resources and kindness to Hunter, Hunter said that was not always the case. She said some administrators responded with an attitude that conveyed that Hunter’s situation was an anomaly and they simply could meet her needs or provide substantial support in finding alternative solutions.

“If it’s true or not — that there are a lot of girls or there are not a lot of girls at Oxy who have babies while they’re here — me and Mica do, and I feel like you need to look at that and be like, ‘Okay, for the future, we need to have this.’ At least,” Hunter said.

According to Semal, there is a new director of veterans programs who is working to create a welcoming environment for students that are veterans.

“With potentially more veterans attending school here and those students potentially having families and children, we are beginning to look at how we can better support families and dependents of students here at Emmons,” Semal said via email.

After Hunter had Emery, her perspective on schoolwork and life shifted.

“When I was a freshman and sophomore, it was like, ‘School’s my life’ and, ‘I can’t get a C.’ And going out and staying in touch with friends, meeting new people and stuff — that was really important,” Hunter said. “So I understand that it’s still important for everybody else, but I just don’t feel the pressure to participate in those things.”

For Clayton, having Zion guided her career trajectory. Before, she knew she wanted to work in the medical field. She said after delivering a child with the help of so many amazing nurses, including one who held her while she got an epidural, she now wants to be a labor and delivery nurse and eventually become a nurse practitioner.

“Once this happened, once I had him, everything is just so clear to me now,” Clayton said. “It made things a little bit harder in some regard, but I can’t even imagine what I would be doing now if that didn’t happen.”

Clayton and Hunter articulated the challenges of being a mother independent of being both a student and a parent. Both found in the larger world beyond Occidental, they frequently face judgment in decisions they make as mothers.

“When you’re a young parent, people question what you know,” Clayton said. “You’re having to prove yourself and prove your knowledge of things because people are constantly trying to question you and like, ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’ kind of thing. And I think that can be unconsciously, even if you’re like, ‘Oh, who cares what they say?’ — that’s definitely something that’s in the back of your mind, just because of what society in general thinks.”

This critical lens through which they feel they are sometimes perceived by people differs sharply from how Clayton and Hunter notice people treat their boyfriends in relation to their kids.

“With Paul … people are just in love with everything, everything he does,” Hunter said. “It’s just like, ‘Oh my gosh, a father and his son!’ At that point, age doesn’t matter, nothing matters. It’s just like, ‘Oh my gosh, a father present with their son! They’re amazing!’”

Cayman Hunter (senior) and her son Emery at Occidental College. Tuesday, April 23, 2019. Kathy Ou/The Occidental

Hunter said her former internship supervisor even warned her against mentioning her child in future job interviews because companies might throw out her application or judge her harshly in the interview stage. Logan, on the other hand, mentioned Emery in job interviews and it served to his advantage.

“He’d talk about our son, Emery, and they’d just eat it up and be so excited,” Hunter said.

Similarly, Clayton feels as though her identity as a mom, while essential to who she is, is not all she is. She said she finds others tend to box her into that identity in interactions by centering all conversation around Zion.

“I’m super changed by my experience, but I am kinda the same person,” Clayton said. “Being a mom is one part of my identity, even though it’s obviously one of my favorite parts now, but I think that can get lost.”

Clayton pointed out how this gendered restriction of her identity does not happen to the same extent to her boyfriend.

“It’s something that I’ve noticed between me and my boyfriend. My identity as a mom — that’s what people see, but then when they see him, they see him more as just a person versus a dad,” Clayton said. “Which he is a dad! And he’s a very good dad … But I feel like when people see him, first they see him as this whole person versus just a dad.”

After graduation in May, Clayton plans to move home with Zion and enroll in a rigorous nursing program at ASU. Hunter plans to get a job and be the primary caretaker of Emery while Logan returns to school. They both get to do this with their babies by their side.

“I just wish people understood that, yeah, it’s difficult sometimes, but … it’s also great,” Hunter said. “I love my life … I just feel like the world is exactly the same as it was before — open to me — and now I just have a little buddy that gets to go through life with me.”