Student veteran parents face their biggest mission yet: raising a family while pursuing a UCSB degree
By Marge Perko
At the Veterans Resource Center (VRC), diversity is more than skin deep. Student workers and center regulars not only share the common bond of past military service, but other intersectional identities across cultures, gender identities, age groups and work/life experiences.
Majority of the 135 veterans enrolled at UC Santa Barbara are transfer students starting college later in life – and many are parents. These student veteran parents come into their college years with work experience, advanced skillsets -- and a slew of challenges for the many campus leaders seeking to provide better services and supports to answer to their unique needs.
“We do have a Non-Traditional Student Center that does a great job of building a community for older students and connecting them with resources,” said Kevin Hagedorn, who serves as VRC coordinator at UCSB. “But, the existing services pale in comparison with the amount of programming for traditional-aged students who arrive here as freshmen. It will require a lot more institutional support to put our non-traditional transfer students on equal footing with their fellow undergrads.”
According to 2014 data released by the U.S. Department of Education, over half of veteran students attending college while raising children are the first in their family to attend college. More than 4.8 million undergraduate students in the United States are raising dependent children, with single mothers comprising 43 percent of the total national student parent population, while single fathers make up 11 percent. Out of that 4.8 million total student parents attending college, 1.1 million are attending a four-year university like UC Santa Barbara.
Students with children are also less likely to complete a certificate or degree within six years of enrollment. An analysis of the 2014 Department of Education statistics by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research revealed that only 33 percent of student parents attained a degree within six years: “They face significant time demands, with 56 percent of single parents devoting more than 30 hours per week to dependent care, and often have significant financial challenges.”
Veterans raising children are often on a fixed income as they attempt to balance school requirements and the day-to-day responsibilities of raising their families. “Being a student parent is really tough,” said Hagedorn. “The two biggest challenges to all students is lack of time and money – and the student parents have it the worst. So we focus a lot on that sub-group of our student population. We do that through focused early outreach, scholarships, job opportunities and partnerships with other services like housing and childcare.”
Rising childcare costs already baffle parents across the United States, who sometimes have to make tough decisions to raise children in this economy. According to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies, the average cost of center-based daycare is about $972 a month or $11,666 a year. Those who are from two-parent families make the sacrifice of one partner forgoing a career to stay at home with their children. Single parents without stable family support are often at a loss on how to balance school, work and caring for their kids.
“We have a great childcare program here at UCSB, but there is often a waitlist and it can be cost-prohibitive, even with existing subsidies,” said Hagedorn. “There are grants available to help out, but their availability is limited. Honestly, it is a pain in the butt to navigate through all of it. It is especially hard for single parents and parents who are not from the Santa Barbara area and don’t have family or friends nearby to help out. Ideally, we would have guaranteed childcare for new students for at least a quarter. This would give them time to get settled, make friends and come up with alternative childcare options if there is not enough room for the following quarter.”
At UCSB, undergraduate student parents can access a quarterly childcare grant sponsored by Associated Students and priority registration to accommodate parents raising children through elementary school age. The childcare grant covers “extra childcare expenses during either midterms or finals.” The Orfalea Family Children’s Center located at the West campus of UC Santa Barbara also prioritizes student families on their waiting list. Approximately half of the OFCC client families are UCSB student parents.
Family student housing is available on campus, with a limited number of one-and two-bedroom units for full-time UCSB students. These are rented month-to-month, in two separate locations about 1 mile from campus. University housing gives priority to families with children, with a 3 to 6-month waiting time for placement. Those who must grapple with the local housing prices are not so lucky. An analysis of the South Coast rental market for the 2014 UCSB Economic Forecast showed the average cost to rent a one-bedroom in Santa Barbara is now $1,378, a two-bedroom $1,996.
“Living on a fixed income is a tough thing to do because the GI Bill only allows for a certain amount of money,” said Erik Quiroz, a fourth year student veteran with children who works as the VRC community liaison. “One of the issues we’re trying to fix with Veteran Affairs is we’re not actually getting paid based on the zip code of our school. There’s such a huge difference in the price of rent over other areas in the country.”
Apart from tangible supports and resources, the VRC also provides social support by creating a space for students – parents and those without children – to be themselves and to work with those who understand what they need.
Cristina Tommeraasen, a fourth year transfer student veteran and mother, helps put together outreach communications and presentations at the VRC.
“I just finished formulating a contact list for non-traditional students that mainly have children,” she said. “We’re trying to form this contact list and form this network of people in different departments so we can send people to specific contacts, instead of sending them out to a random person. Because if you don’t know how to deal with or handle veterans and parents, you’re just going to treat someone like an 18-year-old who hasn’t had much life experience. And veterans and other non-traditional students like those with children don’t want to be talked to like little kids.”
Hagedorn and his team are working on solutions that not only would affect the student veteran parents who are part of the VRC’s scope, but also would help provide a blueprint for future resources for non-traditional student populations.
“Student parents are a really amazing yet often overlooked part of our campus,” said Hagedorn. “We feel that investing in student parents is a two-for-one deal because we know a college degree is going to benefit two generations. They also add a depth and maturity to UCSB that should get more recognition.”
Keeping the VRC and Our Student Veterans On the Right Track at UCSB
A Q&A with Veterans Resource Center Coordinator Kevin Hagedorn
By Marge Perko
Where did you grow up? What drew you to join the military?
I grew up in the Santa Cruz Mountain area which is about an hour and a half south of San Francisco.
I honestly can't give you a clear reason as to why I enlisted. Thirst for adventure, need for right of passage, college benefits, desire to serve, 9/11? Maybe it was just too many episodes of GI Joe at a formative age. But, really, I was 18 years old, the Twin Towers had just come down and I had no idea what I was getting into. I just had a compelling impulse to do it. I suppose in that way, my individual experience wasn't very different from the nation's as a whole in 2001. We were all naively walking toward a dangerous future we did not understand.
What made you decide to accept your current position at the UCSB VRC?
I began working at UCSB in August 2014. Prior to that I was running a program for homeless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in Los Angeles. It was a tough job and working with college students by the beach for a lot more money sounded like a good idea at the time. Besides that, I had a lot of experience in this area, having worked in veterans services while going to college at Chico State.
I knew first hand that the best way to help returning veterans is to make sure they get connected to education and a supportive community as soon as possible. A lot of the struggles and pain homeless veterans endure could have been prevented if they got on the right track as soon as they were discharged. So, I see veteran services at the college level as one of the most important places for us to invest.
What was it like at the VRC when you first started? How has this Center grown?
Our center and our services is the result of a lot of hard work from students, staff, faculty, alumni and community members who advocated for and invested in UCSB’s student veterans. Our center went from nothing, to being a tiny room and then to a 500 square foot center with computer workstations, peer supports specialists, lounge and a full time staff member in an office next door. Having a center for veterans is a crucial part of our services. Humans need community and it can be hard to find that on our campus when you are thirty years old and have seen a whole lot more than the average undergraduate.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about our student veteran population?
The biggest misconception about veterans is thinking that most people who served in the military care about being a veteran. Non-veterans place more emphasis on that identity than veterans themselves. Meaning, most veterans don’t really think if themselves as veterans. They think of themselves as Bill Jones or Sally Drew, not Marine Jones or Soldier Sally. People usually identify themselves by what they are doing presently, not what they did years ago. People get out of the military to pursue something new but we often fixate on their past when it comes to the whole “veteran” thing. It’s great that we respect military service but it is only one aspect of a person’s life experience and it’s important we don’t overlook the other parts, especially the present and future aspirations.
Also, there is a lot of sadness associated with veterans. Homelessness, suicide, PTSD, etc…This is reinforced by the media which usually can’t talk about veterans without bringing up all of the above. It’s important to address those risk factors but it gets really old and depressing to only focus on that stuff. The military can be a really negative place and people coming out of it need more optimism and hope for the future. I wish there were more narratives about veterans who are thriving as civilians. I know a lot of them but they are invisible because they are not fronting their veteran identity. I just want to move away from this fatalistic view about veterans, especially those who were on the front lines. I hate to think that we are cursed, that we can never be whole or come home.
Right now, how do you foster awareness about the VRC and the resources available to veterans on campus?
We do a lot of direct outreach to all of our veteran students. From admissions till graduation we are actively engaging with all of our students. We keep track of everybody and when someone is having a hard time financially, personally or academically we reach out to them and try to connect them with services. People still fall through the cracks but those cracks get a lot smaller every year. We are trying to make it the most user-friendly experience possible.
How is the VRC funded?
Our services have all been funded through private support. The Pierre Claeyssens Veteran Foundation funded my full-time staff position. The Highland Santa Barbara Foundation funded the establishment of the center. Veteran organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Military Order of World Wars support us on an ongoing basis. And the Birnam Wood Golf Club has raised a lot funds for scholarships that go directly to students. We are really fortunate to be in a community that puts it money where its mouth is when it comes to investing in veteran success.
Let's talk about our student parents who avail of the services and support at the VRC - what kind of resources do they have on campus and at the Center?
Being a student parent is really tough. The two biggest challenges to all students are lack of time and money and student parents have it the worst. So, we focus a lot of energy on that sub-group of our student population. We do that through focused early outreach, scholarships, job opportunities and partnerships with other services like housing and childcare. We feel that investing in student parents is a two-for-one deal because we know a college degree is going to benefit two generations. They also add a depth and maturity to UCSB that should get more recognition. Student parents are a really amazing yet often overlooked part of our campus.
What suggestions would you have for increasing more opportunities for veterans to enjoy UCSB's student activities/opportunities?
UCSB prioritizes diversity. We have students from all over the world who represent all races, religions and socio-economic status. But, this campus is not diverse when it comes to age. Only 3 percent of our undergraduates are over 24 years old and only a fraction of undergraduates are married or have children. I think this group is often overlooked and doesn’t have the same visibility as other underrepresented groups. Most of the programming, policies and services are geared for younger people who have parental support. So, it can be difficult for an older student to feel like they belong at the university. You have to eat a lot of humble pie when you start college in your fifties and my hat is off to them. Our oldest undergraduate student this year is 65. I think we should roll the red carpet out for these students.
We do have a Non-Traditional Student Center that does a great job of building a community for older students and connecting them with resources. But, the existing services pale in comparison with the amount of programming for traditional aged students who arrive here as freshmen. It will require a lot more institutional support to put our non-traditional transfer students on equal footing with their fellow undergrads.
What do veteran parents typically have access to, in terms of subsidized support for childcare, and what are some of the gaps you see through your observation of your student parents' experiences?
Childcare is one of the biggest obstacles facing our student parents. We have a great childcare program here at UCSB but there is often a waitlist and it can be cost prohibitive even with existing subsidies. There are grants available to help out but they are availability is limited. Honestly, it is a pain in the butt to navigate through all of it. It is especially hard for single parents and parents who are not from the Santa Barbara area and don’t have family or friends nearby to help out. Ideally we would have guaranteed affordable childcare for new students for at least the first quarter. This would give them time to get settled, make friends and come up with alternative childcare options if there is not enough room for the following quarter.
How would you describe Cristina, Erik and your other student employees at the VRC?
They are invaluable assets to our community and to the center. Students like them are the foundation of everything we do here.
What is the future for the VRC? What would you like to accomplish?We are working on creating a clear path to success for student veterans and students with children. And we are working on a strong safety net for students who encounter obstacles they cannot surmount on their own. But, we could really use some help with it. We welcome anyone who would like to get involved and be a part of supporting this effort. It won’t happen without support from community members and alumni.