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Providing for MIT’s Parents and Families

Guest Column
Amy Cohn

You may have read a recent article in The Tech about the Graduate Student Council’s efforts to block the inclusion of a day care center in the new Sidney-Pacific graduate dormitory, in order to increase the amount of community space made available for other purposes [“GSC Wins Day Care Battle,” Mar. 9]. The celebratory tone in many quotes within this article, as well as in subsequent statements made by GSC President Soulaymane Kachani, angered a number of students, faculty, and staff, who felt that it trivialized the negative impact of this decision on those struggling due to MIT’s dire lack of on-campus child care.

As a doctoral student and also the parent of a 20-month-old son, I think that the Sidney-Pacific debate is an important one that merits further discussion. But even more importantly, it highlights the need for discussion on a broader topic: the place of families at MIT.

For many of us, graduate school is the logical time to start a family (I was 30 and a fourth-year PhD student when I had my son). I don’t know exactly how many students are also parents, but you just need to walk into the lobby of Eastgate to realize that it’s not a trivial number. The needs of these student parents are significant and yet often go unmet by the Institute.

I’d like to use this space to raise two questions. First, what are the needs of student families and how can the Institute help to meet them? Second, why should this be of concern to the MIT community at large?

Personally, I have been extremely fortunate in my experiences as a student parent; my department and adviser have supported me wholeheartedly, my husband works from home (not only providing much-needed financial support, but also significantly participating in our son’s daily care), and I have family nearby who can be called upon in an emergency. And yet, in spite of having the best possible circumstances (circumstances not available to most student parents here at MIT), raising a child is still by far the most difficult thing that I have ever done. Parenting is an enormous responsibility under the best of conditions. Being a parent while studying at MIT can be an overwhelming task.

Student parents daily face a number of daunting questions. These include:

“How can I pay my rent when my monthly bill for childcare exceeds my stipend?”

“Who will care for my child during the year and a half that I’m on the waiting list for on-campus day care?”

“Who will care for my child during the first year of life, given that many day care centers (including those at MIT) don’t accept infants?”

“What do I do when my child is up sick the entire night before my qualifying exams? When my babysitter can’t make it the day of a major research meeting? When I’m expected to spend the summer in a foreign country doing field research?”

MIT cannot solve all of these problems, nor should it be expected to. However, there are many ways in which the Institute could significantly reduce the burden of student parents. Some of these are complex and costly issues, such as more affordable housing and a larger supply of on-campus day care. We need to continue to push the administration on such topics and work together to find solutions. There are a number of smaller and more easily addressed problems to be looked at. I pose two here for consideration.

First, consider the fact that students often need childcare at unusual hours. Most day care facilities (on and off campus) close around 6 p.m. However, such student events as labs, study sessions, and group meetings often take place during the evening. Could we use existing on-campus day care space to create a “drop-in” center for additional care on evenings and weekends? While not solving the critical problem of “9 to 5” care, this would nonetheless benefit many students who need help on evenings and weekends to attend meetings or just to get in some extra research time.

A second issue that the Institute should address is the need for flexible maternity leave options. When I was pregnant (my son was born after I completed my coursework and was working solely on dissertation research), I was told that MIT had two official options: either take a full-semester medical leave of absence (and petition to keep housing and health insurance, as well as to be re-enrolled after this leave) or take no time off at all. Neither of these options was a good one for those of us wanting the traditional 6 to 12 weeks of maternity leave. Furthermore, I know of no options at all for fathers who would like to take some time off during the first year after a child’s birth. I hope that the Institute will consider providing both mothers and fathers more flexible options for taking some time away from their studies during the first year after the birth of a child.

Both of these measures would be modest, and neither would substitute for broader -- and necessary -- action by the Institute to address the needs of families. But they demonstrate how we can cooperate to find practical solutions to these very important problems.

Many of you may question why MIT should go to such effort and expense to benefit a select group of students. However, improving the MIT environment for those of us (students, faculty, and staff) who have families actually benefits the whole community. One way in which it does so is in MIT’s ability to hire and retain the best possible faculty; many universities are aggressively working to address family/work balance issues specifically in order to maintain the quality of their faculty. Of course, the family needs of students are also relevant in this regard because students make up the pipeline for future faculty.

But perhaps more importantly, I believe that our interactions with our classmates are one of the great benefits of being at MIT. Working and socializing with such a bright, diverse, motivated group of individuals is of benefit to us all. When a student leaves MIT because the burdens of the dual parent/student role are too great, or chooses to attend a school other than MIT because their needs will be better met elsewhere, our community suffers from their absence.

I hope that we can all continue the discussion of how to make MIT a stronger place for families and, in the process, for us all.

Amy Cohn G is a PhD student in the Operations Research Center.