Dr. Autumn R. Green is a co-lead of the SPARK Collaborative. Read her story.
I entered this field in 1999 when I became a mom at 17. Contrary to the traditional narrative, I’d actually already earned my GED and started community college through a program that I think has since evolved to become Oregon’s College Promise program. I was emancipated as a married minor, working full-time, and started college part-time. But discovered that I was pregnant that fall, which was my first quarter enrolled as a full-time student.
That following spring I was put on bed rest for pregnancy-related complications and had to stop working, so I applied for TANF benefits. My case completely befuddled my caseworker! She ended up getting her supervisor involved, who called in all the way to the state director of Adult and Family Services (now DHS) to weigh in. After hours of nervously sitting in the waiting room waiting for them to figure out what to do, I was told that although I would otherwise be eligible for TANF benefits as a teen parent, because I had already completed my GED and started community college, I had already surpassed the guidelines to be eligible for that program. Because the adult program did not allow TANF participants to pursue higher education, my benefits were ultimately denied. It didn’t make sense to my caseworker or her supervisor who told me that they could not ethically or morally advise a teen parent who had already enrolled in community college after earning my GED—on the honor roll no less—to drop out of school. But they also couldn’t approve my application for benefits under federal welfare reform guidelines. Apparently, it had not yet occurred to anyone in that department before that a client like me might exist, so I threw them a major curveball. I was already educating policy makers and direct-service workers in my state as a teenage community college freshman!
I was able to be approved for Food Stamp benefits (now SNAP) and the Oregon Health Plan (Medicaid)—both federally funded state entitlement programs that did not preclude Student Parents from eligibility. But I still didn’t know how I was going to pay my rent and bills without being able to work. It was a real ad-hoc experience learning to navigate the system as I moved forward. I first got help with child care through the Chemeketa Community College student child care scholarship program, and was able to enroll my daughter in the on-campus co-op child care program (which has, sadly, since closed). I also returned to working intermittently through a temp agency I’d connected with shortly before finding out I was pregnant, and I started to take out student loans to cover the gaps and attend year-round. This helped me walk with my Associate’s by the year I originally would have graduated high school—which was a major milestone for me. Around then, I applied for the Oregon Student Child Care Grant, which allowed me to continue to attend school and access child care after I transferred to university to pursue a bachelor’s degree.
By the time I transferred to the University of Oregon I had a second daughter who was three months old and a toddler in tow. Part of my support system was rooted in staying connected with institutions that supported me as a Student Parent. Initially, I had actually transferred to a different university—one that emphasized support for non-traditional learners—but I quickly discovered that they just didn’t have the services or resources to adequately support me. I chose the University of Oregon based on four criteria: they had a sociology major, in-state tuition, campus family housing where I could establish a stable home for my family, and child care resources. But I was creating my own patchwork support system the entire way through.
I always had the mind and motivation of an activist, but I felt marginalized within traditional types of activism because of my responsibilities and identity as a young mama who couldn’t afford to get arrested or put my children at risk on the front-lines as a protester (which was how I understood activism at that time). It wasn’t until my senior year, when the university closed both one of the on-campus child care centers, and the largest of their family housing complexes, and then announced intended plans to repurpose the campus family housing community where my family lived, that I started engaging in activism through policy and research.
Earlier that spring, the state had eliminated the Oregon Student Child Care Grant—which I’m happy to say has since been brought back—but I didn’t go to the hearing to testify because I had class and was worried about getting back in time to pick up my kids from child care on time. I vowed that I would never again miss an opportunity to stand up for Student Parents when called upon to. So, when I felt that my Student Parent community was under threat, I enrolled in a Public Policy and Management course and made saving the East Campus Family Housing Community that I lived in the focus of my class project. But the next year, when I started grad school, was when I really started to dig in on this work. I wanted to understand the logic behind what policy makers who were so adamantly against people in my situation pursuing postsecondary education were thinking. So, I found a research professor at University of Massachusetts who studied these issues and reached out. She told me that she didn’t really have a viable answer for me, but she did have a job opportunity opening up involving policy research and student parents and offered me the job the first day I met her. She has since remained a lifelong mentor. Together we worked with many women’s welfare rights groups, and co-founded the coalition that led to the initiation of the Student Parent Success Initiative at The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR)—which grew out of a Symposium hosted in 2009 at Brooklyn College.
Something that I think a lot of people don’t immediately recognize is that the national Student Parent success movement is deeply rooted in the traditions and intergenerational mentorship of welfare rights scholars and activists. When we came together to launch this work, it was an opportunity to bridge the disconnect between higher education and welfare rights spaces. We weren’t actually even called “Student Parents” back then. At the time we were often called, “Welfare Mothers in Higher Education,” but this didn’t resonate with my identity. Remember, I’d been denied access to TANF benefits from Day 1. How could I identify as a welfare mother when I’d been denied access to this program because I was a student? I was also deeply committed to all Student Parents, and when I first started my policy research work—which had largely focused on mothers—I was directly called by student fathers in my community circles not to forget them. I promised them I wouldn’t. I vividly remember a heated debate about the nomenclature we would use to describe this population prior to launching the Student Parent Success Initiative, during which I had to discreetly step away to the snack table to sob my eyes out, because I was genuinely concerned that I wasn’t going to be able to keep that promise to Student Dads. Throughout my career, it has always been very important to me to always keep the promises I extend as a researcher and advocate. At the time, I was the only current Student Parent in the room, and one of very few leaders with lived experience working in these spaces, and it was hard to raise my voice. But I was happy that my colleagues in that conversation heard my concerns and ultimately decided to move toward more inclusively framing Student Parents as a broader group. That’s my story of how I came to work in research and policy focusing on Student Parents, which has remained a core focus across my career.
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