Being a parent and being a student is hard work, but perhaps it's a very good time to try it, says Sam Shearn, DPhil student, father of three and former OUSU Student Parent and Carer Officer.
Sitting in the college bar, I saw the jaws of two 19-year-old freshers drop as I explained that I was married with children. To them I appeared an extra-terrestrial – so far removed from their student experience that they were momentarily lost for words.
It’s true that student experience is rather different for parents. You will be spending more time doing the school and nursery run, cooking, washing up, cleaning, playing, taking children to piano lessons, eating with children, putting them to bed, taking them to the park at the weekend. While you are reading a bedtime story, your colleagues are racking up the hours in the Bodleian.
Your colleagues from the lab may be going to hear a visiting lecturer on Friday but your partner is ill and you are needed at home for feeding time at the zoo. Perhaps, spurred on by those young freshers, you feel like going clubbing one day, against your better judgement. It will feel so good to be out for a change. But you will still have to get up with the kids the next day. So. Much. Tiredness. Your budget has to cover the cost of a larger flat, nappies, more food, and some of the highest childcare costs in Europe.
Students without children often see the attempt to combine children and study as some superhuman feat. Everyone finds study a challenge anyway, even without little people running around at home. But perhaps having children while a student is the best possible timing – people at the start of their careers may well be less flexible than students. Student reactions to parenthood are in my experience overwhelmingly positive – many people are interested to see someone living out a way of life they may one day wish to follow, and appreciate an invitation to a family meal.
The are a number of ways we can help you make the most of your student experience at Oxford if you are a parent. Here are my top tips:
1. We have an OUSU mailing list and facebook group for student parents which partners are also welcome to join. They keep Oxford's student parents up-to-date about policy developments, events for student parents, where to get relevant advice, and what funding is available.
2. UK citizens (or those with British partners) can apply for benefits for low-income families with children. Check out the Childcare Grant, Parents' Learning Allowance, and Sure Start Maternity Grant.
3. Join and facilitate community. There are cost-free toddler and baby groups, some in University accommodation or colleges, others in community centres or church halls. There are facebook groups for university graduate accommodation, and OUSU runs events like picnics with children's crafts, tea and toys, and barbeques. And if you get here and find there isn't something in your area? Try starting something – I’m happy to help with set-up.
4. Get on the waiting list for University or college nurseries. The University has the best provision in the UK higher education sector, and a new nursery is being planned. University nurseries are cheaper than the Oxford market rate but the lists are still sometimes over a year long so you should put your name down when you apply or have an offer.
5. The Student Parent and Carers Officer (firstname.lastname@example.org) can support you and try and answer any questions you have.
Best wishes for your University search.