A constant juggle

A constant juggle

Like most freshmen, Stacey Kerwin came to the University of Illinois straight out of high school.

 For the first year or so she had the typical freshman experience. She took a full courseload, did homework with friends and, while not a “crazier partier,” she went out a lot.

Halfway through her sophomore year she met Brandon Jordan, a UI offensive lineman. They hit it off and started dating.

Then, in September 2007, came the news: Kerwin was pregnant. Suddenly she faced the prospect of going through her junior year as a mom-to-be. On her 21st birthday, she didn’t go out to the bars; she was three months pregnant.

The couple knew they wanted to get married, just not yet. Kerwin also knew she wanted to finish her degree as quickly as possible.

She took that spring semester off, as her due date fell during finals week.

Her daughter, Faith, was born May 13, 2008. Three weeks later, Kerwin started summer school.

The following September, she found out she was pregnant again. This time she stayed in school for the whole academic year, and had Kobe on May 18, 2009. She started working three weeks after Kobe was born, as a part-time personal assistant for UI students with disabilities.

Suffice to say the family was stressed. Jordan had quit school, and football, to support the family and help take care of the kids. Both of their parents live elsewhere Kerwin is from Joliet, Jordan from Merrillville, Ind. so they did the revolving-door parenting routine. He’d watch the kids during the day while Kerwin was in class or at work; she’d stay home while he worked nights at Best Buy.

Enter the UI’s Child Development Lab, which received a U.S. Department of Education grant last fall to help undergraduates who are also parents. The grant offered Kerwin and Jordan the chance to enroll their children in CDL’s popular child-care program for free.

They jumped at it.

“If I didn’t have this help, we’d still be on opposite schedules. There’s no way we would have been able to afford the ridiculous amount that day care is,” Kerwin says.

The CCAMPIS grant (Child Care Access Means Parents In School) provides day care for students who have children so they can finish college. Research suggests undergraduates with young children are three times more likely to drop out and not finish a degree than those who aren’t parents, says CDL Director Brent McBride.

Juggling children, work and school is nothing new. Graduate students do it. Lots of parents who go back to college later in life do it. Students at community colleges or commuter schools often do it.

But it’s a little different for full-time undergraduates on a traditional college campus, McBride says. Most UI freshmen are 18-year-olds who are still figuring out who they are and what to do with their lives. Then boom they’re thrust into parenthood, on a campus that isn’t suited for it.

Dorms don’t have nurseries. Roommates don’t want babies around. There’s no student group for undergrad parents.

“I was ridiculously huge and didn’t fit in the desks,” Kerwin remembers.

Their friends aren’t sure what to make of them and don’t understand the stresses of parenthood. Their parents are far away and may no longer pay their health insurance.

“There’s no real support for them,” McBride says. “On our campus they’re a very hidden population.”

Faculty aren’t particularly sensitive, either, he says. Professors assign group projects for students to work on outside of class, a “huge hardship” for parents, McBride says.

Not to mention other baby-related stresses.

“If they’ve been up vomiting all night long, you’re not prepared to take a quiz at 8 a.m.,” he says.

Bogdan Cuceu knows. A Romanian immigrant with a wife and two small children, Cuceu, 32, is majoring in electrical engineering one of the toughest programs on campus. Now a U.S. citizen, he’s also in the Army National Guard and could be deployed to Afghanistan next fall.

He’s found it hard to fit into study groups, even though engineering “is all about working in teams.” He has one friend who lives with a family with children and understands the time constraints. They meet late at night or early in the morning, while the children sleep.

Another example: Cuceu has an exam coming up in two weeks and will be gone for four days before that for a military drill. He asked the professor for a one- or two-day extension. The answer was no.

“It’s been very, very difficult,” he says. “They do not understand this kind of stuff. You are coming to the U of I because you heard about their reputation. You are trying to do something with your life. They don’t care.”

Kerwin, a child development major, has had an easier time. Her professors understand when she has to miss class because her child is sick. Still, she picks up slights. In one class, a student commented that people who aren’t financially stable shouldn’t have children.

“My fiance and I are with our kids every single day. We are home to put them to bed and get them up. I think it’s important for people to realize you can be in school and still be a good parent. Money is tight right now, but it doesn’t necessarily say anything about the way you’re raising your kids.”

Cuceu’s children Anna, 3, and 8-month-old Alex attend the Child Development Lab for free, and he says the CCAMPIS staff “went beyond everything” to help the family. “I’m amazed. I can’t find the right words,” Cuceu says.

Previously, he and his wife Stephanie, a UI secretary, had to borrow money to pay child care. It cost $600 a month even with state subsidies.

The four-year grant provides $89,000 a year for child-care costs and other support. By next fall McBride hopes to be helping 25 to 30 parents. Plans include study nights and a parent support group.

Kerwin says parenthood has been a challenge, and she’d like to talk with other students in the same boat.But it’s also made her grow up, get organized and focus on her career. She’s had to enter “the real world” before most students and believes she’ll be better prepared come graduation.

Kerwin, 23, hopes to graduate next May. After that Jordan, 21, will return to college to finish his degree. Then they plan to marry.

For now, they’re enjoying their kids. And studying. And working. And juggling.

News-Gazette staff writer Julie Wurth can be reached at 351-5226, jwurthnews-gazette.com, or on Twitter.com/jawurth.

News-Gazette photos by Vanda Bidwell:

Bogdan Cuceu plays with his children Anna, 3, and Alex, 8 months, at the UI Child Development Lab.

Stacey Kerwin sits outside the Child Development Lab with son Kobe, 11 months, and daughter Faith, 22 months.

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