October 17, 2012

Grad Students With Kids Struggle to Find Balance at Cornell

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As the mother in a household comprised of two graduate students, a toddler and a 14 week-old baby, Alice Beban grad said she constantly struggles to “compartmentalize” the different parts of her life. Beban, a third-year Ph.D. student whose husband works at the University and is pursuing a Cornell masters degree this year, has lived in Hasbrouck Apartments since she arrived at the University.

“When you’re with [your family], you want to have fun, but you can’t help thinking about work,” Beban said. “From 5 to 7:30 p.m., I try to just think about the kids.”

Graduate students at Cornell vary by age and lifestyle, from recent undergraduates to married parents. Seventy-nine percent of graduate and professional students are in their 20s, 18 percent in their 30s and three percent are in their 40s or older, according to Elizabeth Ellis, communications director for the Graduate School.

While all graduate students face a rigorous course load, those with children must contend with the additional responsibility of raising a family.

For some residents of Hasbrouck — an apartment complex that primarily houses graduate students with children — help has come in the form of finding a niche in the Cornell community.

Rumela Sen grad has lived in Hasbrouck for three years. Sen, a fourth-year Ph.D. student, said she does most of her work at night, from the time her 6-month-old daughter falls asleep at 8 p.m. until around 2:30 a.m. the next morning.

Before coming to Cornell, Sen moved from India to a Philadelphia suburb, where she “met deer, rabbits and sparrows, but few people,” she said. In Hasbrouck, however, her life is different: “You know your neighbors, you see them every day. It’s more like you’re integrated into a neighborhood. It makes you feel that you belong somewhere, that you belong to a place.”

Hasbrouck offers several family-oriented programs — such as Panda Bears, a group of mothers and children who meet up to talk or play — each week. The community also has six graduate community advisers, including Beban and Sen, who plan additional programming for residents.

To the stay-at-home spouses of graduate students with children in Hasbrouck, these programs can be especially important and provide an opportunity to meet new people and keep themselves busy during difficult times.

“In the beginning, we were always fighting. It was very hard for him and us,” Miao Shian Hsieh said of her and her husband, a Ph.D. student. “Now, it is much better. Little by little, it is getting better.”

The stress and isolation associated with the dual responsibility of being a parent and a student can often create tension in a relationship, Beban said. In addition to caring for their families and spouses, students must worry about maintaining a full course load to finish their graduate programs within the time allotted by their funding packages.

To help alleviate this stress for parents, Cornell offers a parental accommodation policy to help graduate teaching assistants “balance academic and research responsibilities with parenting demands,” according to the University’s website. The option allows students to take leave from their teaching assistant duties, with or without pay depending on the circumstances, length of time away and demonstrated financial need, according to Sen.

However, Beban said University-provided childcare services are more expensive than many graduate students can afford. Depending on the number of children, the costs of childcare may drain the majority of the stipends graduate students receive for research or T.A. work.

Although Cornell does offer subsidies for childcare, there are some, including Sen, who do not qualify.

Both parents must be full-time students or employees to be considered for a subsidy, after which financial need is assessed, according to Sen. Sen said she can only afford babysitters and nannies because her husband works.

Still, Beban said that the University has generally made an effort to accommodate graduate students with families — offering lactation rooms in buildings across campus, for instance.

Despite the struggles of balancing marriage, parenthood and work with the pressure of a competitive academic program at Cornell, Beban, Hsieh and Sen all said that they are happy in their situations.

On having their first child just as they were transitioning from New Zealand to Ithaca, Beban said, “We knew it was the wrong time to have a kid, but we loved each other, and it felt right. We’ve never regretted it.”

Original Author: Nikki Lee