Studying and childcare: mastering the juggling act

Among the new initiatives at the University of Sussex is a family room in the library, where parents can work while their young children play

University campuses aren’t usually the most child-friendly of environments. While quiet daytime studying and more lively evening activity is how most students expect to spend their time, for those with young children, the pattern is often reversed.

Although universities don’t routinely capture information about how many of their students have parental responsibilities, most recognise the need to help those combining learning with childcare.

Among the new initiatives at the University of Sussex is a family room in the library, where parents can work while their young children play. The initiative, which is being trialled for a year, came from feedback from the University’s student-parent group.

“We have always allowed children in the library,” said Maria Smith, Library Planning and Support Services Supervisor. “But it was hard for parents to study while also ensuring their children were quiet and occupied.”

The family room, formerly a microfiche reading room, has a gated play area for toddlers and small children, which is equipped with toys, rugs, beanbags and books. There’s also a screened-off area for breastfeeding, while the room has two desktop computers, as well as points for laptops.

Nigerian doctoral student Amina Ika is frequently to be found there with her two children, 20-month-old Jadiel, and Bernie, aged three.

“It’s made a big difference to me,” said Amina. “I can access software on the desktop that I don’t have on my laptop. And my children love coming here. They’re excited when I say we’re going to the library.”

Amina, together with her husband, Micah, and their children, are among nearly 60 families that live on the Sussex campus.

The University has a range of one- and two-bedroomed flats that are grouped together in Park Village, Northfield and Lewes Court, as well as three flats off campus. Elodie Adast, Housing Officer who specifically looks after students with families, said: “There is a great demand for accommodation on campus, particularly from international postgraduates.

“They are attracted to Sussex for the quality of the education here, and because we have such a beautiful and safe campus.”

Elodie has produced a handbook that gives parents information about living on campus, as well as advice about renting properties in Brighton, and fun family activities in the local area.

Claudia Obando, who is studying for a PhD in Science and Technology Policy, lives in a two-bedroomed apartment in Park Village with her partner, Leonardo Rojas, and their three-year-old daughter, Luana. Claudia first came to Sussex in 2008 to take a master’s degree. Two years ago she was awarded a Chancellor’s International Visitor’s Scholarship to return for her doctorate.

“I was thrilled to be returning to Sussex,” said Claudia, who comes from Columbia. “We already knew it would be a nice environment for Luana. She was three weeks old when we arrived.”

Claudia shares childcare duties with Leonardo, who is currently working as an analyst in the Physics Department on campus, while Luana also attends the Co-operative Childcare nursery on campus. Mixing with other families on campus is key to avoid feelings of isolation for many of the students with children.

Since March, a garden that was once part of a former campus crèche is now where parents can bring their children on Friday afternoons for ‘plant and play’. Activities, organised by the parents together with the University’s housing team and Sussex Estates and Facilities, have included making bird feeders, creating a sensory garden, and growing fruit and vegetables in planter boxes.

Elodie Adast said: “It’s been fun for the parents to be able to get together and for the children to be able to get messy and be a bit noisy.”

Campus also has a health centre with a regular baby clinic, while The Student Life Centre gives practical advice on issues around financial assistance and entitlements, and can help with the allocation of university hardship funds for student parents.

Tim Westlake, Chief Operating Officer at Sussex, concluded: “It’s very hard to study while being a parent, yet universities can also be great environments for bringing up children. Our aim is to help make Sussex accessible to students of all backgrounds.”

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