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'I had to advocate for myself': Pregnant, parenting students overcome lack of campus resources

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Beatriz Loera

Beatriz Loera, human health and biology senior, sits in a classroom in Copeland Hall with her daughter, Ava, Aug. 27.

Editor’s note: Read this story in print in the September 2019 edition of the Crimson Quarterly magazine.

Gisel Gutiérrez lay in a hospital bed with her computer resting against the crisp sheets, turning in homework within hours of giving birth to her son Leonardo.

A junior at the University of Oklahoma, Gutiérrez had been told by one of her professors that she would not be able to make up assignments missed when she was giving birth. Gutiérrez accepted this and quickly had to divide her attention between her newborn son and her biology class.

Gutiérrez gave birth on Friday, Jan. 22, 2019, and returned to classes the following Monday.

“It was just me trying to avoid confrontation,” Gutiérrez said. “Trying to avoid at all costs having to make professors work around me.” 

Despite a few obvious differences, pregnant and parenting students have many of the same worries as the rest of the student body. Classes continue to be a struggle, financial burdens are now heavier, and strains in personal relationships are an added stress.

While there is no way to know the number of American college students that have become pregnant, or the number that have a child and continue their education, pregnant and parenting students are present and succeeding on college campuses. 

This life growing inside of them didn’t stop them from pursuing an education — it motivated them to continue.

‘If other people could do it, I could do it, too’

Gutiérrez felt nauseated, out of shape and on the verge of crying. 

It had been a few years since she’d played soccer, so she’d expected to struggle. But as the game ended, the exhaustion and sickness didn’t.

“I felt ... like I couldn’t do anything,” Gutiérrez said. 

It turned out it wasn’t a lack of fitness — it was her pregnancy. The summer before her junior year at OU, Gutiérrez and her then-boyfriend, now-husband, felt a mixture of excitement and anxiety.

After using Goddard Health Center to confirm the pregnancy, Gutiérrezsaid the nurse’s reassurance was part of the reason she stayed enrolled for the fall semester.

“(The nurse) was very encouraging,” Gutiérrez said. “She said, ‘Don't worry, this happens a lot. A lot of people go through classes, they have their babies, they go to med school, it's all fine. ... Don't give up.’”

Gutiérrez said when she told her parents, her dad was excited, but her mom was distraught and immediately assumed her daughter’s medical school dreams were over.

However, Gutiérrez didn’t see it that way.

“If other people could do it, I could do it, too,” Gutiérrez said.

Her parents agreed to help her financially as long as she stayed in school.

Throughout her pregnancy, Gutiérrez said her professors were understanding and accommodating when she missed class for pregnancy-related reasons, until it came time to give birth.

Contrary to Gutiérrez’s experience with her biology professor, OU Title IX Coordinator Bobby Mason said accommodations must be made for pregnancy- or childbirth-related reasons, including accessible seating, frequent breaks, excused absences and an opportunity to make up missed assignments. 

Every OU class syllabus is required to inform students that accommodations can and will be made for pregnancy- or childbirth-related issues. If a student wishes to seek accommodations, they should reach out to the Disability Resource Center, Mason said.

Camille Cisneros, with the Pregnant on Campus Initiative, works to convince Title IX-compliant universities to provide more support and resources for pregnant students. The initiative helps students across the nation create student groups dedicated to supporting pregnant and mothering students.

“A lot of times the biggest challenges that (pregnant) students are facing is a lack of support through the school itself,” Cisneros said. 

Other than the written Title IX policy prohibiting discrimination against pregnant students, and the accommodations that can be made through the Disability Resource Center, OU does not have any dedicated resources or programs for pregnant or parenting students, said Angela Startz with OU Marketing and Communications.

The school should also ensure there are plenty of lactation rooms on campus — there are four on OU’s Norman campus — and diaper changing stations, Cisneros said.

Crimson Quarterly reached out to OU Facilities Management and Architectural & Engineering Services for the number of diaper changing stations, but was told there is not a way to track that.

Besides providing physical resources, colleges can improve pregnant students’ likelihood to continue their education by changing the narrative around a pregnant student’s options.

“There's not only one student in that situation on campus,” Cisneros said. “We're challenging the schools to build that community of support, so that these women who are in the middle of their education aren't feeling like (their only) option is abortion.”

The best piece of advice Gutiérrez has for a student who becomes pregnant and wants to keep the baby, along with finishing school, is just to give it 100 percent.

“Just because you're having this ... different thing apart from others, it shouldn’t make you give up,” Gutiérrez said. “It should make you work harder.”

‘I had to advocate for myself’

One of Rachael Winkles’ most treasured successes as a mother came in the form of a craft her daughter brought home on Mother’s Day.

It read, “Dear Mama, I love you because you make me feel safe.”

Winkles’ daughter, Sophie, was 5 at the time. Winkles had been single and attending school for the majority of Sophie’s life. Those five years had not been easy for Winkles by a long shot, but this gift meant more than her daughter could have imagined.

“The most I could ever want for my life is for her to feel safe ... and loved,” Winkles said. 

Winkles, who now holds a master’s in social work and a bachelor’s in criminology from OU, found out she was pregnant in February 2011. She was in her second semester at Oklahoma City Community College.

Winkles became a mother at 19, and she withdrew from her two fall classes when she missed a midterm exam the day after being discharged from the hospital.

“I didn't know enough to (say), ‘You can't do this me, this is discrimination,’” Winkles said.

Two years later, she returned to OCCC, received her associate’s degree in science in 2015 and transferred to OU.

Winkles returned to school more prepared to stand up for herself than she was at 19.

“I had to advocate for myself in areas where being a parent caused me to have some issues in college,” Winkles said. “At some point, you have to start telling people, ‘Stop treating me wrong. I'm doing everything I can do.’”

Winkles thinks more could be done by colleges to retain more pregnant and parenting students, and improve their quality of education. One thing she believes would help is to have a policy that, for at least 2 weeks after giving birth, all of a student’s materials should be available online, and absences should not affect their grades.

“I think that I speak for every woman that's (given birth) — that we’re not at home laughing our asses off about getting to take our tests online,” Winkles said. “It's a reasonable accommodation.”

Raising a child and getting an education was one of the hardest things Winkles has ever done, she said.

There were times Sophie wanted to play and Winkles was doing homework. There were nights Winkles cried herself to sleep because there was so much on her plate. There were almost no nights Winkles got more than five hours of sleep.

“(As a college student), you're really just responsible for yourself,” Winkles said. “But when you have a kid, it's not like somebody that counts on you. It's someone you're literally responsible for their life. And it’s just different. It just changes you.”

But it was worth it, in a lot of ways, Winkles said.

One of the biggest rewards is Sophie and her stepsister Audrey, ages 7 and 5, respectively, are both already excited for college, Winkles said, after seeing her and her husband both in school.

Ahead of Winkles’ 2017 graduation from her bachelor’s program, she asked Sophie if she wanted to be a part of her senior photos and even have her own cap and gown.

Of course, Sophie was ecstatic. But it wasn’t just for the cute factor, Winkles said.

“I just felt like we both achieved that,” Winkles said. “I know that sounds funny, but ... I told her, ‘You did it, too. You helped mom.’ I definitely wanted her to feel celebrated as well.”

‘I'm really not one to say no to challenges’

Beatriz Loera was among the shivering, disgruntled, wrapped-in-layers students making their way to their cars in the Jenkins Avenue parking garage on an icy February day.

Many students were complaining about classes not being canceled, but likely none had as good of a reason as Loera, who was six months pregnant.

One patch of ice, and before she knew it, she was lying on her back. Her backpack had taken the brunt of the fall. 

“It caused some strain and stress to the baby,” Loera said. “If I would’ve fell on my belly, I probably would’ve had her that day.”

Loera found out she was pregnant the fall of her junior year, with three and a half semesters of undergrad to go before she could move on to medical school.

Many of her friends and family had their own ideas about what she should do.

“End the problem.” 

“Let someone adopt.” 

“You can’t do this and finish school.”

But in her mind, her unexpected pregnancy wasn’t an end to all of her plans. It was just unexpected.

As she transitioned from being a normal student to one expecting a baby, Loera struggled with focusing on classes in between morning sickness, the father of the baby trying to convince her to get back together and her hope for support from friends and family. 

That fall semester, her grades suffered, and she received a D in one class. 

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Loera said. “(It) was even more stress on me. And then with normal school stress and work stress, it was probably my worst semester.”

However, Loera said she found a helpful resource in seeing her graduation coach through the Sooner Success program more often. Her coach had recently given birth and could easily relate to what Loera was going through. 

Loera said seeing her coach regularly has helped keep her on track with her classes and time management skills.

Today, Loera is the sole caretaker of Ava Loera, born May 28, 2019. 

Still adjusting to balancing classes with caring for Ava, who has not spent more than half an hour away from her mom, Loera is hopeful for the future. Medical school is still in it, she said.

“I'm really not one to say no to challenges,” Loera said. “I actually prefer challenges. So this has kind of been one of the biggest challenges, and I'm just telling myself, ‘You can do it.’”

‘Even though it wasn't a surprise, the extent to which your life really changes kind of was’

Jenel Cavazos sat in her social psychology class nearly two decades ago, her pregnancy obvious from her protruding midsection.

The day’s topic was related to families, and a classmate asked, “Who our age would actually want to have a kid?”

“And here I am sitting there, super pregnant and just feeling embarrassed,” Cavazos said. “And I had nothing to be embarrassed about. It was a choice. I was married, I was fully prepared, and yet — just being so different.”

Cavazos was married to her high school sweetheart and had been trying to start a family when she became pregnant at 21. 

Though her pregnancy wasn’t unexpected, surprises came in the form of how it affected her walk to classes, not being able to use the folding desks in Dale Hall and how awkward she felt being the only pregnant student in her classes.

“It's one thing when you're older and you have kids, and all your friends have kids,” Cavazos said. “But when you're really young, and nobody else you know has kids, it's definitely different to try. And even though it wasn't a surprise, the extent to which your life really changes kind of was.”

While professors today are required to tack on the Title IX policy of nondiscrimination against pregnant students to their syllabuses, Cavazos said this was not the case during her time as a student. 

In fact, Cavazos said, she knew little about her rights or how flexible her professors could be when it came to things such as absences and making up assignments, quizzes or exams.

Most of her professors were very understanding, but when she had an emergency C-section during finals week, her calculus professor was the opposite of accommodating. The professor gave her an incomplete and two weeks to make it up.

“I was in the hospital for four days, and you can't drive for six weeks,” Cavazos said. “So it was very difficult. And, had I known then what I know now, you actually have a year to make up an incomplete.”

Even today, the Title IX office is still looking to improve education and outreach when it comes to students being aware of their rights during pregnancy and childbirth, Mason said.

“Often, information students receive might not seem relevant until they experience a situation personally,” Mason said. “We are currently working to find new ways to build awareness and understanding about available resources, including information about accommodations available for our pregnant students and employees.”

After giving birth to her daughter, Taylor Rosenquist, Cavazos’ life went through even more changes. She and her husband separated when Taylor was about 4 months old and divorced at 6 months. Not long after, she started dating her current husband. 

Through it all, she continued in school and received her doctorate at OU before leaving to teach at Cameron University. Now, she is beginning her fifth year at OU as the introductory psychology coordinator.

And her story has come full circle: Her daughter just started her freshman year at OU. Taylor is literally Sooner Born, Sooner Bred.

As a professor, Cavazos wants to make sure every pregnant or mothering student in her classes knows there’s someone who has been in their shoes and succeeded.

“I make sure that I tell them the things that I would have wanted to know,” Cavazos said. “If you're sick, let me know. If you're uncomfortable and need accommodations, let me know. Anything I can do to help. I do understand.”

Jana Allen is a journalism junior and the Daily's enterprise reporter. She was formerly a news reporter, and held several editor positions on the news desk before transitioning to enterprise.

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