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Brycinea sits through Dacey's one Friday class, allowing her to save money on day care.

Before news of the baby arrived, Nursing junior Katherine Thompson’s plans were simple and straightforward.

She was going to graduate from Penn with a degree in communication. She was going to pursue a career as a children’s educational television researcher. And one day, she was going to settle down with a family of her own.

Today, however, those plans have been put on hold.

Thompson became pregnant with her son, Elijah, near the end of her sophomore year at Penn. At the time, she was 19 years old.

Now, Thompson is one of a small minority of Penn undergraduates who are also parents.

According to Penn Women’s Center Director Felicity Paxton, undergraduate students who have children are a “pretty invisible subset of the Penn community.”

Paxton said she knows of “just one undergraduate couple [currently at the University] who have a child.” She added that “most of our parenting population seems to be made up of graduate students and staff.”

Thompson entered Penn in the fall of 2005 as what she calls “your typical freshman.” She was focused on her studies, on her family and on her friends. Getting pregnant was the last thing on her mind.

But when she learned she would be having a baby, the news hit her hard.

“It was definitely very overwhelming at first, very isolating,” Thompson recalled. “A lot of people here looked at me and thought, ‘How can you go to a school like Penn and get knocked up like that?’”

Thompson, now 23, decided to take a few years off from Penn in order to give birth and adjust to motherhood.

With Elijah’s father largely out of her life at the time — though still actively involved in caring for their son — Thompson admitted to having real doubts about whether she would ever return to campus.

In fall of 2009, though, Thompson chose to give Penn another go — only this time as a Nursing student instead of a communications major.

Thompson credited Kendal Barbee, an assistant director of advising in the College and a member of the CaseNet academic support team, as a major reason behind her choice to resume her education.

“[Barbee] would check up on me a lot when I was just starting out with Elijah,” Thompson said. “I didn’t know what to think of that at first, but ultimately, it was those phone calls that helped make me want to come back to Penn.”

Though she isn’t where she thought she would be today, Thompson has no regrets about the decisions she made.

“Nobody put a gun to my head and told me that I had to go through with this,” she said. “This isn’t easy, but it’s not supposed to be easy. I think that’s why a lot of people don’t do it.”

Challenges abound for student parents

For students like Thompson, the challenges of being an undergraduate parent can be immense.

Nursing junior Dacey Stratton, who became pregnant as a 19-year-old sophomore at Syracuse University, understands those challenges. Stratton, now 23, has one thing that comes before all else in her life: her three-year-old daughter, Bryce.

Stratton’s courseload would be taxing for most — let alone for the single mother of an active, rambunctious child. On any given day, Stratton wakes up at around 5 a.m. Before she can make her way to campus for clinical work and lectures, she must first drop Bryce off at day care.

Some days, Stratton said she doesn’t return home until 8 p.m.

On top of her already demanding life — she currently suffers from narcolepsy and has dealt with bouts of postpartum depression in the past — her responsibility as a parent can take its toll.

“I love Bryce, but I’m not going to lie and say that this is what I wanted,” she said. “I once thought that I had the next ten years of my life planned out, and none of that involved having kids as a teenager.”

Parenthood at Penn

According to Paxton, Penn has “greatly expanded” its resources in recent years to help accommodate students like Stratton and Thompson.

Through the Women’s Center, there are now two groups — New Parents at Penn and the Working Parents’ Association at Penn — that aim to provide resources for students and staff members with children.

Director of New Parents at Penn Sarvelia Peralta-Duran said that the group formed three years ago “as a way to get together and informally share the joys and challenges of being a new parent.” Though the group currently has about 60 members, Peralta-Duran is not aware of any undergraduate students who are involved.

Paxton said that the Women’s Center has also advocated for the University to add more “lactation rooms” — private spaces that allow mothers to pump breast milk during the day — across Penn’s campus. There are currently lactation rooms located at the Women’s Center, at Houston Hall’s Family Resource Center and at the School of Nursing.

But while there is progress in Penn’s handling of undergraduate parents, there is also criticism.

When Thompson returned to Penn after taking two years off, she said that “the atmosphere here made it very hard to fit in.”

Thompson tried to tap into some of the resources that Penn provides for student parents, but she said that “it was very uncomfortable because nobody’s used to dealing with an undergraduate mom like me.”

“If I hadn’t taken the initiative on my own to reach out to some fellow students, I definitely would have slipped through the cracks when I came back,” she said.

Nursing graduate student Christina Jacobson, who completed her undergraduate degree at Penn in December, agreed.

“I don’t think Penn is particularly good at dealing with student moms, because it’s something that they don’t see often,” said Jacobson, who has a three-year-old son. Jacobson, now 29, added that “a lot of teens who have children probably don’t even consider themselves eligible to apply to a school like Penn.”

Regardless of the resources at their disposal, most students who are parents have one immediate goal in common: to graduate.

“I feel like everybody has always been telling me that I can’t do it,” Stratton said. “I could have given up at any point along the way, but I’m not stopping now.”

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