In recent years, student-parents have become an increasingly represented cohort on the University of Missouri–St. Louis campus.
In recognition of this, the UMSL Strategic Plan 2018-2023 purposefully aimed to enhance support services to address the unique needs of student-parents. Since that time, Triton Student Advocacy and Care has worked to connect with student-parents and provide encouragement, guidance and resources.
Most recently, Shereka Kemp, a case manager with Triton Student Advocacy and Care, and Emmy Naes, program support specialist for the Triton Student Parent Success grant at the College of Education’s University Child Development Center, launched a special initiative to recognize the successes and perseverance of student-parents over the past school year.
Student Parent Success Stories highlights the personal journeys of 10 exceptional UMSL students with children.
“Our goal is to show recognition of their hard work to make them feel included and make sure that they have the necessary support to reach the finish line,” Kemp said.
The initiative, which can be viewed on the Triton Student Advocacy and Care website, was born out of the pandemic. Kemp said sometimes it can be difficult to engage student-parents, who might feel a bit isolated on campus under ordinary circumstances. The pandemic exacerbated things, leading Kemp and Naes to search for other ways to reach them.
The first step was an email of encouragement and acknowledgement, which received several positive responses. It gave Kemp and Naes the idea to ask if anyone would be willing to share their stories. They selected 10 people to highlight and sent care packages to thank them.
“That’s where we came up with the Triton Student Parent Success Stories,” Kemp said. “I had to think of a different approach to try and reach them just to say, ‘Hey, we know that you’re here. We know that you’re working hard. Tell us about what that looked like for you within the past year.’”
Madison Burris, an English major, and Kyla Robinson, a nursing major in the Accelerated BSN program, are two of the student-parents featured. Both Burris and Robinson faced obstacles before and during their time at UMSL but are on track to graduate and follow their dreams.
As a teenager, Burris imagined going to college and moving away from her small town – someplace like Los Angeles or San Francisco.
Robinson, meanwhile, wanted to be a doctor growing up, but by the time she enrolled at the University of Central Missouri, her ambition was to become a nurse practitioner.
“I just always gravitated toward that,” Robinson said. “I think it was just something coming naturally from within. Around middle school, I changed over to wanting to be a nurse. I began to learn more about what the role of a doctor was, but I’m more of a people person. So, the fact that nurses have more contact with the patient, I gravitated more toward wanting to be a nurse.”
However, the path forward was not so simple for either.
Toward the end of high school, Burris found herself in an unhealthy, manipulative relationship. She was convinced to stay home instead of going to college, and at 19, she gave birth to her daughter.
“I stayed with her father for about six months,” she said. “Then I decided that it wasn’t good to stay there anymore. We were always going to be held back, so I decided to leave. My mom lived in a different town at the time, and she offered to let us move in with her.”
Robinson experienced her first hurdle at Central Missouri. She had always been an excellent student, never receiving a grade below a B, but the nursing program rejected her.
The news was crushing.
“It was just a big feeling of disappointment and letting myself down with not getting accepted,” she said. “That was the first thing that happened to me education-wise not going my way. I really started questioning what my purpose was like, what am I going to do now?”
She considered leaving school, but after discussing options with her advisor, she decided to change her major to health studies. It provided a solid foundation to pursue an accelerated nursing program after graduation.
Then Robinson hit the next hurdle. She had been set to attend Mercy College of Health Sciences in Des Moines, Iowa, with a friend, who backed out at the last minute. Robinson was let down but once again adapted and researched accelerated nursing programs near St. Louis.
Ultimately, she chose UMSL because the professors in the College of Nursing seemed to have a more personal connection with their students. Later, she would find out just how much she could rely on them.
After moving with her daughter, Burris started an entry level job at St. Louis Lambert International Airport with an airline. The job paid the bills, but just barely.
“I realized that I needed to do something that would give us a better chance,” she said. “So, then I decided I was going to go to college.”
UMSL stood out because of its proximity to her job. It would be much easier to work and go to school with a shorter commute. Initially, Burris thought she would study nursing, but an English composition class sparked her interest. After some hesitation, she decided to major in English and minor in political science.
Though juggling a child, school and work tested her limits.
“It was really difficult at first because I was going to school full-time and I was also working almost full-time,” Burris said. “My time was very much consumed. I think the biggest struggle was money, to be honest, because it’s very difficult to pay the babysitter when you’re only making $13 an hour. It’s not a lot. It was very difficult to do time management and to keep up with stuff, and there were a lot of times where I wasn’t really sure how I was going to make it.”
Robinson knew the feeling soon after entering UMSL’s Accelerated BSN program. She found out she was pregnant last June, only about two months before she started classes. It seemed like one more thing standing in the way of becoming a nurse.
“I had a conversation with my mom, and I was like, ‘I don’t think I can do school,’” Robinson said. “We talked and I remember her saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do. You’re going to go to school, you’re going to work and we’re going to figure this out. You’re going to graduate.’ Those were the reassuring words that I needed to hear.”
The nursing faculty at UMSL also went out of its way to help Robinson. She discovered that her situation was not as uncommon as it seemed. One of her instructors was pregnant, as well, while another had given birth during nursing school.
As her pregnancy progressed, faculty members made sure Robinson didn’t overexert herself physically. When she gave birth to her son in February, she was able to continue the online portions of her classes while taking a seven-week break from in-person clinicals.
Burris found a similarly supportive community at UMSL.
Her advisor was able to build a class schedule around her work schedule each semester, and the Office of Residential Life and Housing got her into a two-bedroom apartment with reliable internet service – a problem at her previous residence.
The University Child Development Center also made juggling school and work significantly easier for Burris. Student Advocacy and Care helped her secure financial aid from the Triton Childcare Fund and the state to enroll her daughter at the UCDC.
“I was paying next to nothing to send her there,” Burris said. “With them being on campus, it was so helpful to drop her off and then walk over to campus or take the shuttle. It was very convenient. Also, it just felt good because my daughter was getting a real education instead of going to a babysitter. She was being taught real lessons, actually learning things and socializing with kids. It was very helpful for her.”
Burris will graduate in December and hopes to move into a full-time position at the domestic violence shelter where she’s done writing and communications work as an intern. She’s also considering applying to law school.
Whichever path she chooses, she’s proud to have made it this far.
“I honestly think about graduation sometimes, and I know that I’m probably going to cry like a baby on graduation day,” Burris said. “There were so many people that told me I wasn’t going to be able to do it or it was going to be too hard. To almost be done, it’s really a huge relief. It’s very, very exciting, and I’m very proud of myself.”
Robinson will finish her program this summer and already has several job offers. Ideally, she would like to work in a trauma department but hasn’t officially accepted a position yet.
She does have a few words of encouragement for other student-parents.
“I think my biggest piece of advice would be to always persevere,” she said. “You never know what you are capable of doing until you do it. I know it’s very easy to feel like you can’t do it and to get really down about things that might be going on in your life, but I was a lot stronger than what I had ever given myself credit for.”