Pulling Double-Duty

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Hidden behind trees, a baseball field and a hill, Family Student Housing (FSH) is hard to see. Removed from other dorms and far from Quarry Plaza and McHenry Library, FSH is not a community most undergraduates learn about. FSH’s physical isolation is not the only struggle for parent-students. Along with the responsibility of caring for a family and passing their classes, they face unique social barriers and health and safety concerns.

Angel Alvarez and Stephanie Huerta, with their daughter Emily, are going into their fifth year living at Family Student Housing. Between planning their wedding, raising their daughter and Huerta finishing her degree, the pace of their lives has not slowed down. Photo by Alex Posis.
Angel Alvarez and Stephanie Huerta, with their daughter Emily, are going into their fifth year living at Family Student Housing. Between planning their wedding, raising their daughter and Huerta finishing her degree, the pace of their lives has not slowed down. Photo by Alex Posis.

While many students come to UC Santa Cruz from miles away, Angel Alvarez and Stephanie Huerta were not just bringing themselves to this unfamiliar town, they were also bringing their 3-year-old daughter.

Angel and Stephanie came to UCSC when he was 18 and she was 17. Now fiancés, they had their daughter in high school when Stephanie was 14. When they arrived at UCSC, they were one of the youngest couples at the on-campus Family Student Housing (FSH).

Huerta recalled one memory during her first year in particular, when another student in her core course — someone she was familiar with — came over to her apartment in FSH and treated her differently once she found out she had a child.

“There was a girl I talked to every day. After [having her over to my house], she did not talk to me at all,” Huerta said. “She never talked to me again. It was so weird.”

After experiencing these subtle criticisms from students during those first few months, Huerta and Alvarez both became Resident Assistants (RA).

“As we started getting more involved in our community, we started to find people who were very genuine and accepting of our situation and weren’t so critical,” Huerta said.

Four years later, Huerta had an experience similar to when she arrived at UCSC. During a power outage at FSH during finals week of winter quarter, FSH residents were invited to eat at the College Eight/Oakes dining hall for free. Huerta said the residents and their families were met with questioning looks and sensed that students were not comfortable with families being there.

Aside from social struggles, Alvarez and Huerta struggled to transition into adult tasks such as paying an electricity bill, paying for car insurance and applying for health care.

“All these things you’re learning when you’re becoming independent were blown up more because we were in charge of somebody else,” Alvarez said.

Scheduling between the two of them was also another concern, considering someone had to be available to watch their daughter and take her to school. Alvarez, a psychology major, said this was a struggle for Huerta, a biology major, who needed to take more mandatory classes and prerequisites. While enrollment is difficult for all students, Huerta and Alvarez particularly struggled because a mandatory night class could mean not tucking their daughter in at night.

“For me it’s also challenging because you have to decide which classes to take at what time and is there going to be time for me to pick up my daughter or is there not going to be time to pick up my daughter,” Alvarez said. “We’re never taking classes at the same time.”

Aside from adjusting to a new living situation and a myriad of other new responsibilities, Alvarez and Huerta also recognized the disconnect between themselves and students without children.

“When I first came here I felt really alone,” Huerta said. “I didn’t know anybody, I couldn’t connect with anybody. By getting more involved I met more people and made friendships. I definitely felt like an outsider here. I was definitely categorized.”

Jesus Ruelas, 27, father of two children,  came to UCSC as a transfer student after getting a scholarship that he said was crucial to attending UCSC. With a wife who commutes to San Jose every day, Ruelas has had to take a large portion of the parental responsibilities, including waking his kids up and getting them ready for the day. These responsibilities come on top of his career as a student and an intern at Educational Opportunity Programs (EOP) and El Centro, the Chicano Latino Resource Center.

With these numerous responsibilities, like many other parent-students, Ruelas had to ultimately find his own way around campus and take initiative for himself.

Jesus Ruelas and his wife, Nancy Ruelas, with their two children, Jose and Jocelyn in a family photo. Since his wife commutes to San Jose every day, Ruelas has to take a large portion of the parental responsibilities, including waking his kids up and getting them ready for the day.  Photo courtesy of Jesus Ruelas.
Jesus Ruelas and his wife, Nancy Ruelas, with their two children, Jose and Jocelyn in a family photo. Since his wife commutes to San Jose every day, Ruelas has to take a large portion of the parental responsibilities, including waking his kids up and getting them ready for the day. Photo courtesy of Jesus Ruelas.

“I need to just go and put myself out there because they’re not going to come to me,” Ruelas said. “I have to definitely try to build connections and just meet more people — faculty and staff too.”

Though all FSH parent-students are affiliated with one of the 10 colleges, Ruelas said his affiliation with College Ten has had little effect on his involvement with the college’s activities.

“All the other colleges have lots to offer their students,” Ruelas said. “Even though I’m affiliated with College Ten, I’m not really in to their activity because I don’t live there.”

Margarita Carach is a single motherwho lived in FSH and graduated this past spring with a sociology degree. Carach came to UCSC from a much closer hometown — Salinas — but was the first person in her family to go to a university.

Carach said she chose UCSC because she believes the university provides a small community for her son to feel a part of and allows him to be engaged with higher education early on in life. Carach also expressed concern about raising her son around the gangs and violence present in her hometown of Salinas.

“I decided to err on the side of what was best for my child, so [the father] is in a community close by, so I decided to come [to UCSC],” Carach said. “Salinas and Santa Cruz are worlds apart, even though they’re close.”

As a transfer student, Carach said she struggled with loneliness and alienation her first year of school, especially with the added stress of a custody battle with her son’s father, which she said is still ongoing.

“It was extremely stressful. I didn’t know how to connect with people. I had the new intensity of stress and then the new intensity of not necessarily negative stress, but just the newness of being at a university,” Carach said. “Kind of that pressure — being the first person in my family [to attend college] and being a single parent. It was really scary to me.”

Carach said that finding the Cantú Queer Center and eventually working there provided her with a comfortable and supportive space, yet there were still lingering anxieties about living on campus.

“There’s a huge, huge disconnect between parent-students and the rest of the student population,” Carach said.

A large part of this detachment, Carach said, comes from not only FSH’s physical separation from the rest of the campus, but also from non-parent-students’ having a different mindset.

Carach suggests the university could confront this disconnect through offering a resource center for parents, not unlike the resource centers other communities have on campus. Part of what would make this parent resource center the most effective, Carach said, would be placing it somewhere more centralized than FSH, such as in Quarry Plaza.

Just as Stephanie Huerta said she felt judged by students when outside of FSH, Carach has had similar experiences with on-campus events, particularly when her son accompanies her.

“I’ve actually had times where I brought my child to campus community events, and my child is 3 years old, so there’s going be some loud talking or not whispering when you’re supposed to whisper,” Carach said. “I’ve had people look at me and give me dirty looks. There were times when that really bothered me because they have no idea how much it takes for me to come here every day and to go to a class every day. It really hurt.”

Before moving to FSH with her husband and three children, recent graduate Kelsey Stegner had only come as close to Santa Cruz as the Monterey Bay Aquarium when she was a child.

“I guess you can say I went in blind-sided, which is kind of difficult when you have kids,” Stegner said, “but I guess it’s a learning experience at the same time.”

Stegner struggled to find a sense of community even within FSH, feeling that she and her husband were treated differently based on their appearances. Stegner often felt judged and not welcome primarily because both of them have tattoos, piercings and brightly colored hair.

“My first year was very difficult,” Stegner said. “Nobody wanted to talk to us. I think we were singled out because we’re kind of different.”

Kelsey Stegner and her family (husband Eric Stegner, Kaylie, Devan and Andrew) pose for a photo before her graduation. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Stenger.
Kelsey Stegner and her family (husband Eric Stegner, Kaylie, Devan and Andrew) pose for a photo before her graduation. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Stenger.

With her husband attending Cabrillo College, Stegner was unable to  bring her husband to many campus events, as most were “student only.” Stegner also noted that the Night Core buses that run downtown require a student ID, meaning her husband can’t use the bus with her if they want to have a fun night out or take a break from the demands of school and work.

“A lot of the events should be more geared toward people who have children or people who are married,” Stegner said. “There’s actually a huge community of people here who are married. They live off campus as well.”

After being at FSH for two years and graduating this past spring, Stegner said that she and her husband had been counting down the days until they leave UCSC — considering the grievances they had with living on-campus.

“I never thought I’d [count down the days while] going for an education,” Stegner said. “It [adds] a lot of stress.”

 

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) counselor Susan Walsh said she commonly has parent-students come into counseling concerned about their ability to make connections with other students.

“It’s just due to everyone’s busy lives and communication issues,” Walsh said. “Sometimes the community connection is really difficult and they find they finally start getting connected about the time they’re going to move out or other families are going to move out.”

Located within FSH, Walsh deals mostly with families and parent-students of FSH. There are many reasons why parent-students may come in to seek counseling, but it’s largely because many of them feel lonely and isolated, she said

“The loneliness sometimes comes from being a single parent or from being in an odd or marginalized population on campus,” Walsh said. “Sometimes [the loneliness] comes from their character pattern and how they manage their lives or from their economic limitations.”

For Stephanie Huerta, retention of parent-students dealing with these issues is difficult. Huerta believes parent-students often drop out because there is a lack of support from the community and the university.

“There aren’t many resources or people who truly consider us as a part of the university,” Huerta said. “I wish there were more resources.”

The university, however, doesn’t cite any differences in the way it treats the residents of FSH, in comparison to the rest of the colleges. Ninety different university programs offered throughout the year, including an ice cream social and community play day, are specifically geared toward parent-students, said UCSC news and media relations interim director Guy Lasnier.

“The university provides staffing, services and support to the students and families at FSH, much as it does to our students in other residential communities across campus, though these services are tailored to the needs of student families,” Lasnier said in an email. “The Community Safety Program provides staffing and oversight of the FSH community to help ensure a safe and monitored environment.”

Dealing with issues of co-parenting to general couples and relationships issues, parent-students can seek counseling as often as needed, Walsh said.

“It’s all over the map,” Walsh said. “But, in general, many student-parents do seek counseling because of the stresses involved in juggling the parent role and the academic role.”

Originally built around 1972,the brown stucco buildings have housed families for more than 40 years. Considering the old age of the structures, many parent-students living in FSH are concerned with the condition of the buildings and the minor repairs FSH received in recent years.

Though the location affords close access to the day care center as well as the convenience of being near classes and on-campus jobs, UCSC graduate and single mother Margarita Carach experienced issues with mold in her apartment and heard similar concerns from other residents of FSH.

“Something that I’m concerned about, and other parents are concerned about too, is that these buildings are old spaces and there’s an issue of a mold problem there,” Carach said. “Since I’ve moved there my child has to use an inhaler and this is something that’s shared by a number of parents. He has a chronic cough and they said that he might have low-grade asthma. That’s my biggest concern about living here.”

Parent of three and UCSC graduate Kelsey Stegner also noted an issue with one of her children developing asthma, speculating that the mold in her bathroom may have contributed.

“[My husband and I have] been thinking about how it’s relating to our son’s asthma because last year he had pneumonia, and it was right around when all the mold started growing on the walls,” Stegner said. “Now he has asthma, but he was a premie though so it could be related to that.”

More concerns of mold causing health problems in children at FSH have been reported, including a $25,000 lawsuit filed by UCSC graduate Matthew Richert and his wife Lori George at the end of 2013. The couple filed the lawsuit after one of their daughters developed asthma and allergic rhinitis after exposure to five types of toxic mold found in their FSH apartment.

FSH residents also protested living conditions in 2009, citing similar concerns with the housing’s mold and children struggling with asthma. One resident wrote a petition where 142 residents said they had mold in their apartment.

Director of Colleges, Housing and Educational Services Steve Houser attributes these mold concerns to the lack of ventilation and air circulation in places such as the bathrooms and kitchens in FSH apartments. Houser said mold spores are constantly present in the air and they just need the right environment to foster and spread.

“It’s not a situation that can manifest itself solely in [FSH],” Houser said. “It can manifest itself in any building if there’s a food source or water source and not a lot of air circulation.”

Current resident Stephanie Huerta expressed similar concerns about the mold problem, mentioning a waiver they had to sign when they first moved in that made them aware of issues such as mold. However, Huerta said there are a number of maintenance issues outside of the mold, including problems with her stove when she first moved into her FSH apartment. Ultimately, Huerta sees the minor repairs and lack of large scale renovation as a reflection on the university’s degree of concern for FSH.

“We’ve been put on the back burner, even when it comes to any repairs,” Huerta said. “Whenever there are repairs, they pretty much do everything temporarily. It’s like they put a bandage over repairs.”

Houser said FSH is currently allotted for major remodeling in 2018, which is a tentative date. While the university would prefer to finish remodeling sooner, it may not be completed until later than 2018.

FSH reconstruction poses more problems and complications, Houser said, many of which stem from a lack of flat land at the FSH site, making construction harder. Construction is also more difficult because parents can live at FSH 12 months out of the year, instead of the nine months students occupy housing at other colleges.

To compensate for these concerns, Houser said they plan to implement a phase strategy of reconstruction that will allow FSH residents to be incrementally moved into alternative housing while construction of the new buildings take place.

“To [reconstruct FSH] and maintain a program with an adjacent childcare program is complicated — imagine having bulldozers going on next to where people are living. It just gets really complicated,” Houser said.

Aside from the difficulty of building at FSH, current resident Angel Alvarez worries that the renovated buildings would mean a potential rise in rent.

“It’s very hard for families to pay rent as it is,” Alvarez said. “The conversation we had [implied] that if there’s a possible reconstruction of FSH, the rent was going to rise. So a lot of the people said just leave it as it is.”

FSH has experienced the same 3 percent per year raises in rent as the rest of the dorms, Houser said.

Huerta, however, said she fears the university will replace the FSH apartments with dorms.

“The university says it’s not a business, but it is a business,” Huerta said.

Houser said these kinds of fears most likely stem from that FSH residents contribute about 25 percent of the revenue “compared to a typical on-campus, two bedroom undergraduate student apartment.” However, Houser said UCSC has no intention of eliminating FSH.

“We still have plans to continue the [FSH] program,” Houser said. “It just adds a lot to the financial complexity of what we’re doing because it creates more burden, or it almost makes the debt associated with the project feel bigger, because there’s not the revenue to offset it. That’s another complication and it’s a complication with every UC or even any university with [FSH].”

Alvarez and Huerta are now going into their fifth year living at FSH and attending UCSC. Between planning their wedding, raising their daughter and Huerta finishing her degree, the pace of their lives has not slowed down.

“Right now, it’s hard,” Huerta said. “I don’t have enough time, like you always never have enough time for everything. It adds even more stress when you’re a parent. At least for me as a mother, I feel guilty a lot when I can’t be there all the time for my daughter as much as I want to.”

While the couple still struggles to balance all the moving pieces of their lives, Huerta realizes that the decision to come to UCSC was the best option for their family. Their daughter has been able to take advantage of the schools in the area, and Huerta feels comfortable with their daughter living at UCSC.

“We want to get through school just like everybody else,” Huerta said. “We just come with a package deal, but we just want to be treated like all of the other students.”