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School Was the Last Thing on My Mind

All names marked with an asterisk are pseudonyms.

For a moment, Margaret’s* room shuddered in flickering, yellow light, then—darkness. The power in her small New England town went out with the crackle of an October thunderstorm. Without Internet access at home, she hopped into her sister’s small brown Volkswagen, drove twenty minutes down the road into the next town, and parked on the side of the road. She logged onto her French class as rain drummed against the roof of her car. In the past year, Margaret, a sophomore at Yale, had gotten used to making adaptations like these—almost. After returning home, Margaret spent the next twenty-two hours with her family in their candle-lit living room waiting for the power to return. Her father’s tremors, most of the time localized in his hands, were spreading that night, occasionally reaching his face. He was getting stressed. Which would lead to Margaret’s mother getting stressed. Which would lead to Margaret’s sister getting stressed. Which, in this deeply-felt interdependence, would lead to Margaret getting stressed. She tried to remain calm, but she knew that, when the power returned, there would be a frantic rush to catch up on her work, and on her father’s. She’d be helping him send emails, type, and sort papers, like she’d been doing for the past eight months as his Parkinson’s Disease progressed and made fine motor skills difficult. 

Margaret’s parents are in their late seventies, and throughout high school, she had balanced academic obligations with helping them apply for Social Security benefits and working part-time to cover medical bills. But when she returned home after the closing of Yale’s campus in March 2020, she learned that her father had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and took on new responsibilities to support him. In the spring semester, the college’s switch to Pass/Fail grading helped her manage some of the burden of trying to get a handle on the initial diagnosis. But by the time Yale returned to A-F classes in the fall, her dad’s symptoms had progressed, making it difficult for him to type and sometimes to speak. As Margaret put it, “it was back to normal, but not for me.” She found herself helping her father with work, driving him to and from offices, preparing food, making sure he was taking his medications, scheduling doctor’s appointments, keeping a watchful eye on the progression of his symptoms, and working a restaurant job to support her family’s income, all while keeping up with the demands of extracurriculars and classes—demands like her history course’s weekly paper, which, by the time the power returned the day after the storm, was due in a few hours. She knew that she wouldn’t have enough time to help her dad and complete the assignment. Her family depends on her father’s income for stability, so there wasn’t much of a choice to make.

In testimony to the Senate Special Committee on Aging, caregiving advocate and former First Lady Rossalyn Carter said, “There are only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who need caregiving.” The coronavirus pandemic has brought the marginalized work of caregiving, and our collective dependence on caregivers—in nursing homes, in schools and hospitals, in families and communities—into greater public awareness. Yet students who serve as family caregivers continue to be underserved by their academic institutions, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Embedded in relationships spanning geographical and generational communities, student caregivers defy many colleges’ aspirational models of campus as a bubble devoted solely to intellectual pursuits among people aged 18 to 22. These relationships remind students like Margaret of what one might forget while in the campus bubble: “Yale is not the world.” Responding to the challenges faced by student caregivers is not only crucial for supporting a growing segment of college students, but also for creating a higher education culture which recognizes all students as full people with needs, responsibilities, and relations that reach beyond the scope of a college campus. 

“Professors would say, ‘People who perform best are people who go to office hours regularly,’” recalled Danielle, a Yale senior who worked nineteen hours a week throughout her four years to support her family and pay her student income contribution (the amount that the university expects students on financial aid to contribute to their education). She remembered thinking with frustration, “Well, I just don’t have that time during the day. It’s not that I don’t care.” Struggling in her sophomore year General Chemistry course, she desperately needed to attend a review session for the midterm, but they were only offered at 3:00 p.m. each day of the week—precisely during her work hours at an off-campus childcare center. “No matter what, I just lose,” she said, sighing. “Professors don’t realize that a lot of students are unfortunately not just full time students—we don’t actually just sit there all day and get to study.”

As Margaret attended classes from home in the spring and fall of 2020, she felt like Yale expected being a student to be her sole priority. But in reality, she was a sister, daughter, caregiver, income contributor, and more. She woke up early to take timed midterms before her familial responsibilities started, and she stayed up late to do homework after everyone had gone to bed. “In hindsight,” she reflects, “I know I wasn’t doing my best work.” She watched lectures in fifteen-minute chunks in between preparing meals, and she avoided synchronous classes, knowing that, “at any moment, someone could knock on my door and ask for my help with something—and I would [help them].” It would be a mistake to presume that these responsibilities end when student caregivers leave home. Danielle spent the summer after freshman year in Paris, thousands of miles from her family in Indiana, but she continued sending money back to her family. She still felt tethered to her caregiving responsibilities: “Half of my brain was Yale things, and then the other half was ‘My parents can’t afford the electric bill this month, and I’m in Paris.’ I felt so guilty being in this place of so much opulence. My brain was exploding.” 

All three of the student caregivers I interviewed spoke of the dissonance between the concerns Yale expected them to have and those that dominated their day-to-day thoughts. Naomi, who used income from her off-campus job to pay her family’s bills when the pandemic began, while also helping her younger brother with technology needs for his online classes, expressed frankly that “school was the last thing on [her] mind.” Caregiving responsibilities took priority over grades, internships, and what Margaret described as the general pressure to “constantly over-achieve” that feels inescapable on Yale’s campus. As I heard these remarks, I recalled how frequently peers across Yale have voiced frustrations with the college’s high-pressure culture—and how rarely they are able to extricate themselves from it. For Margaret, the past months of caring for her father have been the primary exception to the “competitive extracurricular and leadership culture” that she was immersed in during high school and her first year at Yale. While caregiving involved sometimes overwhelming stressors, it also offered students a sense of identity beyond productivity or “success” as a Yale student. Student caregivers found new priorities: staying grounded, being intentional about their behavior towards friends and family, and improving themselves “beyond Yale’s strict definitions,” in Margaret’s words. Care deepened the quality of their lives in many ways. Rather than viewing caregiving as an obstacle to their success, they sought to affirm their roles as caregivers, while lessening the burdens they carried as students.

Huddling with her family in their living room as the power flickered back on, Margaret jumped up to plug in her laptop and email her residential college dean to ask for help in receiving an extension. “I sent her a newspaper article about the power outage,” Margaret said. Though the dean had not requested proof, she felt like she “had to do that.” With the email sent, she and her sister gathered at her father’s desk, a small wooden table with barely enough room for their bulking computer, a mouse, and two hard-backed chairs. The two daughters spent the remainder of the evening helping their dad talk through and type up the contents of emails and documents.

Margaret credits her relationship with her dean, who eventually helped her get an extension on that paper, as being a major source of academic support over the past few semesters. Leading research on student caregivers’ experiences echoes this, finding that strong advising relationships are crucial to these students’ success. According to a 2017 paper by University of Iowa researcher Lisa Schumacher, caregivers at earlier stages in their academic careers, or who lack the social resources to establish advising relationships, are left at an even greater risk of falling behind. Though the advising relationships were valuable to Margaret, they still felt limited to her capacity to perform for Yale: “It was more so, ‘How can we make time for you to complete these assignments?’ than, ‘How can we make this less stressful and ease this burden for you?’” After receiving the extension, concerns about her father’s condition still made it difficult for Margaret to concentrate on the paper. She was able to find resources to navigate the logistical challenges, but not the emotional dimensions of caregiving. 

Yale’s sole institutional resource directed at student caregivers is Dwight Hall’s Family Support Fellowship, which offers stipends and opportunities for community building to students supporting their families through the COVID-19 pandemic. When I spoke with Mark Fopeano, the fellowship’s administrator, about the origin of the program, he confessed that a conversation with a student last spring revealed to him the limitations of his knowledge about students’ experiences, and left him “[feeling] silly that I had made this assumption that just because a student was 20, that they didn’t know what it was like to have to work with young children around.” That conversation and further dialogue with students and administrators shaped the fellowship, which launched in the fall and provides thirty-four students with stipends between $318.75 and $1,275 per semester. The application process is short—students enter their names and addresses, then select one of the following types of family support they provide: 

  1. Supporting the academics and social emotional development of school-aged family members
  2. Providing basic needs support to at-risk family members,
  3. Extending care for family members recovering from COVID-19, or
  4. Other

 Fopeano stressed how important it was that students can access the fellowship’s resources without having to divulge sensitive information about their experiences—both lessening the burden on already overwhelmed students, and limiting administrators’ role in deciding which student caregivers are “most deserving” of support. In its most recent round, all of the applicants received the fellowship, though the future of the program remains unclear as Yale plans to return to a fully in-person campus in the fall.

The fellowship is a first step in acknowledging the variety and complexity of students’ experiences and responsibilities. A further step would be to fulfill the demands of Students Unite Now (SUN)––echoed by all three interviewees––to eliminate the student income contribution, which intensifies the burden of students who financially contribute to their families’ needs. SUN is also fighting to diversify and strengthen Yale’s Mental Health and Counseling Resources, which could help connect students with socioemotional support as they navigate caregiving responsibilities. Danielle also suggested that Yale professors increase flexibility in scheduling office hours and offer recordings of lectures to accommodate students who work long hours. Professors and administrators could implement these policies without demanding that students divulge sensitive information regarding their personal circumstances. These improvements would help remedy Yale’s unrealistic demand that, as Danielle says, “students keep going no matter what. There’s no space to grieve, mourn, or be human; you’re expected to first and foremost be a Yale student, when first and foremost we are people.” Institution-wide reforms to financial aid, mental healthcare, and teaching policy could move to honor the wide range of identities and responsibilities among student caregivers, and in doing so, could transform our campus into a place where all students are supported as their full selves.

At the end of our conversation, I asked Margaret about her favorite memories of the time spent with her family over the past year. She laughed and reminisced about watching Antiques Roadshow with her parents. As the night darkened after a long workday, they would gather in the family room and climb onto the couch. “We’d watch on the TV, which is so old; it belonged to my grandparents actually, so it just turns off at random times.” Nestled among her family as they laughed and shared reactions to the show, Margaret felt herself relax: “It was just good to talk with them about things in my life and in the world beyond the context of Yale.”

—Kanyinsola Anifowoshe is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College

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