Raising a child while you study for a degree is not for the faint-hearted. Resource talked to four students who embarked on this adventure, and who now sometimes come to class feeling rough due to a screaming baby rather than a great party. Bringing up a baby and getting through uni – can you do both?
Bent and Antonia Elvers and their son Nanda.
text Coretta Jongeling
Bent and Antonia Elvers, Master’s students of Organic Agriculture and Environmental Sciences respectively, had a baby eight months ago: Nanda Elias. Antonia: ‘Luckily I had an easy pregnancy and I was on an internship until two months before Nanda was born, which went fine. Now I am doing a morning course and I keep the rest of the day free. Bent is working on his thesis. ‘At first we thought: we’ll just divide the day in two, so we can both work for four hours. But that turned out to be impossible. Working at home is less productive: you are busy cooking, cleaning, and there is swimming for babies. I regularly work at the weekend.’
Bachelor’s student Remi (who doesn’t want his surname in Resource) became a father nearly a year ago. He alternates studying and childcare too. ‘For us, the birth of the baby at the end of May worked out perfectly. The summer holiday was just around the corner and we had two months to enjoy him. Now my girlfriend and I take it in turns to study. I’m doing two periods fulltime now, but in periods three and four I stayed at home. I only had some resits. Revising was hard work, mind you. It’s an illusion to think you can look after a baby and study at the same time. We both got behind with our studies.’
Tshering Choden came to Wageningen two years ago with her daughter Dechen, who was six at the time. She finished her Master’s in Plant Sciences at the end of last year, in less than two years. ‘In retrospect, it was crazy. I don’t know how I did it. I am disciplined by nature, and I’ve never yet failed a course. And I worked on my thesis through the summer. But often I was running all day, from the creche to class and back, and once Dechen was in bed at eight thirty, I had to study. Time management is an essential skill for a student with a child, and you’ve got to be very highly motivated.’
Getting help with children
WUR has a website for students with children, which offers information about getting guidance and financial support such as child benefit. ‘If you fall behind with your studies because of your pregnancy, you can apply for financial support (FOS),’ says student counsellor Nadja Schiemann. ‘That is a question of a maximum of four months, but only if you have fallen really behind.’ Dutch students have the option of taking a temporary ‘study break’ during which they don’t pay tuition fees, and they can start again whenever they like. It is a lot harder for foreign students to take a break because they lose their visa if they do.
Tshering: ‘When I wanted to apply for my visa I was immediately told that the university would not help me to arrange a visa for my child. Not exactly welcoming. My husband is Dutch and he helped me, but a lot of other students don’t get any help. I know students who can’t bring their child with them because of that, which is very tough.’
Remi hasn’t had many problems. ‘The university is very flexible. After the first year you can plan your timetable yourself, and the communication with teachers is very good. My girlfriend experiences more problems in her degree in dentistry. She has a lot of practicals and isn’t allowed to miss anything. I don’t want to badmouth dentists but er… they are a bit less considerate there.’
Schiemann: ‘Moving deadlines or adapting courses is not usually much of a problem here in Wageningen and you can discuss it with the teacher directly. I rarely come across students who meet with an unhelpful response. The biggest problem I see here is that the Forum still doesn’t have a suitable room for mothers who need to express milk. The room we have now is tucked away in the cellar behind the bike racks.’
When you are expecting a baby, finding accommodation can be quite a challenge. It’s hard enough to find a single room, let alone a space for several people. Bent and Antonia were faced with this issue. Bent: ‘We went to Idealis, but we didn’t feel at all supported there. If you are doing a PhD you can apply for a family apartment, but if you are a Bachelor’s or a Master’s student, they don’t have any accommodation at all where you are allowed to live with a child. They told us straightaway that they couldn’t help us and we would have to look for something on the private housing market.’
‘In general it’s true that we don’t have suitable accommodation for families,’ says Marisca Wind of Idealis. ‘We are a student housing provider, so most of our rooms are for one person. If a tenant gets pregnant, we help her look for an appropriate alternative. We also call on other parties such as the Housing Association to help. We are sorry these students had such a bad experience; that is not like us, we think. We try to do everything in our power to help in these kinds of cases.’ The university says it does not help students look for accommodation. Its advice is to start looking as early as possible.
Sharing your student life with a baby requires hard work and good planning, it seems. Do you get to a party now and then? Tshering: ‘Not really! Evenings and weekends are mainly for my family. We do invite friends round to our house.’ For Remi, not much has changed. ‘We were living together before we had the baby, and we didn’t go out three times a week then either. I had done my exploring of student life before that’. Antonia: ‘Our life is not like that of the average student. But we are happy that we have a baby now, and we are really enjoying it. When you are young you are a lot more flexible than you are when you have a job.’