Winter 2017

Family friendly

The Student Parent HELP Center is an oasis and a resource for U of M students raising children

Jeff Bies became involved with the Student Parent HELP Center in 2014, after getting custody of his 12-year-old brother, James. “They sat with me for probably two to three hours a week for a full year talking to government representatives about Social Security disability benefits, child support, and medical benefits for James,” he says of the staff.
Photography by Scott Streble

No one ever said raising a 12-year-old was easy. But keeping a pre-teen boy fed, clothed, entertained, and in school is especially challenging when you are only 23 and a full-time student yourself. Just ask Jeff Bies.

Bies was awarded custody of his little brother, James, in June 2014 after a judge deemed his mother, who had a history of mental illness and substance abuse, unable to properly care for the boy. Bies, who is currently working on a master’s in mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota, believed he could provide some stability for James. The court agreed.

Bies knew it was the right thing to do. But he also worried about the responsibilities that came with custody. “I’ve never been one to reach out and ask for help, but I didn’t want to screw things up for him,” says Bies, who had left home in his early teens and been homeless off and on until college. He also didn’t want to jeopardize his own academic performance.

Fortunately, Bies was about to discover that the University has some valuable tools in place to support student parents, including the Student Parent HELP Center (SPHC). Staffed by two full-time social workers, social work interns, and a student employee, the center is dedicated to assisting undergraduates with children. It is centrally located on the U’s East Bank campus, and it houses a computer lab and a lounge where student parents can study, relax, or eat in a kid-friendly environment. Laptops, printers, and copiers are available, and students can peruse a library filled with resources on such topics as child development, violence prevention, divorce and custody, and bullying.

The center also provides services that support student parents who need help navigating the legal, financial, and emotional challenges that come with raising kids while being in school. “We’re an all social-work program, so every single staff member is trained to provide referrals and coaching appropriate to their training and expertise,” says SPHC director Susan Warfield. 

Staff members help student parents with everything from finding child care to getting to court appearances to submitting paperwork for government benefits. The goal is not only to promote access, retention, and academic success for U of M undergraduates with children (many of the center’s users are the first in their families to attend college), but also to create a solid foundation for the future success of their kids.

“The impact is meant to be intergenerational,” Warfield says. “If the parents thrive, the kids are more likely to thrive.”

Sarah Lechowich with Annika, 9, and G, 11. Since earning her bachelor’s degree in 2010, Sarah has come back to the Student Parent Help Center each year to share her story as a member of an alumni panel. “I was watered and nourished at the SPHC intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally,” she says.
Photography by Scott Streble

A half-century of service

The center got its start in 1967 as an academic support program for low-income students entering the U of M’s General College (the acronym HELP stands for Higher Education for Low-income People). In the 1980s, after the U established programs to address the needs of students of color and other traditionally underserved populations, the center was reshaped to focus exclusively on assisting a diverse population of student parents. In 2006, the center became part of the U’s Office of Student Affairs.

The number of students using the center has grown significantly in recent years, from roughly 30 in 2000, when Warfield arrived at the U, to nearly 300 today.

Many student parents are in their 20s and have young children, but older students with teens also use the center’s services. Both men and women attend a weekly support group on Wednesdays. Some are single, some married, some divorced. “We do outreach, but privacy laws often prevent us from contacting students with dependents directly,” Warfield says. “Many students come through our door because professors or advisors refer them to us.”

Sarah Lechowich, ’10 B.A., ’12 M.A., who now works for St. Paul College, says the SPHC was critical to getting her through college after a divorce left her a single mother with two young kids. The staff alerted her to the availability of a TRIO McNair scholarship (which she got), and Lechowich always found the lounge filled with other student parents who understood the challenges she faced.

A place free of stigma

The support group meetings, facilitated by a staff member and a graduate social work intern, always draw a crowd. Topics range from study skills and career planning to parenting skills and budget management.

Kierra Mickelson, a senior studying business marketing and retail merchandising, says she likes attending because she knows she can talk about the challenges of raising her 4-year-old daughter without being judged. “I still have a hard time telling my professors that I have a kid, because I worry that they’ll somehow think it’s a limitation,” she says.

Kierra Mickelson with daughter Sophia Mickelson-Bennett, 4. Kierra credits Sophia’s father and the people she’s met through the Student Parent HELP Center for encouraging her to pursue her dream of becoming a buyer for ethnic hair care products. “When I feel like I can’t do it any more, they tell me, ‘You can. You’re going to be great.’”
Photography by Scott Streble

But Mickelson says she has received remarkable support from professors who learned she was a parent. And her experience at the U has led her to participate in an outreach program run by the SPHC that encourages teen parents to pursue a college degree. “I like to help them learn about career opportunities and encourage them to follow their dreams and ambitions,” she says.

Funding for families

Stories like those of Jeff Bies and Kierra Mickelson have inspired several donors to support the work of the SPHC. This year, the center received a $10,000 renewable pledge from former U faculty member Caroline Gilbert to create an emergency fund for undergraduate student parents who run into unexpected difficulties. The Martha and Donald Farley Family Fund has given $30,000 to the center since 2014, and an anonymous donor has provided more than $28,000 to establish a scholarship for student parents called “Two Generations. One Future.” Brigid Riley, who is supporting additional fundraising efforts for the scholarship and who worked at the SPHC as a graduate student, says she has long been impressed by the center's work: “The thing I see at the SPHC is the transformational power of education.”

Bies says he still faces daily challenges in figuring out how to juggle the various tasks associated with being in college and caring for his brother. But the SPHC has helped keep him afloat—assisting him with managing court dates and medical expenses, and even providing free massages for students during finals. “I can’t imagine a group of people that could do more,” he says. “They’re basically superheroes.”

Joel Hoekstra is a Minneapolis writer.

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