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Student Parents Don’t Just Breastfeed, They Do the Impossible

By now I’m sure you’ve seen the viral image of Jacci Sharkey, a 24-year-old graduate of the University of the Sunshine Coast, wearing her cap and gown while breastfeeding her 6-week-old baby. It’s popped up on virtually every social media site I’ve scrolled, typically with some kind of applause emoji and "#breastfeeding."

You might remember a similar nursing-in-a-cap-and-gown photo that spread around the Internet this past summer. Similar to Sharkey’s photo, 25-year-old graduate Karlesha Thurman’s photo was celebrated/criticized with a breastfeeding-focused hashtag and headline.

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Yes, breastfeeding! But there’s another point that needs to be made: Sharkey and Thurman didn’t just finish their degrees while nursing; they finished their degrees while also being parents. In Sharkey’s case, this was her second child.

“Just wanted to share a photo from the most recent graduation that I am proud of,” Sharkey wrote in a message shared on the USC Facebook page, where the viral photo first appeared. “I’m extremely proud that with the support of the Uni, during my degree I was able to have 2 babies and still finish my degree. Thanks USC!”

She wasn’t just proud of breastfeeding, she was proud of accomplishing something really difficult and admirable—balancing coursework and college while also caring for and supporting a family. The hashtag USC chose? #itcanbedone. YES! IT CAN BE DONE!

They’re doing truly incredible, time-bending things with the same heartache and sacrifices of any mom.

We like to think of college students as nap-taking, beer-funneling, perpetually broke kids—barely adults. Yet there are so many young adults taking on grown-up responsibility and stretching themselves thin in order to complete their education and tackle their goals, whether they’re getting their bachelor's or PhDs. Many student parents feel quite alone—isolated from the typical “college experience,” without a solid support system that knows the unique balancing act it takes to be a student parent.

And they’re doing truly incredible, time-bending things with the same heartache and sacrifices of any mom. When we talk about maternity leave issues and that important “bonding and recovering” time that isn’t valued in the U.S., we overlook student parents because—why? We think they made a bad choice to have kids before getting their degree? We forget they deserve that time, too? If they aren’t posting a “controversial” breastfeeding photo, then they’re perpetually left out of the parenting and pregnancy conversation.

Of course there are some compassionate, helpful colleges and professors out there (we should be celebrating USC as much as we celebrate Sharkey), but campuses typically don’t have the best resources for their student parents. Plenty of moms give birth and turn in papers a few days later. I’ve heard, “My college had me jump through hoops” from multiple student moms. Don’t moms have enough hoops to jump through?

“I think a lot of schools and administrators are afraid of the cost of implementing resources on campus, but they really don’t have to cost a lot,” said mom.me blogger Chaunie Brusie and author of the blog and book "Tiny Blue Lines." “It starts with an attitude of acceptance—believing that pregnant and parenting students have a right to be on campus just as much as any other student.”

Brusie is an advocate for student parents, and suggests low-cost solutions like more online classes, volunteer babysitting groups and campus health centers equipped to help pregnant students.

Because you know what? Student parents are extraordinary people—hardworking, focused, overwhelmed yet determined. They have tiny people looking up at them as an example, so they have a unique motivation that many college students don’t. They have a reason to take their classes and career prospects seriously—there’s no room to mess around and waste money.

And I’m continuously reminded of their accomplishments through the Early Mama community. Like the college couple who studied abroad with their young son, the ambitious young mom getting her doctorate degree and countless women who had children cheering for them, looking up to them while they crossed the stage and accepted their hard-earned diploma.

Hayley Geisterfer is an inspirational example. She recently graduated from Creighton University with a degree in biology and medical anthropology summa cum laude, and she accomplished it largely because she was able to bring her newborn to class—nursing during lectures, wearing him during presentations and taking tests while holding him.

“My first few days bringing [my baby] to class was scary and nerve-wracking,” she said on EarlyMama.com. “I felt really overwhelmed, but eventually it became more natural, I gained confidence, felt more comfortable, and somewhere along the way it became our new norm. It became normal for everyone else around me too. Classmates and professors weren’t bothered by a small baby noise now and then, and generally ignored us and that made it easier.”

Geisterfer graduated when her son was 3 months old, and she’s taking a year off before applying to medical school.

Image via Hayley Geisterfer

Victoria Garcia is another recent college mom grad, completing her degree in broadcasting from Metropolitan State University of Denver. She largely credits the support of her family for motivating and encouraging her to finish, especially when she wanted to quit.

Her graduation cap read, “My son inspired me, mom and hubby supported me, TOGETHER we all made this dream a reality.”

The thing that struck me about Garcia’s story is how much pride and accomplishment she felt holding her degree—much more than any graduate I’ve met. Perhaps things are more meaningful when we have to fight our way over obstacles and overwhelming odds to prove what we’re made of.

Image via Victoria Garcia

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So to all the student mamas out there, I admire you. I think you’re valid and important, especially for showing your children how to accomplish big goals and do hard things. As challenging as it is, you’re not alone in this. You CAN do it, whether you’re breastfeeding at graduation or not.

#itcanbedone

Image of Jacci Sharkey via University of the Sunshine Coast

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