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.
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.
So to all the student mamas out there, I admire you. I think
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.