By Sarah Benjamin • April 27, 2017•Issues, Balancing Private and Professional Life
In college, we learn that it is important for us to constantly build our professional network. We learn that we need to create a collective pool of resources that we can draw on in the future when we are ready to look for jobs or internships. But, what about the needs we have in the interim? We put much less work into building a personal network, a cohort of similarly situated people that are willing to offer comprehensive mentorship or help us with personal needs. Many college students make new friends on campus, but leave behind family and deep friendships when they relocate for school. In law school, the focus on professional relationships becomes even more rooted, so much so that even our 1L friends become professional colleagues by the time we graduate. With these professional boundaries, many of us start asking for less help and internalize our problems and needs as only our own. As a single parent, however, I've learned that the one thing I had to quickly let go of is my pride in not asking for help and that a personal network of close mentors, similarly situated students, and good friends were among the resources I needed to develop to survive law school. I believe that the lessons about self care I have learned is not exclusive to student parents, but that student parents can offer important lessons about self care to our colleagues.
I was fortunate to attend an undergraduate university that had beautiful on campus housing and amenities for families. However, as a single mother I found myself ostracized in a community of married parents or limited by amenities that could only be taken advantage of by a two parent household. It took almost my entire undergraduate experience before I could get a real footing into my campus community. This experience made me nervous to change schools again, to have to acclimate my family again to a new environment that may not be accepting or accommodating. Perhaps, as some sort of insurance, I wrote extensively about my family and children in my law school applications, hoping to be accepted by a school that was welcoming to families.
When I was first admitted to law school in D.C. I was excited and nervous because I knew that it was a city that offered diversity and resources for families, but I also knew that I had to start planning really early because the cost of living was high. To my surprise, however, it was beyond difficult piecing together a plan for my family to relocate smoothly. First, almost every rental website had the rates and availability wrong. Social services never answered the phone so I couldn’t find out what resources would be available and the D.C. mom blogs were depressing and discouraging. Finally, my school wanted to help me but they did not have a central resource guide and kept sending me to students with totally different family structures and solutions than I needed. The student parents I was fortunate to meet provided useful insight but most were attending school at night or part time, and I was a full time dual degree student with very different needs.
So, I pieced together what I could and relied on the fact that I found a great apartment in the best school district and would spend the summer figuring it out. During that summer, I was able to meet a student named Kossi Siwotsi, a dad of two (now three) who was juggling going to school full time and providing for his wife and children. Like me, Kossi is also from West Africa and I instantly felt like he understood my struggles more than anyone I met. BUT every time I saw him he was smiling, laughing, and full of energy! I kept thinking to myself, how is he so calm and happy when there was so much to do and so many responsibilities on his plate? Every time I came to him stressed out about something, he was able to turn it around and renew my hope that things will work out fine.
I soon discovered that Kossi was not just a law student but also a pastor! I couldn’t believe that he and his wife had the time to run services from their house and keep up with their community, but they made time for both their children and so many people who needed their help. There was no well-oiled machine, they just worked together and took each task one at a time with the confidence that things would work out. I have been immensely grateful to Kossi for his mentorship during law school. As soon as I met him he automatically introduced me to people as his mentee. I was grateful for this because he provided a way for me to join the community. I didn’t have to feel ostracized because he was willing to pull a seat up to the table for me to engage with my campus community.
It may seem intuitive to most people that they should rebuild their community and support system when they move, especially if they have children. However, most people don't realize how difficult this can be, especially if you have children. Particularly because as a parent you tend to be more cautious and selective about who is close to your family. Additionally, managing friendships can be difficult when your time is limited. You need friends that can be understanding when they haven't heard from you in a while or when you can't hang out after class. My experience has been that I have more relaxed and understanding relationships with other similarly situated parents. In fact, I was able to form a quick friendship with another mentor at law school whose experience was similar to mine. When one of my now closest friends, Sequoia Ayala, and I first met we immediately connected about our shared experiences. Not only had we experienced being parents attending school, but also experienced pregnancy during our respective school terms. Because of our similar experiences, we shared many of the same interests in social justice issues. Our friendship actually became a rock from which we began an organization at our school to connect and help other student parents.
Over the past two years, our Parents Attending Law School Association (PALS) has learned to shift again and again to reflect the various needs, availability, and personalities of our members. At times, we are a liaison between students and administration, just providing guides and resources to students and at other times we verge on the edge of advocacy to address real consequences student parents experience on campus. What has remained constant, however, is that we offer a resource where students can plug right into a personal network of people who are willing to be a resource for one another. We try to create an environment where parents can just meet to talk, share their frustrations they are experiencing at home, and connect to other students who may be able to baby sit for an exam or car pool to school. While this group offers supports to student parents in law school, building a personal network is something important that all students should strive to create because as they will likely soon experience as they move to create their own families and lives, you can't do it all alone! More importantly, is that you shouldn't feel like you have to. Rather, putting a little effort into building a network of people to call on when you need help now will help you to get to the finish line.