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Graduate students adjust to family life on tight budget

April 15, 2008

Biochemistry graduate student Jana Simmons drives her 15-month-old daughter Angela Simmons home from day care April 4. Simmons, a research assistant in the MSU biochemical department, is working on getting a doctorate degree. “She is just such an angel,” said Simmons. “I’m ready to have another but I know I would never finish school if I was going to have another baby right now.”

Photo by Sam Ruiz | The State News

Jana Simmons’ day usually starts at 7 a.m. After dressing and feeding her 15-month-old daughter Angela, she drops her off in a Lansing daycare before returning to the MSU biochemical department where she works as a research assistant.

For graduate students like Simmons, it’s simply a way of life — raising a child and supporting a family, while struggling to balance work and pursuing a Ph.D.

Student Parents on a Mission, or SPOM, an on-campus group working in conjunction with the MSU Family Resource Center to provide help for students with families, estimates that 25 percent of graduate students have families, many working as either teaching or research assistants.

Created 14 years ago by LaRhonda Brown-Chastang — a student caring for a child on her own — SPOM serves to help student-parents by providing information and support, said Leann Harris, administrative assistant at the Family Resource Center.

“We try to help in any area of their life where personal and MSU life overlap,” she said.

In addition to information, SPOM subsidizes the cost for home, healthcare and works with the Office of Financial Aid to provide $1,000 per semester, per child.

Nevertheless, raising a child on a limited budget can be tough, said Simmons, who lives on a yearly stipend of about $20,000, and $1,000 covers a little more than a month’s worth of childcare.

“It’s tough to make ends meet,” Simmons said. “We live on a tight budget. The stipend doesn’t cover family. If you’re alone, you could do it, but with a family, it’s not enough. We have to supplement.”

In addition to receiving food stamps, support from Women, Infants and Children and university grants, Simmons said her husband, Aaron, also works three jobs, ranging from working at the Michigan Attorney General’s office to roofing in order to keep the family afloat.

“We don’t spend money on anything other than bills, and gasoline,” she said.

With all of this, Simmons said, the budget isn’t the only thing that’s limited. She said she also has little time between work and school to see her child. The child care facility in Spartan Village has a year-long waiting list.

“I feel robbed,” she said. “By the time I pick her up in the evening, we have two hours together. When we pick her up, it’s dinner, bath, play for an hour, then down she goes. So I get maybe three hours a day to spend with her. That’s hard.”

Simmons’ situation is not unique. Between work and school, family time is a precious commodity, said Jennifer Bengtson, a third year graduate student and TA in the anthropology department who has a 6-year-old son, Gabe.

“It is really hard to do all of this. But it is something you simply have to do. It was especially hard at first, when he was just a tiny baby,” Bengtson said. “I do not have the liberty to drop the ball and get behind on my schoolwork because, if I do, it directly affects the amount of time I am able to dedicate to him.”

Despite the struggles that each day present, Simmons said raising Angela is worth every second.

“She’s just sunshine, I love her,” she said. “I wouldn’t trade her for the world. I just wish I had more time with her.”

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