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Great Expectations

Summer 2012
Thanks to the U's Student Parent HELP Center, undergraduate moms like Xia Xiong can excel.
By Cynthia Scott 
Photographs by Sher Stoneman

Like hundreds of other University of Minnesota students, Xia Xiong is looking for a summer internship. She’s hoping to land something that will further her career goal of working in public relations or human resources. But unlike most other students in between their junior and senior years, it’s extraordinary that Xiong is at such a routine juncture in her academic career.
University of Minnesota student Xia Xiong and her 2-year-old son Julian start the day with a trip to day care. See more photos at the bottom. Open the article layout PDF here.

Xiong, who turned 21 in May, is a single parent. Two years ago, when she discovered she was pregnant with her now-toddler son Julian, she was resolute that she would finish her degree in communications studies. “I wasn’t interested in being a nice, traditional Hmong woman with a traditional Hmong husband,” she says. But all the resolve in the world couldn’t erase the dire circumstances that faced her: Her mother, with whom she had been living, disowned her. She moved in with Julian’s father, but it became apparent that he was not ready to have a family. She needed money. The stress of it was close to swamping her.

And then her academic adviser, Lisa Clark, referred her to the Student Parent HELP Center (SPHC) on campus, a program in the Office of Student Affairs that assists students who are parents—or soon will be. Xiong met with SPHC counselor Melanie Soland (M.S.W. ’10), whom she recalls was only the second person in her life to congratulate her on the baby-to-be. “It was so welcoming. It was really exactly what I needed right then,” Xiong says.

SPHC—HELP stands for Higher Education for Low-Income People—was founded in the 1960s as part of General College for students from nontraditional backgrounds. In the 1980s, prodded by students who were single parents, its mission shifted to assisting low-income undergraduate students who were parents or about to become a parent. Today the center serves about 300 students at any given time. Both mothers and fathers are eligible, but about three-quarters of its clientele is single mothers.

The center’s director, Susan Warfield, is known for her full-throated and wholehearted advocacy for student parents. She points to the walls of her small, crowded office, covered with photographs of kids who now have college-educated parents, thanks in large part to the program she runs. “Those are my kids,” she says. “When I think about what their moms have achieved, I’m just so humbled. Really, it’s a mindblower. And they’re really good parents too.”

SPHC’s most essential service, Warfield says, is child care assistance. “Child care is a make-or-break point for our clients,” Warfield says. The center provides grants, $180,000 a year in total, to low-income student parents who qualify for the Minnesota State Grant (administered by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education) and are in good academic standing. The assistance can mean the difference between staying in school and dropping out.

Other services include crisis intervention referrals; assistance with problem-solving, parenting, and life skills; financial aid counseling; adopt-a-student-parent gift program during the holidays; support groups; and mentoring by successful student parents who have made it to graduation. The center also offers help with career planning and résumé review.

“People assume our students don’t do well academically, but that’s not the case,” Warfield says. “Student parents nationally are more likely to go in and out of school for short periods of time, so they might take longer to graduate, but their GPA is pretty much identical to other students.”

Not all students take time off. Xiong delivered Julian in March 2010, just before spring break, and was back in class after the break to finish spring semester. Soland says that’s not unusual. “It’s very common with our students that when they have a child they have a new focus and drive that other students don’t have. We have students who started college at a traditional age and dropped out because they couldn’t handle it academically. Then they come back 10 years later with a child and they get straight A’s. That’s how Xia is. She is very focused.”

A recent $250,000 grant from the Minnesota Department of Health allowed SPHC to hire a staff person to provide direct outreach and intensive support to its most vulnerable population: newly pregnant students and first-time moms and dads. (The state allocation comes from the federal Affordable Care Act, because of the high correlation between positive health outcomes for children and at least one parent having a college degree.)

One of SPHC’s challenges is that it’s not obvious who needs its services. When Warfield became director 12 years ago, she worked to establish relationships with student health services personnel and academic advisers throughout the U so that they could refer students. It’s critical to identify students who need SPHC’s services early on, Warfield says, before they make a decision they wouldn’t make if they had support, such as dropping out of school or terminating their pregnancy. “What we don’t want is a student throwing up her hands and saying, ‘I can’t do it. It’s too hard.’ ”

And it is hard. After Julian was born, Xiong’s relationship with her mother thawed and she moved back in with her and her extended family. In addition to attending a full load of classes and caring for Julian, Xiong helps ferry around her younger siblings and holds a part-time job designing marketing materials in the U’s School of Dentistry. Until recently, she had a second part-time job as a Wells Fargo Bank teller.

Her days are strictly regimented, beginning early with a trip to Julian’s day care and often not ending until after an evening class. But even on five hours of sleep a night, Xiong is clearly enchanted with her little boy. Her cell phone is chock-full of Julian’s photos: in a traditional Hmong outfit, wearing high heels, dancing to rock music, sleeping with his stuffed Piglet. Whenever Xiong says something to her son she says it in English first and Hmong second. “It’s amazing to watch him learn. He says ‘mama’ in English and ‘milk’ in Hmong,” Xiong says.

Being able to take refuge at SPHC, where she can collect her thoughts, rest, and study, has been crucial for Xiong when she is on campus. The heart of the SPHC is the old student lounge in Appleby Hall on the East Bank, accessible by key code on the door so students can stay late. Especially during pregnancy, this room was Xia’s on-campus refuge, where two mismatched couches mingle with a mini-kitchen, a modest kids’ play area, and a library with titles like The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and Just Kiss Me and Tell Me You Did the Laundry. The center offers free photocopying and has a three-computer lab where there’s an immense sense of compassion for students who are trying to finish a paper with an antsy toddler in tow.

Xiong has been known to nap on those mismatched couches between classes. But the real benefit of hanging out at SPHC is the chance to be with other moms who are also working hard for their mortarboards.

“Unless [somebody’s stomach] has a bump or she actually has her kids with her, you would never know she’s like you,” Xiong says.

That’s why Warfield calls her clientele “the invisible population.

“More than anything else, our student parents crave community,” Warfield says. That’s a big reason why every Wednesday, SPHC hosts a healthful, home-cooked, protein-rich lunch for its parents. A recent meet-up featured black bean and corn soft tacos with salsa and cheese. Sometimes there’s a formal program, like a question-and-answer session with moms who made it to graduation day. Sometimes it’s just an open forum where parents can vent and swap stories. “Sometimes people just need to talk to people who know what’s it’s like,” Warfield says.

And sometimes, like on a recent day in May, Xia and other student parents get to party with each other and their kids on Northrop Mall at the annual SPHC End of the Year Celebration and Grad Party. The gathering has grown in the past decade from 11 students and staff going out to lunch together to a full party with catered food, games, and donations from 70 local businesses for gifts to the parents to reward them for making it through another year.

It’s a moment of deep satisfaction for Warfield, who finds constant inspiration from SPHC’s clients. “The students are excelling across the board, against all odds,” she says. “They almost have to be extraordinary to begin with.”

Alyssa Ford contributed to this article.
Cynthia Scott (M.A. ’89) is managing editor of

Photos from the article "Great Expectations"

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