It Takes a Village: Student Fathers with Unplanned Families at UGA
University of Georgia student Austin Bowman brings the essentials with him to class: his biochemistry text book, his laptop and his nine-month-old daughter Maxima in a baby carrier on his chest. Bowman is student father. His position as a 21-year-old dad at a Southeastern Conference (SEC) college is unique, but that doesn’t mean he is alone. Bowman has the support of his wife Valentina Mejia, their parents and the club Unplanned (UP) at UGA.
What is Unplanned at UGA?
UP at UGA was created in 2014 as a non-religious, non-political club that is officially recognized by the university. The organization was formed specifically to provide resources, friendship and support for student mothers and their children.
In a little more than two years, UP has welcomed four newborns, celebrated two mothers completing their degrees and invited even more student moms to join the organization. There’s also been shift in the club’s demographics: while the club is targeted towards mothers, more student fathers are wanting in. Fathers make up more than a third of the student parents in the club with five dads in total. All of the father members in UP joined the group with their respective partners.
The organization is made up of student parents as well as student body members who help raise donations, offer babysitting and give support. For UGA student parents, UP is a chance for them to meet people who know what it’s like to have a completely different set of responsibilities compared to other students. The organization hosts social events such as dinner parties and trips to local playgrounds.
Non-parent members of the group often watch the children at gatherings so parents have an opportunity to mingle. For Bowman, these get-togethers give him a sense of normalcy. Bowman said, “[The events] made me feel not as strange being a student parent because I was socializing. I may not be able to go out, but I’m socializing just like anybody else would.”
UP’s leadership plans several functions that cater to the men in the group such as cookouts and sporting event outings. Grace Anne Ingham, the Vice President of Peer Support for UP at UGA, worked with The UGA Athletic Association to create free student parent seating at UGA sports events once a month. Ingham said that because the student sections do not allow children, this initiative gives parents the chance to go to games without leaving their children behind.
UP is also an essential financial resource for some student parents at UGA. Non-parent members of the club donate diapers, books, clothes and babysitting services to the parents. The average cost of daycare in Georgia is around $633 per month. The University of Georgia’s childcare center costs $200 per week for infants, with a $20 discount for students and faculty members- averaging around $720 per month. Mejia recalls being told that there was around a three-year wait for the university’s childcare services. Instead of daycare, some parents such as UP couple Taylor Smith and Spencer Hogg choose to have alternating class schedules so that one parent is always available to take care of their child. The UP babysitting program allows parents to have consistent access to free childcare.
Who are the student dads of UP?
Even with the added pressures, college students with children are shown to have higher GPA’s than non-parents according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The responsibility of being parent gives them a motivation unknown to non-parents.
Spencer Hogg planned on going to a small college on a baseball scholarship after graduating high school, but his plans didn’t quite work out. Hogg is now a father to his son Branson, a student at a top SEC school studying political science and a fiancé with a wedding date in May. Hogg said while his son was unexpected, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Hogg stated, “If I could go back three years, and if I did come [to college] single, I’d probably be a sixth year senior. Having Branson really put a new perspective on things. He gives me a reason to want to graduate early.”
The stigmas around young parenthood can vary depending on gender. Mejia said she believes she and other young mothers are often stereotyped as irresponsible and unfit to be a parent, whereas young dads are portrayed as heroes. Bowman explains, “If you’re a dad taking care of your baby, one of two things is going on. You’re either an awesome solo dad, or you’re in a stable relationship.” While Mejia and Smith said they shy away from telling professors and classmates about their kids, Bowman will gladly bring his daughter into the classroom and even admitted to using her as an excuse to get out of a quiz. Hogg agreed with Bowman, adding that being a father is always his go-to “fun fact” when introducing himself in class.
But being father in college doesn’t come without challenges. Bowman shared, “Every day I go to do my homework, I’m going to a big SEC school, and I realize I have to take care of my baby at 21-years-old. It definitely is a daily reminder that I’m different.”
The isolation and demands of being a student parent are what makes organizations like UP at UGA so essential to these students. UP parents know that they will miss out on the normal undergraduate experience, but they still want to be able to feel like they are part of a community.
At the end of the day, fatherhood for these students is one of the most rewarding experiences. And for Bowman, the choice between spending time his daughter over going to a college party is a no brainer. “I really just want to include her in every single thing I do and make as many memories with her as possible,“ said Bowman.