Graduate Commons Program: Supporting Student Parents

Video screenshot.

Junlei Li leads a conversation about working through this period.

3 min read

Graduate study at Harvard is a full-time job and many students are juggling school, parenting, and homeschooling — all from inside their apartments.

Kaitlin Roberson, an Ed.M. candidate at the Graduate School of Education (HGSE), is one of those students. She recently shared her experience at a fireside chat event with HGSE Professor Junlei Li, an expert in supporting children and their caregivers hosted by Harvard Housing’s Graduate Commons Program (GCP). The full video can be viewed here.

“I wake up super early to study before my children wake up, and then catch up on assignments in the afternoons when they’re on screens,” Roberson said. “I’m amazed at how hard it is to be productive while being isolated with my kids.”

Li’s message to parents like Kaitlin was simple: There are reasons for hope, even in this difficult moment. Research shows that what children — and adults — need is attainable: Maintaining at least one caring and consistent human connection through ordinary daily interactions, even if such moments must be brief at times.

This event was the latest collaboration undertaken by GCP to support graduate student parents and their families, following an earlier partnership with Harvard Ed Portal to offer Mind Matters: Families Make A Difference series. Since February, more than  a dozen Harvard parents, led by the GCP family programming team, have been meeting weekly.

Since COVID-19 broke out in the Boston area, serving Harvard families has taken inventiveness. First, GCP took Mind Matters online. But even then, the curriculum could only reach the subset of families already enrolled — and parents were asking for space to discuss the challenges of caring for children during COVID-19. So, a new solution was found: Pause Mind Matters for three weeks to offer a new, Harvard-wide series. In addition to the event with Li, the Parenting in Challenging Times series has included parent-to-parent support sessions facilitated by Graduate Commons family programmers Cyntia Barzelatto, Stephanie Catz, and Eva Gottschalk.

Spearheading the novel Parenting in Challenging Times is doctoral candidate and GCP family programming intern Anna Kirby, who also studies with Li at HGSE. As a resident of Harvard University Housing, Kirby is passionate about promoting learning experiences outside the classroom.

“Our recent programming has blurred the line between my academic work and my internship,” she said. “We’re using the insights from Harvard researchers to directly support caregivers in our own community.”

Holding space for student parents to connect during this unprecedented time hit home with the Graduate Commons leadership team, who works to fulfill the Harvard Housing vision of Making Harvard Home. For students like Roberson, the events are often a reminder that kids don’t need caregivers to be perfect.

“I’ve been more focused lately on the small little connection points [with my kids],” Roberson said. “Kissing my kids’ freckles, a one-minute snuggle, or a back rub can reconnect us in the midst of very stressful days. Parents need to know that we are all doing the best we can and that some days will be smoother than others.”