Three years ago, Karolina Szymanski was working, studying part-time at U of T, and caring for her father, who had terminal cancer. She was also pregnant. The morning after her father’s funeral, she went into labour. Szymanski, now 25, is a full-time student in fourth year balancing a Work-Study position and a full course load while raising her two-year-old son. Szymanski’s story may be dramatic, but as a student caregiver, she is far from unique.
“There is this general perception that your typical undergraduate student doesn’t have family responsibilities, which is not true,” says Magdalena Rydzy, interim manager of the Family Care Office, which advises and advocates for caregivers on campus, and serves thousands of U of T students each year.
According to the National Survey of Student Engagement, more than 40 per cent of U of T students spend time each week caring for a dependent. We might imagine student caregivers as older, part-time, or graduate students, but the NSSE shows that many full-time undergrads also have family responsibilities. Caregivers are as diverse as the student body. Some, like Szymanski, are parents, while others look after siblings, sick or aging family members, or disabled loved ones.
When crunch time hits, Lindsay Foster wakes up at 5 a.m. instead of 6:30. Early morning is the best time for the 42-year-old single mother of five to get work done.
“I dropped out of school in grade nine. I was a drug addict for about 15 years, and was married to a biker,” she says. After leaving her husband, Foster entered treatment, high school, and finally the Transitional Year Programme at U of T. She is graduating this spring, and hopes to go on to a Master’s in social work.
Foster’s kids range from age 11 to 20. The four that live at home attend three different schools—some mornings, Foster makes two trips in her van before walking her youngest daughter to school. Then she hops on a bus for a 45-minute trip to campus. Driving is just too expensive.
The commute is a common stressor for student caregivers. In recent years, the United Way’s Poverty by Postal Code report has tracked the movement of low-income families to the inner suburbs, where housing is cheaper but services are scarce.
“Lots of students live in the suburbs and they commute,” says Rydzy. “Students have told us that if they could find affordable housing close to campus, then their lives would be really simplified. They wouldn’t have to commute for such a long time, and they could find childcare and other resources downtown.” Foster agrees.
“If there were affordable housing units close to campus, my life would be radically different in terms of having more time with my kids,” says Foster. “It’s really tough to have any sort of quality time with them. It seems like in the evenings, after I pick them up, it’s just a steady stream of chores.”
U of T operates Student Family Housing, a 713-unit development east of campus, but there’s a waiting list.
When her children were younger, Foster was able to depend on her mother for help. Other parents are not so lucky.
“We don’t really have a very good childcare plan as a nation,” says Rydzy. “There are no childcare spaces. Most of our full-time students qualify for childcare subsidies, but if there are no spaces [in local daycares], they can’t really access that resource.”
Szymanski started trying to get her son into daycare when he was only three months old. It took two years to line up both the subsidy and the space. “It felt like a miracle that I should happen to get them both in the same week,” she says. There is a year-long wait to obtain a spot in on-campus daycare.
Parents are the most visible student caregivers at U of T, but they are not alone. Amina Stella, a third-year employment relations student, has three step-siblings under the age of nine, who she looks after a few times a week. Stella cooks, cleans, and entertains. She also works part-time and plays soccer.
“I do get a chance to go out, but I have to plan,” she says. “I have to tell my mom or my dad in advance, and say, ‘This is what I want to do, I’m not going to be here, so figure something out.’” Even so, Stella’s situation is more flexible than many—the Family Care Office works with students who have primary responsibility for younger siblings.
Not all caregivers look after children. Liem Vu is a fourth-year criminology student. Five years ago, his grandmother had a stroke, which left her partly paralyzed.
“Before, my grandmother was really healthy, she was able to make her own meals,” says Vu. After the stroke, “she wasn’t able to cook or even use the microwave safely.” Vu’s grandmother, now 89, lives with two of her daughters. Three afternoons a week, Vu pitches in.
“I go over around lunch time, heat up her lunch, take her downstairs, making sure she gets down safely, and just sit with her while she eats,” he says. “On other days my brother comes and takes my place.”
A care worker comes by twice a week to help Vu’s grandmother bathe. This is about as much aid as most families can expect from the government, says Lynne Gallagher, who works with caregivers for Family Care Toronto.
“If somebody needs 24-hour care, the most they can get is 20 hours a week, and those are people who are really in critical need of support,” says Gallagher. “Most people get a couple hours a week.” An aging population is putting stress on the system, and funding has not increased along with demand.
Vu’s family is managing, but others struggle to bridge the gap. The majority of care has always been provided by families. “There is a perception that the families are there, and that they are able to do it,” says Gallagher. But families can be more complicated than the government assumes.
Daniel Bader, an upper-year English student, spent years estranged from his father. “He was a very mean person. He was an abusive person, to some extent,” says Bader.
In 2001, Bader’s father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Now he has difficulty walking, and cannot drive. A care worker visits four days a week to help. Bader doesn’t consider himself to be a caregiver, but he drops by a couple times a week.
“I go over, and I do his banking for him, I cook sometimes, I get him groceries. Most of the time we just talk,” he says. He isn’t sure what role he should take on as his father gets sicker.
“It’s an open question, as to whether I will need to [become a caregiver], whether if he becomes worse he won’t be able to afford the help,” says Bader. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I’m a bit scared about that. How much of my life do I need to put on hold?”
It’s a question all caregivers ask themselves at some point, and the answer can be discouraging. The result is stress, even mental illness. Caregivers are particularly susceptible to depression, as Rydzy knows well from her casework at the FCO.
“A few weeks ago I saw a graduate student who is also a caregiver of her elderly mother, who is ill. She commutes an hour and a half every day to campus downtown, and she works, and her mother is sick,” says Rydzy. “This student is under stress, she feels guilty, and it’s really challenging.”
Rydzy argues that administrators could do more to support student caregivers. Most part-time graduate students qualify for little or no funding, with daycare subsidies and grants restricted to full-time undergrads. In some cases, this forces students into full-time status when they would rather study part-time.
“Before having my kid, I was balancing work and school, because I did not wish to take OSAP,” says Szymanski. “I just felt uncomfortable with the debt.” But as a part-time student, Szymanski could not qualify for Dollars for Daycare, UTAPS financial aid, interest-free OSAP, or a daycare subsidy. The university advised her to become a full-time student.
“Finally someone at the Family Care Office sat me down and said, ‘Listen, this is what you have to do to stay afloat.’ Without them, I would not have done it, and I would have been in a terrible situation,” she says. But student caregivers need more than money.
“Especially for full-time undergraduate students, there is little flexibility for accommodating students for family care issues,” says Rydzy. A sick child may not excuse student parents from a test. Some students depend on the compassion of individual professors. Others become mired in bureaucracy.
“When I was eight months pregnant, I walked into my registrar’s office [to reschedule an exam] and I had to provide documentation for the fact that I was pregnant,” says Szymanski. Since then, Symanski has had to exhaustively document every family responsibility.
“I think it would be really nice if people could just take our word for it. I find that trying to prove all these things all the time is a strain, and it’s also a financial strain.”
Despite bright spots—help from the FCO, an emergency grant from a registrar, a sympathetic professor—student caregivers feel invisible, even unwelcome, on campus.
“We cannot compete [in terms of marks] with your average single 18-year-old student. The fact that we can do these three things and still survive—that shows you how valuable we are as people and as students,” says Szymanski. “I really wish that U of T could see that.”