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A much-needed hub for student parents, the Penn Family Center turns 10.

When Stephanie Pierson LPS’20 SPP’21 showed up to a support group for Penn students who have children, she didn’t expect that everyone would be crying within the first five minutes, herself included.

“It was just this collective sigh,” she remembers. “Everybody knew the pent-up anxiety and frustration we were all dealing with.” The room included students from all around campus, “but everybody was feeling the same,” she says. “I don’t know how to do this while having a family.”

Until that meeting, Pierson had been struggling to meet classmates who understood her situation, even after a dozen years as a part-time student. Though she was enrolled in the LPS program, most of her classes were with 20-year-old undergraduates who lived on campus, partied through the weekends, and had no problem scheduling group project work late at night. Emergency babysitters and breastfeeding schedules were, understandably, far from their minds.

“It can be hard to find your student parent community at Penn,” says Kendra Hypolite C’12 SPP’16.

That’s why, 10 years ago, the Penn Family Center was born.

Today Hypolite serves as associate director of the Family Center, the student parent support group that Pierson had discovered. But the center’s family-focused efforts extend far beyond that.

Hypolite says people often assume that the Penn Family Center is a daycare program. In fact, onsite childcare is one of the few things it doesn’t offer. “We see ourselves as a hub—a place to deliver programming and resources, but also to connect and advocate for student parents,” Hypolite says. At last count, there were roughly 1,300 Penn students who are parents. The center is open to any of them on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Membership is free, and around 600 students are active members.

Located on the lowest level of the Graduate Student Center at 3615 Locust Walk, the Family Center has made a basement feel bright and cozy. Its walls are pale green and blue. Bright lights stream down from the ceiling. There are soft couches and chairs, shelves filled with books, and plenty of toys.

Any student parent is welcome, including eligible post-docs. Hypolite says most of the center’s members are graduate-student families, though there are some undergraduates, too. About a third of its members are international students.

On a campus that wasn’t designed with toddlers in mind, the Family Center has been carefully built to house everything parents and kids might need. It’s a place where families meet other families and form deep friendships. Kids can play with one parent while the other is in class or at a meeting. There are two lactation rooms with breast pumps, a children’s library, and even a place for naps. Hypolite often spots families eating lunch there, enjoying their time together while one parent is on a break between classes.

For full-time Penn students, membership comes with a free subscription to the popular (and pricey) childcare site, along with a week of subsidized emergency backup care. The center also helps administer two of Penn’s grant programs for PhD students: one that defrays childcare costs, another that offsets dependent health insurance fees.

“All of that really changes the experience for Penn student parents, to the point where they’re saying they actually chose Penn because of these resources,” says Jessica Bolker LPS’16, who has been working with the Family Center since its earliest days and became its director in 2017. Noting that Penn was “very much at the vanguard” with its Family Center, Bolker says the University is still the only Ivy League school with a dedicated family center on its campus.

With help from a small team of student Family Fellows, Bolker and Hypolite maintain a busy slate of programming at the center, all of it free. There are weekly, kid-friendly English lessons and the student parent support group that Hypolite, a social worker, runs. Over the past few years, there have been librarian story times and a sensory play series for toddlers. There are Saturday brunch playdates and an annual ice-skating party at the Penn Ice Rink. There are lactation support groups and workshops with children’s sleep experts.

“We try to take a holistic approach,” Bolker says. “We want fun things for kids and we also want informative and supportive workshops for parents. We’re trying to address everybody’s needs as much as possible.”

That’s been at the heart of everything since the center first opened in January 2010, with Anita Mastroieni GGS’99 GrEd’10 serving as its founding director. At the time, she described the center as “a way to connect and develop supportive networks.”

Bolker says Mastroieni was inspired by both Penn graduate student parents, who had been advocating for resources on campus, and by new research that found PhD student mothers were both dropping out at higher rates and struggling more to land tenure-track jobs.

Launching a family center “was not only about supporting our Penn students,” Bolker says, “but also supporting the academic pipeline, and making sure academia is as diverse as possible.”

When it opened, the center was housed on the second floor of Houston Hall, inside a dance studio. On weekday mornings, Family Center staff would push in their furniture and toys and books and stuffed animals from nearby storage rooms. At 3 p.m., they’d clear it all out again. “Everything was on wheels,” Bolker remembers. “It was a process, but we made it work.” Still, she says, “it didn’t feel like a permanent home.”

After several years of the center-on-wheels shuffle, the Family Center found its current home inside the Graduate Student Center in 2014. “That’s when the whole thing blossomed,” Bolker says. The staff expanded and membership swelled. Evening and weekend events became possible.

To mark its 10th anniversary, the center planned a birthday party and an open house for early April. Then COVID-19 swept in, shuttering most of campus. But even with its festivities shelved and its members quarantined at home, the Penn Family Center has still been finding ways to support student parents.

“We’ve moved everything virtual that we possibly can,” Bolker says. Today the center’s staff are responding to parents’ questions, working to supply relevant information on isolation and homeschooling, and offering at-home family programming, including a virtual field trip series for kids.

Hypolite is still running her student parent support group, but now it’s meeting virtually over Zoom. “Parents’ lives look different right now,” she says, “but some of the challenges are the same. The need to balance academic responsibilities with parenting responsibilities—that will always be there.”

Before the pandemic, the center had been planning several workshops in partnership with Penn Career Services, covering everything job-hunting student parents need to know. They pivoted to video instead, with a three-part series now on YouTube.

Bolker plans to continue with similar digital offerings, even once in-person meetups are back on the table. Over the years, she’s often heard from student parents who can’t make it to the center’s events but wish they could. “Being able to offer virtual content has actually been a goal of ours,” she says. “It’s a little more freeing, and it means we can get our content wider.

“We were trending towards creating a more online community,” she adds. “It just would not have happened all at once in a span of two weeks.” —Molly Petrilla C’06

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