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Updated 5:00 PM February 8, 2008




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New policy to help grad student parents

Pregnant and anticipating her first child two years ago, graduate student Julia Looper didn’t know what to expect when she approached her adviser for time off.

“There were no set rules,” says the doctoral student at the Center for Motor Behavior and Pediatric Disability in the Division of Kinesiology. “If I had a less accepting adviser, it may have been difficult to convince him that I needed more than a few weeks off. Luckily this was not a problem for me.”

Taking time away from school to accommodate childbirth or adoption now won’t be up to an adviser as a six-week parental accommodation period is provided to eligible students by the provisions of a new Graduate Student Parental Accommodation Policy at the Rackham Graduate School.

“This policy makes an important statement — that students can combine graduate study and parenthood, and that the University will support them in doing so,” Rackham Dean Janet Weiss says. “When combined with the generous childcare subsidy, this policy helps to make the University more family friendly for Rackham graduate students, paralleling efforts to design family-friendly policies for faculty and for staff.”

The policy could affect as many as 800 of Rackham’s 8,000 graduate students, according to estimates based on a Center for the Education of Women survey.

The policy applies to full-time graduate students who have completed at least one full-time semester of their degree program. It covers birth or the adoption of a child under age 6. If both parents are eligible graduate students, both may take the six-week accommodation period. The policy also entitles new parents to a one-year extension of Rackham Graduate School’s time limits for completing degree requirements. The maximum time limit for completing a master’s degree is five years, and seven years for a doctorate degree.

Faculty advisors and students with fellowships, graduate student instructor appointments, or graduate student research assistant appointments are encouraged to work out adjustments as far in advance as possible. Eligible students supported by U-M fellowships will continue to receive their fellowship support and benefits, according to the policy. If a student is supported as a Graduate Student Research Assistant on an externally funded grant and the grant cannot pay for the student’s support during the parental accommodation period, then the principal investigator of the grant can request funding from the new Childbirth Accommodation Fund created at Rackham.

Staff members from the Office of Graduate Student Affairs at Rackham conducted a series of focus groups in 2006 for student parents and students planning to become parents while in graduate school. They offered several recommendations to make the environment better for student parents including a suggestion that Rackham adopt a policy to address the difficulties of combining educational pursuits with parenting demands.

Rackham’s executive board approved the Graduate Student Parental Accommodation Policy in October; it took effect Jan. 31.

“This policy is one of several initiatives to improve the environment for graduate student parents,” says Darlene Ray-Johnson, director of Graduate Student Affairs. “Its goal is to make the environment family friendly and to help students stay on track in their studies while becoming parents.”

Influences on the development of the policy included a recommendation from the President’s Advisory Commission on Women’s Issues.

“The Graduate Student Parental Accommodation Policy will make sure that all graduate students who become new parents will get more of the flexibility they need to manage the demands of graduate school plus the demands of becoming a new parent,” Weiss says.

“Although in the past many students have worked out ad hoc arrangements with their faculty advisers, they have relied on the good will of individual faculty members. This policy will make sure that all Rackham students get this flexibility.”

Looper, of San Diego, Calif., is expecting a second child in March. “The policy gives students the ability to go to their adviser with confidence and request time off to recover from childbirth and adjust to being a new parent without feeling as though they are asking for special treatment or a favor,” she says.

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