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Family life on a college campus

LaToya Baldwin Clarke’s alarm goes off at 6:45 a.m. She barely has time to wish her husband a good day before he is out the door and off to work. By 7:45 a.m. she yells, “Let’s go!” to her two oldest children, Ahmir and Amina, and soon all three mount their scooters to head over to Escondido Elementary School. After kisses goodbye, Baldwin Clarke goes back home to greet the babysitter for her six-month-old son, Ahman. By 9 a.m. she is in a classroom at the Stanford Law School, looking forward to family dinner later in the night

Baldwin Clarke is a sixth-year graduate student and J.D./Ph.D. candidate in sociology and law. Her family lives in a relatively large house in Escondido Village (EV), surrounded by 254 other graduate student families. EV is the only on-campus housing for graduate students with families.

While their home is on the larger side, since her family falls into the 13 percent of EV families with three or more children, the Clarkes’ backyard is the same as everyone else’s: a grassy park with a playground in the middle, complete with a jungle gym, swings and a sandbox. There are nine of these courtyards that interconnect the EV houses.

“I haven’t seen anything in the surrounding areas that is comparable in price or a better place to raise a child,” said Diego Roman, a fifth-year graduate student in the School of Education.

“In my courtyard, kids range from zero to three, so they all play with each other and it makes for a fantastic place to have friends…and to talk about your kids,” Roman said. “You’re all having the same experience.”

Roman’s son, Andres, is two and a half, and knows how to show it on his fingers. The Roman family’s one-child house in Escondido Village has a play table decked out with a Thomas the Tank Engine play set in their living room.

“I want to show you something!” shouts Andres, mimicking his “Papi,” who is providing a tour of the house. Roman responds to his child in Spanish and Andres’ mother repeats to him in English, “Do you want to show him Thomas?”

Roman explains that a multilingual household is not uncommon in EV; the couple next door is from Israel, and they speak to their child in Hebrew. International students constitute one-third of graduate student families at Stanford.

This diversity is an integral part of the courtyard atmosphere. Andres, for example, knows all of the neighboring children. The Roman family regularly attends barbeques with their neighbors.

*

Guinevere Allen, a second-year Ph.D. student in the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages and single mother, came to Stanford from her graduate program at UC-Berkeley. She does not regret her move to Stanford because of the unparalleled community in EV, but she has noticed a decline in financial support.

“At UC-Berkeley, because it’s a large public school, they have more democratic funds available,” Allen said.

Allen used to receive a grant worth $8,000 each year and a full-funding state subsidy for her son to attend a private preschool.

“Those types of programs that I feel are more geared towards minority situations do not yet exist at Stanford,” Allen said.

Roman also acknowledged the financial issue. He claimed that having a spouse who works is a huge advantage in terms of receiving health care benefits and another source of income. Roman said that a graduate student stipend is not enough to raise a family, especially since rent at Escondido Village is paid yearly, with no monthly payment plan.

“Grad students aren’t used to paying so much up front,” he said. “Then, if there’s an emergency, what do we have?”

*

Despite occasional flare-ups between EV residents and the University, such as an incident a few years ago when EV was renovated and parents rallied together to voice their disapproval for cutting down trees in the parks and another in August regarding herbicide spray, graduate student families report high levels of satisfaction with their housing.

Eighty-two percent of Baldwin Clarke’s neighbors agree that they “feel people in this community care about each other” according to the 2010-11 survey of graduate student families living in EV by the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education. One hundred sixty-two survey responses noted a positive response of community organization in EV with 74 percent reporting they feel connected to others in the EV community.

The University employs nine graduate students, called courtyard assistants (CAs), to overlook the upkeep of the parks and to organize monthly and holiday events within their respective courtyards.

“The courtyard assistants have their own fund, and about once a month we have a courtyard party,” Allen said. “They hired a bluegrass music artist last month and next month they’re doing holiday photography for our neighborhood.”

The CAs also respond to requests and complaints from within courtyards. Roman claims that when his washing machine broke, the CA called in a mechanic and the school paid for it. Eighty-seven percent of respondents to the 2010-11 survey reported that CA communication is effective.

*

While EV housing provides certain conveniences, for some families it doesn’t provide the necessary permanence of a family home.

Anna Baumgarten and her husband Magnus Johansson, a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Medicine, chose apartments off campus when they moved here from Sweden with their three children this past summer. They prefer to live in a place they could call home even after Johansson finishes his post-doctoral work in structural biology.

“We’re only here for my husbands post-doc, but we’ll wait and see then,” Bamgarten said. “Our plan for now is to move back but you never know what will happen in the long run.”

The search for schools, however, was not a problem for the Johansson-Baumgartens. Part of the appeal of choosing an apartment off campus was that they could pick how close to their children’s school they would be.

“Standing on our balcony in our apartment complex, we look down on the preschool,” Baumgarten said. “And the kindergarten is a really good school. [Palo Alto] seems like a really good schooling area.”

Baumgarten is right. Not only can Stanford claim good quality of their early education facilities, but also quantity and proximity.

“There are many day care centers on campus, so for one thing, child care is very accessible.” Baldwin Clarke said. “There is a range of options pricewise, but they all require different things.”

“People come all the way from San Francisco to put their children in the Bing Preschool,” Roman said. The Roman family put their name on the waiting list at the Bing Nursery and Preschool before Andres was born, but he was not cleared by the time Mrs. Roman was scheduled to return to work.

Beyond the aggressive pre-school process, Stanford has some other issues to address before it can call its graduate family life ideal. Like the Baldwin Clarke and Roman families, most need to hire a babysitter or nanny. Stanford offers no program for finding nannies and the market is aggressive in Palo Alto.

“The nannies have to park on El Camino, too,” Roman said, pointing out that EV planning does not account for the amount of extra help required.

However, students have seen some responsiveness to their demands in the past few years.

As of this past year, graduates students can add their children as dependants on their health insurance, according to the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education. The CCSC also offers a pay option that allows parents to trade some of their time for a subsidized rate.

Despite problems securing babysitters and slots in prestigious daycares, residents of EV agree that Stanford is responsive to the needs of the graduate families.

“I’ve been to Yale, I’ve been to the University of Chicago, I’ve been to UC-Berkeley and I’ve never seen a campus that is more geared toward family life,” Allen said. “No question.”

About Liam Kinney

Liam Kinney is a hip young thing from Aspen, Colo. He has been a contributing writer at the Daily for a year, and now has his own column. Currently a sophomore, Liam is a prospective Classics and Symbolic Systems double major. He enjoys finishing books, cooking edible food, and reaching the top of the climbing wall - in other words, he is rarely satisfied.