On this special episode of 1 in 5, Marjorie Sims, Managing Director at Ascend at the Aspen Institute, sits down with two key collaborators in the work of supporting student parents: Chancellor of the City University of New York Félix Matos Rodríguez, and CUNY Mentor Coordinator and Ascend Parent Advisor Jesus Benitez. During this conversation, they reflect on the first season of 1 in 5, offer insights into what institutions of higher education can learn from these stories, and share their own lessons and inspiration from their work alongside students and their families.
Learn more about the student parents featured in our 1 in 5 series, find transcripts and photos of their episodes, and download resource guides based on each story here
Marjorie Sims: Hello, and welcome back to 1 in 5, which takes its name from the one in five college students in the United States who are parents. I'm Marjorie Sims, managing director of Ascend at the Aspen Institute, the national hub for breakthrough ideas and collaborations that move children and the adults in their lives to educational success, economic security, and health and wellbeing.
In 2018, Ascend launched the Aspen Postsecondary Success for Parents Initiative. Through this endeavor, we have engaged college leaders, policy makers, and importantly student parents to co-create solutions and change post-secondary systems to better serve this population. With a desire to share their narratives to a broader audience, Ascend, with financial support from Imaginable Futures and in partnership with LWC, launched One in Five. This 15-episode narrative documentary collection not only underscores the barriers parents face balancing their studies with childcare, but also celebrates their resilience to improve their wellbeing and highlights several organizations that are advancing their success.
: Today I'm joined by two very special guests to help us dive a little deeper into the work of supporting student parents and their families.
Jesus Benitez: Hi, everyone. My name is Jesus Benitez. I am mentor coordinator for CUNY Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, and a parent advisor for Ascend at the Aspen Institute.
Félix Matos Rodríguez:
And hi, hello to everybody. Hola. Félix Matos Rodríguez, Chancellor of the City University of New York, and a very proud member of the Ascend Fellowship Program.
Sims: Jesus is one of the student parents featured in this series. Here are a couple of clips from his episode.
Clip of Jesus: Me growing up in the Bronx, I know the world existed, but just didn't know I had the opportunity to go see it. I don't want my son to grow up like that as well. So I exposed him to a lot of different things. Always pushed me to want more and better things for him. So you can see a different life.
Clip of Jesus: Maybe going to college would mean that it will be better for all of us at the end, even though it was hard to believe. It was really hard to believe that, especially in the times where you're in a mode of survival. It's hard to look at the long-term because at the moment, if you're starving, it's like, I don't care about tomorrow. I want to eat today.
Sims: We follow your journey from dropping out of high school to becoming a single father to a mentor and a college graduate. When you listen to your episode, did it bring anything up for you that you didn't expect?
Benitez: The progress of my life. I'm always focused on, what's the next thing? And especially, I became a single father, but I was also trying to work my relationship with the mother of my child. So I can say now that our co-parenting is amazing, and I was able to see how much I've grown in that part. There was one point in my life where me and her really didn't get along. So that was pretty cool to see. I've come from this environment where I'm not supposed to really speak up about my feelings or things like that, or even share. Even trying to do this podcast made me feel uncomfortable. But starting with CUNY Fatherhood Academy where I started my GED program, it was the step towards asking for help, which is something I normally don't do.
And with doing that, it led me to this life of trying different things and asking different people for help as well, which was kind of weird. Even if it was just the professor, asking for an extension on my paper, I was so used to doing everything by myself and being able to analyze different parts of who I was and what I wanted to improve. Because asking for help, it might be obvious for some people. But for me, it opened a different door, and I didn't realize that it was okay to be vulnerable sometimes. Which led me to wanting to improve my relationship with the mother of my child and want a better life for me and my son.
Sims: Thank you so much for sharing that, Jesus. I know a lot of other student parents see themselves in your story. This is a scene we hear at the very end of your episode.
Clip of Jesus’s Mom:
I started running the half marathons because I saw him to sleep to two, three in the morning, doing homework and get up and [inaudible 00:05:13] has 24/7. I had to get up and train, and I start training and training.
: ….Good morning, runners. Welcome to the 2019...
Sims: Can you describe what we're hearing?
Benitez: They interviewed my mom, and it seems like I inspired my mom to begin doing marathons, which was something unbelievable and pretty cool because of... I've always seen my mom as the person who worked all the time. So to be able to find a hobby for herself was pretty cool.
Sims: How do you think your journey has impacted your family?
Benitez: It's pretty interesting. My mom, she now trains and tries to take me running also, but I can't. But it's amazing to see that growth. And my brother, who is the second oldest, he comes before me and now he's in college. And we have these conversations about working and what to do, what's the next step for ourselves. And we had a conversation where he was working at the supermarket, and I asked him if that was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life or was he was trying to do something else. And I know he was fascinated in Japanese culture. And we had this conversation where he decided to take upon himself to join LaGuardia Community College, studied Japanese, and now he's planning to... At least the plan is to live there a few semesters he says, but I know that once you go out, you won't come back.
And that's pretty cool to see him where he’s in college. He wasn't interested in going to school. And I assume it's because I didn't go to school and I've always said school wasn't for me. He followed that mentality, but now it's a whole different person. My little brother, he's probably the only one I think that's always been super focused in school. And he's in high school right now, and he's always doing his work. But it's been a domino effect that I've seen. And it's pretty cool to see the growth from them.
Sims: As a leader of the largest urban university system in the United States and one that works to meet the needs of student parents, Chancellor, how can hearing stories like Jesus' help institutions better understand and serve their students?
Thank you Marjorie for the question, and what a great honor to be with you and with Jesus on this podcast. I tell you that we get one student at a time and this is why these stories matter, because each student has an individual journey that we need to embrace and consider and be supportive as we design programs that affect larger numbers of students.
And then on the other hand, take the things that we learn from, in this case Jesus' journey, and then take that to our policies, to our practices, and do reflection to find ways so that we have less impediments for the students, more ways to reach out to them in ways that are responsive to their experience. So that's why for me it was great to be able to listen to the podcast. What a beautiful success story on one end. On the other hand, also taking notes of the different things that Jesus identified as either impediments or actually things that we did well, that then you want to replicate and do more of for more students.
Sims: Based on your work on these issues, can you reflect on the power of the media in changing minds and policy?
Absolutely. One of the first things, and this is something that I experienced in my two previous roles, I was president of two campuses in the CUNY system, a community college and a four-year college, is how invisible the student parents have been. And this is why the work that we're doing at Ascend and with some of our other colleagues is so important because it's a large number of students. And when you think about also the impact of the two generations, the capacity to really do some things really well at scale becomes important. And actually, as I was hearing Jesus' conversation with you, Marjorie, in Jesus' case, we have a three-generation story. Because his mom is now becoming this monster marathon runner that wants everybody to run with her, Jesus and his siblings.
And then Jesus' son, right? So there we have three generations. I think it's really important if you look at what the mainstream media portrays of college, it's usually traditional college students going to private institutions that have resources and they present a rather distorted view of what the majority of the students face. And in this case the student parents, and we know about 20% of the students, probably a larger number in some of our public institutions. It's really important to get those stories and to understand how they approach educational experience so that we can meet them where they are, as opposed to imposing our idea of how things are to work on them.
Sims: Let's talk about the impact of CUNY Fatherhood Academy. Jesus, you first learned about the program when your son's mom told you about it.
Clip of Jesus: She was like, "Oh, there's one at LaGuardia Community College. It's called CUNY Fatherhood Academy." I'm like, "Man, that looks so suspicious. Nah, I'm good." She was like, "Nah, it's a legit program at LaGuardia." And I'm like, "That looks crazy. That looks like a scam. That's a fake family in that flyer." And she was like, "Look, just call and see what's up."
Sims: We heard in your episode, Jesus, about the role of CUNY Fatherhood Academy and how important it was to have mentors on your journey to a degree.
Benitez: It was very weird because it was these two guys who cared about someone like me, David Speal and Raheem Brooks. I guess growing up in the block, you don't really meet people who really cared. And my experience in the public education wasn't as supportive. So it was pretty interesting that they actually cared. It was every time they kept asking me if I was fine, if I needed something, it sent me to my path where I am now. Because while I was interacting with them, not only for academic purposes, but in my life, I was introduced to philosophy, John Paul Sartre, and realized there was this quote about... The way I interpreted it was that everyone has the ability to do second chances if they wanted to. That everyone has the power to change their own destiny and decided to take that path.
I took the chance to become an unofficial mentor at Fatherhood until we had a mentor position. I knew how important it was for me, and then maybe whoever I interacted with, it might be as important for them as well. And then from there, I fell in love with working with students, guiding them, especially in Fatherhood because it was the guys who were like me coming, trying to seek something better not only for themselves, but for their kids and not knowing how to start. And at Fatherhood, we always had the support. So it was pretty cool to have that shared love.
Sims: CUNY Fatherhood Academy is one of several efforts focused on improving the success of student parents at CUNY. What are some of the other supports on campus and what, from your perspective, makes them so important and effective?
I mean, there are things that we do at the system level that are replicated in several campuses. And then there are things that each campus does to support student parents that might be particular to each of the campuses. Examples that I can give you, things that, for example, we did during the pandemic, which obviously was devastating across the nation, but was particularly devastating to us here in New York City. It hit us first. We did two things. We raised independent money. Many of our students lost their jobs. If we had issues with food insecurity and some of those things, they just got aggravated, as a result of the pandemic. So we created the Chancellor's Emergency Fund, which was a private fund, private philanthropy, to be able to do a quick response to support our students and some of the early money that went out, we prioritized student parents. Because we felt, based on the feedback we were receiving, that they were getting hit as always twice. As students, as parents, maybe losing their jobs. So that's one very direct way that we prioritized. And we went out and fundraised specifically with some funders saying, "We want to prioritize student parents across the system."
When we also receive the federal dollars from the Cares Act and the subsequent stimulus funds that we received, some of that money went directly to the students. The allocation that we did, all students got something, but then you received more support as the more financial aid need that you had, to make it in an equitable way. After doing that, we gave additional dollars to student parents because we knew what they were facing. So for example, in this pandemic, we've been very, very intentional about trying to support them.
There's other things that we're trying to do. I mean, Jesus tells this story about how luckily somebody in his family heard about the Fatherhood and connected them. We're trying to be more intentional. For example, there's a whole division in the Department of Education, right now that works with student parents. We have never worked systematically with them, and beginning to work with them since there are juniors and seniors in high school, would be a leg up for them. We are likely to get many of those as our students. So those are some of the things that we have done and some of the things that we're thinking of doing. And I have to in this sense, give a shout out to my Ascend Fellowship family, because as a fellow I've been able to benefit from hearing stories like the one that Jesus told. But also all the other fellows bring in their best practices, and they make all of us try to do better for the student population.
Sims: What impact have you seen from investing in these students on your broader goals for CUNY across the system?
If you think that one of the key elements in the intent when CUNY was created was to advance the social mobility of individuals very much like Jesus: brilliant, eager, smart, ready for the next level, but what they didn't have is the opportunity. In part because they didn't have the resources. If that is part of CUNY's DNA, what we invest in student parents, which has an impact in social mobility in at least two generations is the right kind of investment in what we have to do. So for me, it has been great to be able to be part of this movement, to try to raise awareness about student parents, and their needs, and their accomplishments, and their success. We still have a lot of work to do as a university, but there's an awareness now that was not there 2, 3, 4 years ago.
And with elected officials that are also becoming a lot more aware of the needs of this group and the potential of some investments and how much that can go. Think about that Jesus might be teaching in a college classroom, the level of knowledge and empathy he will have with those students, the connections. What a wonderful story, in addition to what he will contribute intellectually as a researcher, as a teacher. So that's why I think this work is so important and we have a lot of work still ahead of us, but you can clearly see a lot more attention being paid and programs and resources put to support student parents.
Sims: Ascend at the Aspen Institute was established in 2010 with a clear mission to spark and spread breakthroughs in the ways we support and build the wellbeing of children and the adults in their lives together. In the more than 10 years since, in partnership with amazing leaders, including our 80 Aspen Ascend fellows, the Parent Advisors for our Post-Secondary Success for Parents Initiative, and organizations in the Ascend network, we have launched a more powerful, more effective way of making a difference in families' lives. Each of you has been an integral part of our Ascend community. What has the experience been like for you?
Benitez: I was one of 11 Student Parent Advisors who were chosen, and we came together to really create an RFP for programs to apply for. And we were able to choose the program and oversee it. The different perspective has been a good, amazing part for me to learn more from different people. Seeing the different student parents and educators who are involved...Something obvious is that CUNY has night classes. I thought night classes was available for everyone in the country. And it has made me aware to ask more questions and see the different struggles around the country.
Sims: Chancellor Matos Rodríguez. What has the experience been like for you, being a part of the Post-Secondary Success for Parents Initiative and the leadership circle?
It has been one of the most rewarding, professional, and personal experiences in my life and in my time as a higher ed leader. I have been fortunate that it's given me a space to learn about innovation, ideas, not just things that work, but things that maybe did not work. To have that come at times from colleagues, at times from students, from parents like Jesus. Actually the first project when I was at Hostos Community College that we put for Ascend was based on the ideas of one of the college assistants, which is what we call the students that we give the money to work in our offices, that was working in the president's office. And she was a student parent, and she was sharing some of the things about the summer, and that allowed us to conceptualize a program based on the feedback we got from her. So incredibly blessed to have access to this space of innovation of ideas, but then the other part is the personal side. Some amazing individuals that inspire me, that give me nourishment for the days in which being chancellor is not that sexy and fun, and also give me a little kick in the behind when I am not staying on top of the work that we need to do on behalf of those students. So I tell you that without doubt, a phenomenal experience, and I hope that at the end of my journey, too, people can point out and say, here's a couple of things that happened at CUNY, that happened directly as a result of being part of that network that allowed these things to change.
Sims: Wonderful. Thank you. Jesus, what was it like collaborating with your other peer parent advisors?
Benitez: It was an amazing experience because I was able to not only realize that we have almost the same struggles, but also explored different fields of work and be more confident in the work that I do. So not only just being a student, but as you always say, we're experts, like when the chancellor was able to approve the CUNY Student Parent Task Force. So I'm not just there as a student, but I'm there as an expert as well.
Sims: So final question for anyone listening to this series, what would you like to let them know about student parents?
Benitez: People should know that student parents, as much as we have a lot of stuff going on, we don't want handouts. We just want the support to be able to keep moving forward. And for student parents, I feel like it's okay to lean on someone to be able to feel safe. I feel like that without my mentors, I wouldn't be here. I could tell you that I've dropped out and they had pulled me back to the work. And I think I wouldn't be able to do it without them. It has made the road a lot easier with their support and belief in me, made me not want to quit, not just for me, but for my son as well.
Sims: Any specific advice that you would give to other student parents across the country?
Benitez: Actually, there is. Apply for all the scholarships. I tell that to all my students because I didn't believe I could get... I didn't think I was a quote unquote smart student. I couldn't get scholarships. And I didn't realize that these scholarships were for students, and if you need the support, it will be there for you. They're there to help us. So apply to all of them. Apply to all of them and get a mentor.
Sims: Thank you so much for doing this episode of the podcast, and your role as a parent advisor has been truly remarkable. You have influenced Ascend's work. You've influenced the work of other colleges across the country, and I hope that you continue to pursue your dreams and goals on behalf of yourself and your family. Thank you.
Benitez: Thank you for having me and for choosing me to be one of the student parent advisors. It's been an amazing journey,
Sims: Chancellor, thank you so much for the work that you're doing in support of students who are parents. Your vision, your strategies, your pursuit of excellence for all students is really admirable.
Marjorie, you're too kind. And what a joy to be with you, who's such a great colleague and an innovator and mentor for all of us, y ¡qué honor! ¡Qué honor estar con Jesus! Thank you for that gift. Those students that get to have you as a mentor are truly blessed. You have a friend and a colleague as you continue in that journey, a real pleasure and thank you for having me, and we all need to do more.
Sims: Thank you so much for joining us.
One in Five is produced by LWC and presented by Ascend at the Aspen Institute, the national hub for breakthrough ideas and collaborations that move children and their parents towards educational success and economic security. Our theme song is Ascenders by Kojin Tashiro who also mixed this episode. Virginia Lora produced this episode, and it was edited by Jen Chien. Jenn Clark, Brendan Creamer, and David Croom contributed to this episode. Follow One in Five on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. To learn more about student parents and resources for them, please visit ascend.aspeninstitute.org and follow at Aspen Ascend on Twitter. Thank you for listening, I'm Marjorie Sims.
Sims, Marjori, host. “Bonus Episode: Meet the Stakeholders” 1 in 5 Podcast, Ascend at Aspen Institute. October 12, 2021. Ascend.AspenInstitute.org.