Support gives UWM students who are parents a crucial boost

When she arrived on the UWM campus, Justice Grau was pregnant with her son, Jaxson. Grau knew the importance of obtaining a degree, she said, and understood that this wouldn’t be an easy accomplishment.

“We don’t have family in Milwaukee, and we were new to the area,” she said. “I knew I would need support navigating higher education as a first-generation student and soon-to-be parent.”

Grau, who had earned her associate degree at Madison Area Technical College (now Madison College), was also a first-generation student.

“I needed to find a program that understood what it’s like to be an expecting parent and how to navigate higher education while carrying a child, then working full-time, going to school and taking care of a child.”

Michael Levandowski, who earned a bachelor’s degree from UWM and expects to graduate in May with his master’s, enjoys some fun time with his son, Stephen, 9. (Rachel Kubczak photo)

She found her answer at UWM through the Life Impact program, which later transitioned into the Student Parent Success Program in 2021. With the support those programs provided, Grau was able to earn her bachelor’s degree in community education, then graduated in December 2022 with a master’s degree in cultural foundations of community engagement and education certificate in racial and social justice in education.

Jaxson is now 4 years old, and Grau works for the American Civil Liberties Union as its community engagement director.

“I am so grateful for the Life Impact program and the support that I received as an undergraduate,” she said. At that time, Life Impact offered scholarships for student parents, and that helped her pay for her textbooks. When the Life Impact program transitioned into the Student Parent Success Program, the direct scholarships ended, but outreach to student parents was expanded to more students.

“Whenever I was having a hard day, juggling all my responsibilities as a first-generation student parent, their offices were always open,” Grau said. “It made me feel seen and recognized. I don’t think I would have graduated without that support, to be honest.”

Nala Diallo, who earned her bachelor’s degree in communication in 2021 enjoys an art activity with her daughter, Talia, 4. (Rachel Kubczak photo)

The Life Impact program started in 2005 as a collaboration between UWM and the Jane Bradley Pettit Foundation. Originally it was a six-year pilot program, serving a selected group of undergraduate student parents. With additional support, the program continued for another 15 years. But in 2021 amid the pandemic, the program pivoted and became the Student Parent Success Program, according to Rachel Kubczak, program director.

The program is now open to all student parents, including undergraduate, graduate and international students. UWM now has around 1,300 student parents, according to Kubczak.

The focus of the program is to provide UWM students with children holistic support that empowers parenting students, she said. This is done in a variety of ways, including educational parent workshops and get-togethers for fun family activities like bowling at the Union Rec Center or movies at the UWM Union Cinema.

The Student Parent Success Program provides students an opportunity to connect with their parenting peers and receive individualized support from program staff when needed,” Kubczak said.

Children and parents do yoga during a Student Parent Support Program activity. (Rachel Kubczak photo)

While the program doesn’t offer scholarships, it does help students connect with other campus and community-based scholarship programs that might meet their needs, such as funding for nontraditional students.

Kubczak and Natalie Reinbold, the former director of Life Impact, were always willing to take time to help her, Grau said, whether it was walking her through the Children’s Center application process or talking to her about how to reach out to her professors or encouraging her to apply for the job at the ACLU.

“Natalie and Rachel were always right there, saying, ‘We’re going to talk you through it. You’re not alone.’ I love them for that.”

Grau’s interest in community education and engagement started when she organized a free event. She worked with community members collecting cars seats, clothing, diapers and toys. Through this she held an all-day event where parents and families in need could pick out anything, with no questions asked. “I decided I want to learn more about how to better support not only children, but my community.”

She found that the School of Education’s program in community education matched her interests. She particularly remembers the support she received from Agnes Williams, lecturer in educational policy and community studies.

“She was my first-ever Black woman teacher in my entire life,” Grau said. “She was so supportive. It was so encouraging to see someone that looks like you and understands.”

Williams encouraged Grau to get her master’s degree and served as Grau’s capstone project chair. “I told her, ‘Remember when I first met you Jaxson was in my belly and now he’s 3 years old.’ It was amazing,” Grau said.

In her job at ACLU, Grau promotes and protects the civil liberties and civil rights of all residents of Wisconsin through education, outreach, organizing, direct action, and educational programming for adults and youth. She tells parents about her own experiences at UWM. “I want to let people they can feel supported as I felt supported when I found UWM’s program.”

Her degree has helped her find the career she always wanted, she added.

“I really love my job. It really aligns with my life.”

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