MISSOULA – Daniel Horton still remembers the shock he felt when law professors invited students to bring their kids to class during his first semester at the University of Montana’s Alexander Blewett III School of Law.
As one of many law students with children, Horton said the announcement came as a relief, creating a welcoming environment for the school’s student parents who balance the overwhelming nature of managing academic and caregiving responsibilities.
“Professors took the time to welcome the child, and it was very sincere,” Horton said. “You could see a nostalgic look on the professor’s faces, taking them back to when they were in that very same seat, and now they’re in a position to create an environment for parent students to bring their child and still learn.”
The average age UM’s incoming law class is 27 and many current students either have young children or are starting families.
Sally Weaver, director of Academic Success and associate dean of students at UM’s Alexander Blewett III School of Law, said faculty in the school are especially attuned to the added challenges that come with being a parent and a law student. Weaver was a mother studying law and likes to joke that her daughter “went through law school with her.”
“I’m particularly aware of the challenges and how difficult it is and how courageous our students are,” Weaver said.
Allowing students to bring their kids to class if child care falls through, or when schools are closed, is one of several informal ways the law school fosters a supportive environment for parents. The school also has private study and lactation rooms for nursing mothers – complete with refrigerators and changing tables.
Students have created their own integral support networks, too, including a group called Parents, Allies and Caregivers, which provides caregiving and mentoring to law students with families.
Erin McGarvey, a graduating law student, had the idea to start the group as a first-year law student after noticing there were a lot of other parents and caregivers at the law school. New to Missoula, McGarvey initially was looking for play dates for her 1-year-old and 3-year-old. But what she found was parents also need to build connections with each other to succeed in the stressful world of law school.
“It’s hard to be a parent at the same time,” McGarvey said. “The challenges are really different than they are for a student right out of undergrad.”
McGarvey and Horton teamed up with another student group called the Mindfulness In Law Society to formalize the Parents, Allies and Caregivers group and open it up to other students who wanted to provide babysitting. The group created a babysitter database, held meetings and identified some ways the law school could better support parents.
The group has advocated successfully for changes to lessen obstacles for parents. When early start times for classes conflicted with drop-off times for school and childcare the Parents, Allies and Caregivers group wrote a proposal to push back the start time of many classes.
“There was an opportunity for us to advocate for ourselves in that next semester, and we did see the start of some classes pushed back,” Horton said.
“There’s a saying that if you want something done, ask a busy person,” said Dean Paul Kirgis. “These students have taken precious time from their studies and their families to help us learn how to support them better. And as the pandemic has shown, it has never been more important for our society to support these folks who support so many others.”
McGarvey and Horton are graduating in May, but the Parents, Allies and Caregivers group will continue to be run by current law students. The group plans to continue advocating for changes to better support parent students, such as more lenient attendance policies.
“The goal is to keep that advocacy going next year,” McGarvey said. “I'm excited to see where that group goes moving forward.”
By Cameron Evans for the UM News Service
Contact: Andi Armstrong, director of marketing and communications, Alexander Blewitt III School of Law, 4065-243-6509, firstname.lastname@example.org.