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Moms on campus: How are Catholic colleges helping students facing unexpected pregnancies?

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Katie, a student at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, eats with her baby, Lucia, on her lap in the company of fellow students. Katie is among the first students to benefit from a new initiative at the Catholic college called the St. Teresa of Calcutta Community for Mothers, which provides free babysitting and other material support for young mothers on campus. / Fabrizio Alberdi, EWTN News in Depth

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 21, 2023 / 05:00 am (CNA).

How does a Catholic college respond when a young woman pursuing her degree faces an unexpected pregnancy? 

On a growing number of campuses, the response is both compassionate and pragmatic, as schools have begun putting their pro-life values into action with resources like tuition breaks, special housing arrangements, dedicated lactation rooms, “expectant mother” parking spaces, and even free babysitting.

That’s the main takeaway from a new survey of U.S. Catholic colleges and universities and interviews with student moms and school administrators by EWTN News.

A joint undertaking by Catholic News Agency, the National Catholic Register, and EWTN News In Depth, the multi-part package of news stories and TV reports takes a closer look at an issue that has taken on new urgency since the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic decision last June overturning Roe v. Wade. You can read the full series here.

The shame and scandal an unexpected pregnancy may have caused on a Catholic campus in the past is giving way to more proactive, life-affirming policies, informed by a keener awareness of the pressure society places on unmarried young women to opt for abortion.

The pro-life movement needs this kind of “strong and beautiful” witness more than ever, says Monsignor James P. Shea, president of the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, whose new St. Teresa of Calcutta Community for Mothers offers one of the most comprehensive support programs for young moms pursuing a college degree.

The rationale for these efforts is the same one motivating pro-life pregnancy centers and the U.S. bishops’ Walking with Moms in Need campaign. “If I’m going to advocate for the protection of unborn lives,” Shea explained, “that means that I’m going to do everything I can to support those lives once they’re born and the women who are generous enough to bring those lives into the fullness of light.”

Survey of Catholic colleges

To better understand what support is available to student mothers pursuing a degree today, EWTN News sent a detailed survey to 64 Catholic colleges and universities across the U.S. and followed up with phone calls and emails over several weeks requesting a response.

In all, 17 out of the 64 or 26.5% of the institutions responded to the survey. 

The 17 schools that responded to the survey were: Ave Maria University, in Naples, Florida; Belmont Abbey College, in Belmont, North Carolina; The Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C.; Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas; Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia; the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio; Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio; Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland; Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania; St. Leo University in St. Leo, Florida; St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, New Jersey; the University of Mary; Thomas More College in Merrimack, New Hampshire; the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas; the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana; Viterbo University in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming.

While all 17 schools had policies in place to address immediate housing concerns, fewer had more comprehensive resources in place to assist with childcare, tuition, and other resources. Among the survey’s findings:

  • Fifteen of these 17 schools (88%) allowed pregnant students to remain in the dorms with the remaining two colleges offering off-campus housing options.

  • Seven schools (41%) had specialized housing options to accommodate a pregnant mother or a mother with a young child.

  • Eight schools (47%) offered scholarships solely dedicated to pregnant or parenting students. 

  • Eleven schools (64%) had lactation rooms or designated spaces for that purpose.

  • Five schools (29%) offered on-campus childcare.

  • Fourteen schools (82%) had additional campus resources available for pregnant or parenting students, such as expectant mother parking, counseling services, and free baby supplies.

    The MiraVia maternity home next to the campus of Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, North Carolina, provides housing and other support to allow young mothers to pursue their college degrees. Courtesy of MiraVia
    The MiraVia maternity home next to the campus of Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, North Carolina, provides housing and other support to allow young mothers to pursue their college degrees. Courtesy of MiraVia

The University of Mary, Ave Maria, Belmont Abbey, and The Catholic University of America stood out for broad range of services they offer, the survey found.

The MiraVia maternity home, which opened in 2013 on land donated by Belmont Abbey, is one of the most established programs. To date, the home, located next to the college’s campus, has provided a safe and supportive environment for 60 pregnant and parenting students.

Among them was Ashley Banks, who told EWTN News she was considering aborting her second child before she heard about the program.

“They brought us in, helped me out, not just with the children or with housing but they also helped me to get my education, they helped me to work,” said Banks, who earned an associate degree from Belmont Abbey and found a job with a temporary employment firm.

One potential concern for a student facing an unexpected pregnancy at a Catholic college is the prospect of facing disciplinary action for violating codes of conduct that emphasize chastity. Yet 12 out of responding schools with such codes all said that care and support for the mother and child were the priority in such situations.

“In a sense, that seems obvious, right?” said Jennie Bradley Lichter, Catholic University’s deputy general counsel, told EWTN News. “But in a moment of panic or something that’s experienced as a moment of crisis, we just didn’t want there to be any question in the minds of any student on this campus that they would need to be hesitant to seek help and support from the University for any reason.” 

Last year Catholic University has launched a “whole campus effort” called the Guadalupe Project that includes a student-led babysitting network, baby items in the school’s food pantry, and benefits for staff moms such as expanded maternity leave and expectant mother parking.

“We really drilled down on some concrete things that would measurably improve the lives of the moms and dads, and by extension their kids, who are in our campus community,” Lichter said. You can learn more about what Catholic University and the University of Mary are doing to help student moms by watching the EWTN News In Depth video at the end of this story.

Of the 17 schools that responded to the survey, 14 are members of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU). Before the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling last year, the organization advised member schools to review their policies and services supporting pregnant and parenting students, and many took concrete action.

“Our colleges were looking for ways to demonstrate their Catholic faith, and so many of them added programs and services to support students during pregnancy and through childbirth and the parenting process,” said Rebecca Sawyer, the ACCU’s vice president. Finding funding sources for more comprehensive services, such as childcare on campus, can be a challenge, however, she noted.

In the past year, Benedictine College has expanded maternity benefits for staff and set aside parking spaces for expectant mothers. Franciscan University has designated lactation rooms for nursing mothers. And the University of Dayton created “visual campaigns to increase awareness of support services and to decrease the culture of shame that surrounds unexpected pregnancies,” Crystal Sullivan, executive director of the school’s campus ministry, told EWTN News.

‘You can do this’

While a handful of schools offered student moms on-campus childcare, some reported more informal arrangements. “For those who have needed this extra help, the community has joyfully pitched in to allow new moms to focus on their academics while also raising a little one,” Amanda Graf, vice president of student affairs at Christendom College, wrote in response to the survey.

Other colleges noted that they could refer students to off-campus childcare options, while one school — Wyoming Catholic College — said on-campus childcare was outside of its area of focus.

Not all the schools responding to the survey indicated that they were prioritizing expanding services to student moms. In his response to the survey, William Fahey, president of Thomas More College, said that the school would consider a young mother’s situation as part of its financial aid assessment, but he wrote that it was “unlikely — given the academic rigor of the program — that any women would attempt to finish our degree while caring for a child.”

He added, “Caring for a child is more significant than completing a college degree on a traditional 4-year schedule.”

Mary Wolf, however, credits Ave Maria University’s Compass Care program, which provides free babysitting, financial assistance, and other community support, with helping her graduate with a nursing degree after an unexpected pregnancy during her freshman year.

“As colleges have become more and more secular, they’ve removed this component of community,” she reflected. “When we remove that element then it really does leave these people feeling alone and isolated without any help. And that’s when they feel like their only option is abortion.”

In contrast, she said, pro-life programs like Compass Care show vulnerable pregnant students that “they absolutely can do this” with the proper support.


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