Experiencing pregnancy at Stern College for Women can be somewhat of an isolating experience. In a conversation with The Observer, Stern College alumna Avie Herman explained, “I was kind of relieved that I graduated before I started really showing, because I definitely feel like I would have been looked at differently for being pregnant in school— like both an outlier, and some kind of stereotype.”
While the stereotype of a “pregnant Stern student” is fairly common, when one looks at the numbers, though there is a sizeable percentage of engaged and married students, there are generally only a handful of pregnant students on the Beren campus per semester. These students face the challenge of handling the difficulties of their coursework, while balancing pregnancy side effects, such as nausea and fatigue. The Observer interviewed students and alumna who were pregnant while enrolled at Stern to learn more about how the school accommodated them, and found that sadly, far too often, Stern failed to accommodate their needs. With one exception, all these students requested that their names not be specified, due to the sensitivity of the topic.
Avie graduated before she started showing, but not before she started experiencing the exhaustion that often accompanies pregnancy. Since Avie had large breaks in her days, and lived off campus with her husband, a friend offered to let Avie rest in her dorm room. However, the dorm security policy is that off-campus students must be signed in to gain access to the dorm. This setup was unfeasible, since Avie’s friend was usually in class at the times when Avie needed to be signed in.
Avie reached out to the Housing Department, and disclosed over a phone conversation that she needed additional rest because she was pregnant. However, this did not elicit any sympathy, as housing replied that the policy exists to keep out “squatters who were taking advantage and living in the dorms.” Avie, then clarified that she did not want the policy to be changed, but was hoping she could be provided with a visitors pass to accommodate her particular situation. The housing representative then offered her to rest in the housing office when it was empty, or if she was really in need of a nap, to have her friend call housing who would then call security in the dorm building. But this option was far from ideal, and after Avie’s husband also hit a dead end when trying to pursue the issue further, she decided to stop investing energy in what she was recognizing to be a futile effort. Instead, Avie ended up rotating between sometimes leaving early and missing class, or resting on couches throughout the building, where she had no privacy and fellow students were often engaged in conversation. This solution was detrimental, hurting both her academics and her health.
However, other students have had different experiences. One student found the honors program to be extremely accommodating. “I was very sick during my first trimester and had no problems whatsoever getting an extension of almost a month on the final draft of my Honor’s thesis until the sickness subsided in [the] second trimester,” she explained. The process of getting the extension was relatively simple as well. The student spoke to her thesis advisor, who then took the issue directly to Dr. Wachtell, head of the Stern College Honors Program. Another student who gave birth to her son mid-semester also found both her peers and teachers to be very supportive. She told her professors about her pregnancy when she was already showing, and they were all very helpful regarding extensions. Nevertheless, the student described to The Observer that when she asked the administration to take a course as a directed study, “I remember feeling that the administrators treated my request as absurd, even though directed studies are presented on the course website as a legitimate option.” She clarified that she was able to take the course as a directed study since the professor gave her permission but “in speaking to the administration I felt that their immediate position was resistant and negative as opposed to accommodating and positive.”
The Observer spoke to Dean Bacon to gain a deeper understanding of the university’s pregnancy policy for students. She explained that students who miss semester assignment deadlines or semester exams for excused reasons, including symptoms from pregnancy, can make arrangements with faculty members to make up the work in a reasonable time frame which can extend beyond the end of the semester. When it comes to final exams, students need to submit documentation to obtain permission to take a makeup exam later on. Dean Bacon also added that “it has happened on several occasions that finals occurred during a student’s ninth month of pregnancy, and it was touch and go, one day at a time.” She also explained that absence due to medical conditions is excused, though students must be in attendance for more than half the semester to receive credit. Dean Orlian clarified how this policy plays out, stating that “in the rare instance where someone might need bed rest and cannot continue her coursework–she might be advised to take a Leave of Absence for the semester.”
This position is more stringent than many other university policies. For example, the CUNY policy clearly states that “professors and administrators should not tell students that they have to drop out of their classes or programs or change their educational plans due to their pregnancies or their related conditions.” When asked if students who take a leave of absence midway through a semester due to pregnancy related conditions such as bedrest are refunded their tuition, Dean Orilan said “It is best to check this with the Office of Student Finance.” The Observer emailed the Office of student Finance with this question and has not received a response.
However, a student who was forced to take a leave of absence midway through her semester due to pregnancy related complications told the The Observer that she did not receive any sort of tuition refund or credit. Moreover, the Office of Student Finance originally attempted to take away her Honors scholarship because she was no longer a full time student, ignoring that this was due to a medical complication. In the end, the student was able to keep her scholarship, but expressed that negotiating this arrangement was a very unpleasant experience.
Another alumna informed The Observer that while her experience as a pregnant student at Stern college was generally positive, she faced a greater challenge after having her baby. “I felt very surprised and dismayed that at a women’s college there was (to my knowledge) no public lactation room, and that I found myself pumping milk in handicapped restroom stalls,” she explained. Until this year there was no lactation room on the Beren campus, and thus no comfortable place for students to nurse, though interestingly, there has been one the Wilf campus for many years. Fortunately, this problem was recently resolved as a small lactation room was recently built on the fourth floor of the 215 Lexington Avenue building.
Yet, to make pregnant and new mothers feel comfortable at the Beren Campus there is clearly more work to be done. A common theme that emerged from speaking to students is that many don’t even know who to turn to when faced with challenges, and are hurt by the lack of a transparent policy regarding pregnancy accommodations. For example, Avie Herman described how, “When I was pregnant, I didn’t have any other friends who were, and I didn’t feel comfortable disclosing it to my professors in the beginning when I was particularly unwell and it didn’t occur to me that any accommodations might be made.” Yet, she and all the other alumna interviewed celebrated the lactation room, and hope it is just the first of many changes that will make the Beren Campus a more accommodating place for nursing and pregnant students.