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A place like home

October 29, 2014
Student-parents Destiny Engels (left) and Heather Theissing study in the Campus Child Care North Corner Room while their sons, Randal and Jeremiah, play.

Student-parents Destiny Engels (left) and Heather Theissing study in the North Corner Room
of Campus Child Care while their sons, Randal and Jeremiah, play.

Lisa Hackney, a junior studying nutrition sciences, commutes to NIU each day from rural Freeport.

Despite the 70-minute drives every morning and every afternoon, the sun in her eyes both ways, she’s rocking straight A’s this semester – and her son Sawyer, who turns 4 in December, is along for the ride.

Hackney attributes some of her academic triumphs within the College of Health and Human Sciences to NIU’s Campus Child Care, which this fall boosted its efforts to promote student career success for its parents and their fellow Huskies who work there.

Chief among those activities is the North Corner Room, a mostly quiet and comfortable space (and Wi-Fi hot spot) where parents and student workers can tackle their homework, relax and interact with other student-parents.

“For me, it’s extremely convenient, and if it wasn’t available, I would be really bummed,” said Hackney, who earned her associate degree from Highland Community College this spring. “I don’t want to have to do schoolwork once I get home, so it’s nice for me to come here and focus. Having this room, and having other parents around me, has helped a lot. I love it.”

Heather Kohout, a sophomore in pre-medical laboratory sciences and mother to 22-month-old Bethany, agrees.

Kohout’s schedule contains only morning classes, but she chooses to stay on campus until 4:30 p.m. every day to take advantage of the North Corner Room.

“It’s a nice place to study, and I can walk down the hallway to see my daughter instead of walking across campus. I like being this close because I can go into the Observation Room and be a part of her day, and she doesn’t even know I’m there,” said Kohout, who commutes from Aurora.

“And with Bethany being almost 2, there’s no getting homework done around her,” she added. “Her bedtime is 7 p.m., so I’d be up until midnight. It’s not sustainable.”

Chris Kipp

Chris Kipp

Chris Kipp, longtime director of Campus Child Care, has been there.

Kipp remembers her days as a graduate student, struggling to maximize her precious study time by putting her infant (and later toddler) daughter down for a nap. Sleep did not always come without a fight.

Now she hears stories from current student-parents who were arriving on campus long before their classes began – the strategy being to find parking spots before they disappeared – and then camping out in their cars with their children because they had nowhere else to go.

The North Corner Room is the result of a Campus Child Care staff brainstorming session earlier this year on how to meet a Division of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management goal to improve academic success for students.

It’s already proving that it offers student-parents exactly what they need, Kipp said.

“They can come in here, get ready for the day, put on their makeup, study a little bit, have a bite to eat,” she said.

“Our main goal was to make the room as comfortable as possible. We worked really hard on it over the summer,” she added. “We wanted to create an even more welcoming environment for our parents. We have coffee, teas and light snacks, and we’ll have a little bit more for Finals Week with a light lunch.”

Visitors to the North Corner Room, open from 7:15 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., find clusters of cranberry- and sage-colored couches and easy chairs surrounding wooden end tables and coffee tables. Much of the furniture came from Douglas Hall, which closed last spring.

A trio of dining room tables is available for students to spread out their books, papers and computers for more-practical studying.

Tall windows peek out from behind stylish curtains to provide a bird’s eye view of the center’s playground. The wide sills, only a couple feet off the floor, are piled in pillows and long enough for a quick snooze.

Campus Child CarePlants, flowers and rugs supplement the homey feel.

One wall is covered in cubbies, including a wicker basket full of coupons for fast food and a department store. Another wall accommodates the kitchenette, which includes two refrigerators, a microwave, a Keurig coffeemaker, a sink and a paper towel dispenser. Some parents bring snacks to share.

Bookcases are stuffed with magazines such as Good Housekeeping, Family Fun and Real Simple. A couple coffee mugs are filled with pens for the taking. One of the wall decorations imparts an inspirational message: “Turn your can’ts into cans, your dreams into plans.”

NIU’s Office of Student Academic Success has adorned a bulletin board with “Huskie How-To Tips for Academic Success.”

“When we were asked to be a part of this campus initiative, we jumped at the chance,” said Randi Napientek, assistant director of the Office of Student Academic Success. “Being a student and a caregiver makes the campus experience very different from that of other students. We were happy to provide resources to students in an environment that allows them to stay focused on family and career success.”

Reaction to the North Corner Room has been positive, Kipp said.

“We think we did a pretty good job. From Day One, parents started using it,” she said. “We’re hoping parents will meet each other and develop the relationships and support systems that will benefit them if they’re otherwise isolated.”

Hackney, who likes to bring Sawyer into the room early for a breakfast snack following his morning commute nap, confirms that. “Most of the people I talk to in school are in this room,” she said.

Paw PrintCampus Child Care also is promoting Student Career Success this fall through “Paw Prints.”

Students who want to share their good news can pull red-black-and-white, paw-shaped cards from a box, write their accomplishments on them and tape them to a window under a “Your Victories” banner.

The messages are simple yet joyful.

  • “Did better on quiz than I expected.”
  • “Getting into the Child Development major!”
  • “Received an A on my first horseback riding lesson in PHED.”
  • “Mid-semester and I am currently getting straight A’s. I am taking 7 classes, 18 credit hours!” (This student, Kipp is quick to point, is a mother of three.)
  • “Scheduled to present a lesson and ideas to a graduate class of cooperating teachers as they learn to be better cooperating teachers.”
  • “My trip proposal for my section of honors students to go to Chicago to see examples of civil society was approved.”
  • “I found a job! Start on Monday!”

“A lot of times, especially when you are student who is a parent, you don’t have anyone saying to you, ‘Wow! That’s amazing!’ We want to highlight their successes,” Kipp said. “Some of our parents are very young – freshmen, 18 years old – with infants, toddlers, 2-year-olds. We’re just trying to support them with any little thing we can do to be helpful.”