While completing her undergraduate degree in nursing at the University of Utah, Elora Nelson would trudge uphill half a mile from the University Medical Center TRAX stop to the nursing school to attend class. During her pregnancy, getting to her seat became an especially agonizing experience. After the morning sickness subsided, she was diagnosed with symphysis pubis dysfunction, which causes extreme pain and makes walking particularly difficult.
“I would have to walk in the snow or rain uphill to the college of nursing,” Nelson recalled. “It was horrible. The only option is to walk.”
Social work alumna Mary Grace Gray was also pregnant during her time at the U. Like Nelson, Gray took TRAX or the shuttle and would walk about half a mile to class. As she entered her last trimester, she started to pay for parking instead.
“It was too hard to walk from the shuttle, where it dropped me off,” Gray said. “Luckily, the social worker area has that paid parking.”
Not only did Gray spend her pregnancy at the U, she was also there as a new, breastfeeding mother. She had her son in June 2012 while on summer break and returned in the fall, finishing her program the following semester in April 2013.
During her last two semesters at the U, the College of Social Work gave Gray access to a faculty lounge during school hours to pump breast milk. She said she appreciated the accommodations that teachers and faculty made for her, but the room she was provided was not what she considered ideal.
“I always sat on the floor against the door,” Gray said. “[Faculty members] had keys, so it wasn’t like I could deadbolt it to feel safe.”
Her program ran from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., so after business hours she improvised.
“On the very top floor they had a bathroom that wasn’t super public, so I’d pump in there,” Gray remembered.
She would sit on the toilet and bring a battery-operated breast pump because there was no outlet.
“I didn’t like using the bathroom, honestly,” she said. “It was gross.”
When Gray had to pump during class time, she was shocked at how supportive instructors and her peers were. The professor of her last class even allowed her to bring her baby a few times while her husband was on his way to pick him up.
Morgan McClure, another U student who is in the sociology and health society and policy programs, was expecting a baby in fall 2017 and had her daughter right before finals. McClure said the majority of her professors were very accommodating.
“With that being said, I did have trouble with one class earlier in the semester and ended up dropping it because it was too much to handle mentally and emotionally on top of all that pregnancy brings,” McClure said. “I’m not even sure what the U’s official policy is regarding pregnancy accommodations.”
McClure is still waiting to see how things go as a new parent in her last semester.
Accommodations Under Title IX
Pregnant and postpartum U students are protected by Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which the U is required to uphold because it is a public university that receives federal funding. All departments and offices at the school have a responsibility to ensure students’ rights are not violated during this vulnerable time, but lack of communication within these departments in the past has led to unnecessary hardships for student moms and moms-to-be.
Pregnant and nursing students have rights under Title IX that they may be unaware of. However, departments within the university have an obligation to inform students of these rights and protect students if discrimination occurs.
A list of spaces for nursing, breastfeeding and changing a baby can be found on the Center for Childcare and Family’s website. There is now a convenient interactive map to find buildings where these spaces are located. The Office of Equal Opportunity’s website also has information for students.
Nelson and Gray were both unaware that they could have received help getting to their classes. Gray said, “It sucked being pregnant and not having a place to park — they should have a spot where you can be.”
Sherrie Hayashi, Director at the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, says students can contact her office to arrange a special shuttle to take them to class every day. If a student were to approach them for help with complications or medical conditions related to pregnancy, she explains, “we would draft a memo to work with Commuter Services and they can just arrange that shuttle”.
Title IX states, “A recipient shall treat pregnancy, childbirth, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy and recovery therefrom in the same manner and under the same policies as any other temporary disability with respect to any medical or hospital benefit, service, plan or policy which such recipient administers, operates, offers, or participates in with respect to students admitted to the recipient’s educational program or activity.”
Nelson and Gray weren’t the only ones who didn’t know they could have had help with transportation. Shauna Lower, Child Care and Family Resources Director, and Debra Daniels, Director and Vice President of the Women’s Resource Center and Women’s Enrollment Initiative, had no idea this option existed. This is one instance of lack of communication between departments that they have addressed recently by updating their information so students are aware that there is an option for a shuttle to take them to class. Both the Child Care and Family Resource Center and the Women’s Resource Center want students to be able to access answers to questions and concerns effectively. “Our work is to make those resources known” Daniels says, but they cannot make them known to students if they do not know themselves due to lack of communication. Lower admits the Center for Childcare and Family Resources faces obstacles when it comes to getting information out, “I have very limited funds and I think that is what I’m running up against.”
The U also offers help for nursing mothers. It is now required for all new buildings and renovations over $10 million to have lactation spaces. Currently, not every building does, but that doesn’t mean a nursing student has to resort to a public bathroom to pump milk. “Even if there wasn’t a designated lactation space our office could still work with that building or that particular department, and designate something,” Hayashi said.
In March 2010, the Affordable Care Act implemented changes to the section of the Fair Labor Wage Act of 1938 that referred to lactation spaces. It reads, “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.” The amendment pertains to employees but Hayashi says, “clearly anybody can use those types of rooms.” The amendment does not specifically state what those areas have to look like but it does deem a bathroom as unacceptable and Hayashi says a lockable door is another reasonable accommodation the university is willing to make as part of its policy. Gray had a right to a private space, even if it had to be a conference room or faculty area, without fear of people walking in. Gray did seek accommodation from the Social Work department yet, according to Hayashi, a higher standard was available.
Reaching Out for Help
Daniels wants students to be confident to reach out if they cannot find the answers they are looking for but feels women tend to have a harder time with this. “It’s kind of ingrained in our culture not to ask, not to complain,” Daniels says. Lower fell into that herself years ago, as an undergrad student at the U with an 8-month-old. Lower never asked what resources were available to her at that time. “I didn’t reach out, and somehow there does need to be a way to give permission to women to do so,” Lower said.
Hayashi agreed with Lower that women tend to not ask, “I don’t see it as a complaint, it’s really just a request. Under university policies they have a right to ask for these things” says Hayashi. The U of U Pregnancy and Pregnancy Accommodations Policy states “The University will provide reasonable accommodations for students and employees to allow them to fully participate in University educational and employment programs and services.” The policy gives examples of what is considered reasonable accommodations for students and specifically states accommodating for “parking and transportation issues.”
With all the information spread over different departments finding where to go can be overwhelming and, in the past, even impossible when communication was lacking. These different offices don’t have the opportunity to help unless they are aware of an issue. “As we work with students we see what kind of things we can do to create as much support as they need to go to school. We know that we have a lot of parenting students and that that’s a challenge and difficulty” Daniels says. The state of Utah has the highest birth rate per 1,000 in the country and according to a study done in 2014, by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, on average 26 percent of all college undergraduates are parents.
Dealing with Difficult Situations
Title IX states that, “A recipient shall not discriminate against any student, or exclude any student from its education program or activity, including any class or extracurricular activity, on the basis of such student’s pregnancy, childbirth, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy or recovery therefrom, unless the student requests voluntarily to participate in a separate portion of the program or activity of the recipient.”
The Office of Equality is intent on looking out for student’s rights and is a good place to turn with difficult situations with a department or a professor, such as the situation McClure encountered. She chose to drop the class as a result, but that isn’t the only option for students. Another resource is the Office of Inclusive Excellence. Annalisa Purser, the University’s Marketing and Communications Associate Director, explains that students can “anonymously say that they’re experiencing something on campus that they don’t feel is really right” if they don’t want to make a formal complaint to the Office of Equal Opportunity or make a legal complaint. Hayashi says her office and the Office of Inclusive Excellence work closely to help students. The Office of Equality will investigate claims and determine if discrimination has occurred. Regular training on pregnancy and pregnancy-related issues are provided to staff but sometimes a reminder is needed. “We put something together in writing, a memo, that says we looked at this person’s request and this faculty member cannot penalize them,” Hayashi said.