Lllian Boctor is in her first year of legal studies at McGill. Selected from among 1,395 other aspiring lawyers who submitted their applications for the renowned B.C.L, LL.B program, this former freelance journalist and social activist’s future holds great promise. Even more admirable than her acceptance into one of the most coveted law programs in the country, however, is the fact that Lillian has done all this while raising her daughter, Mahalia Angelica.
Mahalia Angelica Garzon Boctor is now 11 -years-old. She has experienced, alongside her mother, the life of a graduate journalism student at Concordia University, and now embarks with her in the venture of getting through McGill’s rigorous law program.
This small family’s unconventional path has not been without its challenges. As part of a largely underrepresented category among McGill’s student population, the struggles specific to Lillian’s situation often go overlooked.
“In certain work places, other people have children, so there is more understanding of what it is like to be a parent. But in my class, I’m one of two [students with children who are under 15-years-old]. Student life [at McGill] is not set up on a parent schedule. It’s not something that is in the university’s radar because it’s just not that common,” Lillian explains. “That is one of the challenges of being a mother at school; that not that many people decide to undertake it.”
The rarity of her circumstance has made it difficult for Lillian to adjust to student life at the university. Concessions are rarely made and, contrary to what could be presumed, expectations for a student parent are often even higher than for a regular student.
“Timeliness and deadlines are very important [in law school], so you need to do it no matter what. You have to figure it out … the [Administration] would be open if there’s an emergency situation, but because you are a mom … [they think] you should know that at any moment, your child could get sick, or there could be an emergency,” Lillian says. “I think there’s a double burden of being a parent. Because you have this additional responsibility, they expect you to always think about that beforehand, and plan accordingly.”
Yet, this expectation might not be undue. Lillian and her daughter, like many other student -parents at McGill, have figured out ways to overcome challenges, and get ahead.
“[If] your kid is sick and there’s nobody to take care of your kid, you only have two choices: you either don’t go to school, or you bring your child with you,” Lillian says. “My daughter would actually come with me to school several times. Everybody would turn their heads [when I walked into class]. I mean, there’s a kid in the faculty!”
This dynamic might surprise many aspiring lawyers at McGill, who are more accustomed to seeing Supreme Court justices visiting the Faculty than a child roaming around the Nahum Gelber Law Library.
“The funny thing for me is the look at people’s faces when I bring her to school, [because] it’s so rare to see a kid in the law faculty. One time that I brought my daughter … we were in the middle of [Professor] Forray’s class, [and] somebody told me that they saw this really, really, really young student, some genius kid, [at the faculty],” recalls Lillian amused.
The drill is all too familiar to Mahalia Angelica, who by now has accompanied her mother through numerous all-nighters, library visits, and café study sessions, learning about student life way ahead of time.
“I went back to journalism school when my daughter was between four and five [years old],” she recalls. “That was really challenging because there were a lot of assignments for which you would have to work on all night. So she would actually come with me to the computer lab, and I would set up her bed and do my work. Sometimes, she would spend the night there with me because there was no other way.”
Far from seeing it as a burden, Lillian does not recount her experience as a student mother with anger or discontent. Rather, the two have learnt to see it as a way to spend time with each other.
“I’m with my daughter on the weekends, and she wants to be able to do fun things and not just sit around all day while I’m studying, so we do ‘café trips’ … I let her watch movies at the café and I get to work. I’m happy that we get to do that,” she says.
McGill Childcare, a Step in the Right Direction
While the path towards graduation has proven steep for student-parents at McGill, conscious efforts have been made to ease their semesters and ensure their success. Most members of the McGill community might recall the charming row of little toddlers who pace around campus every now and then, following their dedicated program educators. Among these programs is the SSMU Daycare Centre, an independent, non-profit organization subsidized by the government of Quebec, as well as by McGill University undergraduate student fees. Located on the second floor of the Brown Student Services Building, the SSMU Daycare Centre currently offers full-time childcare to 40 children of members of the McGill community.
“[Our service costs] $7 a day, [and because] we have only a total of 40 kids in our daycare and nursery, we can give a more individualized service, and spend a little more time helping them and supporting them as much as we can,” says Amy Vincent, manager of the centre.
In addition, well aware of the financial struggles that many student-parents might face, the SSMU Daycare Centre has taken matters in its own hands to provide financial aid to those most in need.
“In [September] 2011, we started a bursary program here at the SSMU Daycare … We started it with any accumulated surplus that we had in our operating budget, and the Board of Directors decided to start what is called the SSMU Daycare Bursary Fund, which we would award to full time undergraduate student parents who have children in our daycare or nursery,” Vincent says. “Every year, we can award up to $15,000 in assistance to parents with children in our daycare … some of them are not able to work because they have a child. We do everything we can to try to help them out.”
Also noteworthy is the student-oriented service that the SSMU Daycare provides.
“Our first priority goes to undergraduate students, and our second priority goes to graduate students … We are the only student-focused university daycare in Montreal,” says Vincent. “UQAM, Université de Montréal, and Concordia, they all have daycares on campus, but they are [primarily] for staff and faculty. For us, the student comes first and then, if there is space, we receive kids from faculty and staff.”
The university has clearly gone a long way in assisting its student parents. Like the SSMU Daycare Centre, other notable institutions, such as McGill’s Centre de la Petite Enfance—which now serves 106 children of McGill students, staff, and faculty—have also risen to the occasion. Yet, more needs to be done to create a more welcoming environment for parents who aspire to continue their education at the university.
Lillian can attest to the exclusionary environment that some student parents might perceive at McGill. “I think it’s important for the university to acknowledge that there may be a lot of people [with children] whowant to go back to school and study, and that there may be obstacles [for them to do that],” she says. “Some people told me ‘don’t even mention that you have a kid [in your letter of intent to apply to McGill] because they might see this as a barrier.’ I would like to see McGill as an environment where having a kid isn’t seen as any kind of barrier.”