Making It Work: UCSB Graduate Student Parents in the Spotlight

by Shawn Warner-Garcia, Professional Development Program Coordinator
Monday, January 12, 2015 3:17 PM

Clockwise from top left: Derek’s daughter Myla running along Goleta Beach; Natalie helping daughter Liv feed giraffes at the Santa Barbara Zoo; Fede with Gaby and Carmen in their family student housing garden plot; Phill’s children Rosie and Isaac hanging out at a park

 Being in graduate school is hard. Being a parent in graduate school is even harder.

Many graduate students balance the competing priorities of school and family (and sometimes also a job), and there are as many different approaches as there are people.

In this Spotlight article, we talk to four graduate students about being a student parent, what campus resources they couldn’t live without, and what makes them proud.​

Natalie O’Connor Holdren is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Natalie with husband Dare, daughter Liv, and dog CricketGevirtz Graduate School of Education. Growing up in San Diego, she enjoyed attending concerts and music festivals, soaking up the California sun, and ballet dancing. Her father is a Samoan fire knife dancer, and she started Polynesian dancing when she was just two years old. Since she was a teenager, Natalie has worked with individuals with significant disabilities, and this work has led her to focus her research on improving reading outcomes for individuals with disabilities by embedding engagement strategies into instruction. Natalie’s husband, Dare, has been teaching for over 15 years and is currently a history teacher at San Marcos High School. Their daughter, Liv, is 18 months old and loves reading books, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and music.

Fede with Gaby and Carmen in their garden plotFederico (Fede) Llach is a fourth-year doctoral student in Music Composition who grew up outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina, as the youngest of four boys. While he was more exposed to soccer than music as a kid, he picked up guitar in high school and his love for music flourished. He currently composes contemporary new music written for orchestral instruments, which is rooted in the tradition of classical music but with a more modern aesthetic. He has also created composition software that analyzes sound frequencies and converts them into musical notation. His wife, Gaby, runs her own business where she produces and designs original live action and motion graphics media. They have a 9-month-old daughter, Carmen.

Phill and Christa at their weddingPhillip (Phill) Rogers is a first-year Ph.D. student in Linguistics who originally hails from Northeast Ohio. He is interested in all aspects of language structure, and he plans on taking his first trip to the field in the summer of 2015 to document and describe a previously undocumented language. His wife, Christa, is a medical transcriptionist and also a talented guitarist, singer, and songwriter. They have two kids: Isaac Tomás is 4 years old, loves animals (especially whales and sharks), and wants to be an astronaut. NoaRose Estér is 2 years old and she’s not sure what she wants to do when she grows up, but Phill says it will probably involve bossing somebody around!

Derek and his daughter Myla watching the Santa Barbara Fiesta paradeDerek Smith is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in Mathematics who was born and raised in Pennsylvania. Growing up, Derek's father – a skilled instrumentation technician – would entertain and educate Derek and his siblings with scientific demonstrations and explanations. At UCSB, Derek studies partial differential equations, a branch of calculus developed in conjunction with physics and engineering. He is interested in using Fourier analysis to solve these equations, which arise as models for physical phenomenon such as electromagnetism, gravitation, and fluid flow. His wife, Lisa, enjoys traveling and live music, and their daughter, Myla, is 18 months old and loves swimming, the beach, dancing, and music. Derek and Lisa are also expecting a second daughter in February!

Phill’s son Isaac finds an interesting book at the bookstoreWhat has graduate student life been like for you as someone with kids?

Phill: It’s challenging, of course, but also extremely rewarding. Kids have a way of bringing you back to reality – in the best way – after spending the day thinking about very abstract ideas. I try to be a professional all day at school, so it’s refreshing to come home to silly kids who have no expectation other than for me to be just as silly.

Natalie: When I made the decision to have a baby during my doctoral program, people told me I was nuts and warned me about how stressed and busy my life would become. The reality is that being a public school teacher was about a hundred times more difficult than being a doctoral student (so far, I should say), and at least as a pregnant graduate student I could use the restroom whenever I wanted (you don’t have that luxury as a classroom teacher). Overall, it has been a wonderful experience. I feel incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to pursue work that I love with colleagues and mentors who work hard but also value family and balance. I also have been very fortunate to have my daughter at the Orfalea Family Children’s Center. Her teachers are wonderful, the program is fantastic and she absolutely loves it there.

Fede: It has been very busy! We are very grateful that UCSB has some reimbursement for child care expenses, but of course child care is still very expensive. Taking care of a child while in graduate school is a lot of work, and my time is split between working and taking care of my daughter. I have become much sharper and able to get things done in less time because I focus more and work faster. At the same time, being a parent is so fulfilling because you have this type of love that you hadn’t felt before that, in a way, gives you superpowers to face challenges. It’s also been great for us to live in family student housing because our neighbors are our friends and we can swap child care with them.

Derek: I didn’t begin graduate school with children. As a returning student, I struggled the first two years trying to sit through classes. I was used to a 9-to-5 work schedule and self-paced learning. We waited to have children until I found an advisor and a routine that more closely approximated what I had in previous jobs. I now treat my research as a job. My schedule is now a little more crazy, but the biggest change has been to my social life!

Natalie and family in Pitigliano, ItalyWhat do you wish you had known before you started grad school?

Derek: That classes would be taken so seriously. I’m not such a fan.

Phill: I wish I had known what I wanted to do specifically in Linguistics. That’s pretty unrealistic when I consider the roundabout way in which I discovered this discipline, but the point remains. I’m extremely excited with what lies ahead, but I might have been closer to graduation – and therefore closer to settling down more permanently on behalf of my family – if I knew what I was doing when I started.

Natalie: I wish I had known about the magic of the crockpot. I feel like once I became a mom, I was initiated into a secret society of crockpot users. I wish someone had let me in on the secret sooner.

Phill’s daughter Rosie climbing at a local playground in Santa BarbaraWhat types of unique challenges have you faced in your professional and/or personal life and how did you overcome them?

Natalie: When faced with a challenge (and I’ve had my share), I always think back to a lecture I had in Health Psychology as an undergraduate at UCSB by Dr. Jim Blascovich. His research on challenge versus threat appraisals has stuck with me and reminds me to see adversity as a challenge to take on instead of a threat to be immobilized by.

Derek: I’ve been lucky that my biggest challenge has been internal. I have had a hard time choosing what to pursue among my many interests. I think it may be genetic – in fact, my grandfather’s headstone says, “I wasn’t finished yet.” I overcame this by mistakenly choosing a career that I couldn’t simply quit: I joined the military. I’m not really sure anymore why I joined, but the experience of deciding that I had made the wrong choice of profession has definitely shaped my outlook on life.

Phill: If I’m being honest, I have to say my life has been marked more by blessings than by any extraordinary challenges. There was a point during my MA degree that I was working full time, enrolled full time, and supporting my family. When there is that much to do, you just find a way to do it. I have to give my wife a lot of the credit for her role during this time. For me, having something as important as family that demanded my time was a perpetual reminder to make the most of every minute at school and work.

Fede: One challenge for me is that I am a performer as well as a composer, and it’s sometimes hard to balance both activities. I have to figure out how to balance multiple projects at once without one taking over the other. It’s related to time-management but also organization and artistic focus. I’ve gained some experience on how the creative process works and how to prioritize certain projects over others. Especially after my daughter was born, I learned that it is important that I use this time well.

Natalie and LivWhat types of resources for family students have you found helpful?

Fede: Everyone needs to know about the child care reimbursement program and GSA child care grant. Living in family student housing makes a big difference because you are surrounded by people living in the same situation as you and you can share experiences.

Phill: Well, I’m sure glad that we have family housing. Santa Barbara is more than just a little expensive, and family housing is an affordable option that surrounds us with similar families. I’m also grateful for the child care grants offered through the GSA and the UC Student-Workers Union. These funds are pretty easy to acquire!

Derek: Living in student family housing. Although we have lived here since I began graduate school, I didn’t take the time to get to know my neighbors until after I had a child. Talking with other student parents puts your own daily stresses into perspective. It’s also nice to have a playground and friends a few feet from your front door.

Natalie: PEP (Postpartum Education for Parents) gave me access to other new moms, which has been really nice. I’ve also really benefitted from parent groups on Facebook (such as UCSB Graduate Students with Children, Santa Barbara Swap, my PEP page, Nanny Phonebook, etc.). We’re also part of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library funded by United Way, which my daughter loves.

Fede (far left with the upright bass) performing with his ensemble group Now HearName an accomplishment you are most proud of and why.

Fede: I’m very proud that a piece of music I composed was played by the National Symphony of Argentina. It was a big push in my career. Being a composer is a very uncertain career, but being able to come to UCSB and forming my ensemble called Now Hear Ensemble is something that makes me very proud.

Derek: When I took a job in Santa Barbara in 2007 after leaving the Air Force, I heard about the Pier to Peak half marathon and talked about attempting it for years. I finally signed up in 2013 with a few friends from my department and completed it a second time last year. It’s very rewarding to run to the top of a mountain!

Natalie: Aside from raising a pretty awesome child, I would have to say the recognition I have received for teaching has meant the most to me. My last year as a special education teacher, I received the Thomas Haring Distinguished Educator Award and the Bialis Family Foundation Mentor Teacher Award. Then, in my first years as a graduate student, I was nominated for the GSA Excellence in Teaching Award and the Academic Senate Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award. As someone who is passionate about education and impacting future educators, this recognition has meant the world to me. As a side note, it was also funny to realize that when I transitioned from teaching K-12 to teaching at the university, I also transitioned from a special educator to a general educator, a move I had said I’d never make.

Phill: I’m proud of my wife. Please, let me explain. She’s way out of my league, so it took the best sales pitch of my life to get her to fall for me. And she puts up with my shortcomings every day, in addition to doing all the amazing things she does to provide for the kids and me. I would be far worse off without her, and I don’t thank her enough for that. So the accomplishment is really hers, but I am very proud to call her my wife.

Phill’s daughter Rosie giving puppy dog eyes to the cameraWhat do you do to relax? What makes you happy?

Natalie: Acupuncture and yoga are my go-to ways to relax. I also frequent Evan’s Relaxing Station for Chinese Acupressure Massage. Love that place. Some of my favorite things to do are participating in Polynesian dancing and events, date nights, relaxing with the family on the couch, kayaking, seeing live music, designing succulent arrangements, cake decorating, crafting, and family fun in the great outdoors. I collect Dia de los Muertos art and antique books about Polynesia. Things that make me happy: the field I work in, being married to someone who cares about his work as much as I do, hugs from my daughter, and traveling.

Phill: On a daily basis, I love to lie on the living room floor and let my kids climb on my back. They think I make a great jungle gym, and I don’t mind the unorthodox massage! I’m also a big fan of naps, going to new parks with the family, and watching college football games.

Derek: Running. I spend the time with Myla. We head to either Goleta Beach or the Ellwood butterfly preserve. I get a workout and she runs around and splashes her feet in the water. I also enjoy making music, even if I don’t have the time now to make a serious effort.

Fede: It makes me very happy spending time with my family and watching my daughter grow and sharing that with my wife. Parenting is a ton of work, but it fulfills me in a way that is very intense. Lately, we’ve started a garden plot at the Family Housing gardens, and this is a relaxing way to spend time together as a family. I still love to play soccer and that helps me release energy and have fun.

Natalie's daughter Liv does her touchdown poseWhat is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?

Natalie: As much as I joke about hating sports, I currently have a fantasy football team that I am very invested in. This is probably a positive development for my acceptance in the family since my husband has been a football coach for many years, my daughter’s name means ‘defense’ in Norse, and one of her favorite exclamations is "touchdown!"

Fede: I learned to skateboard at the age of 30 when I came here to UCSB. I’m also a decent juggler.

Derek: Many people don’t know that I served in the Air Force as a weather officer.

Phill: I – more precisely, my wife and I – have another little one on the way! I don’t always start a PhD program; but when I do, I prefer to do it with a newborn!

What do you hope to be doing 5 or 10 years out of graduate school?

Fede and family at a recent weddingFede: I wish to continue my career in academia teaching music and also collaborating on compositions with other music groups. Also, I would hope to be able to continue with my performance projects such as my ensemble. I would like to see that become a self-sustaining group.

Phill: I hope – more or less realistically – to be in a tenure-track position, living with my still-growing family in a somewhat rural home, reasonably close to our family and friends.

Derek: Either pursuing an academic career or, failing that, returning to software development. Since I will no longer be changing diapers, I plan to build a home recording studio and take up drumming again.

Natalie: I hope to be improving the lives of individuals with disabilities through my research and teaching and enjoying every day as it comes.

Do you have any advice for current grad students with children?

Derek’s wife Lisa and daughter Myla at Alice Keck Memorial GardensDerek: Choose wisely. Your courses, your extracurriculars, your hobbies, your career path, etc. You don’t want an impedance mismatch in your life. I realize now that I felt out of place as a military officer because my values did not align with the organization. I came to loathe many aspects of the job. The types of professional occupations one trains for in graduate school tend to demand a similar melding of personal and work life (perhaps to a lesser degree than the military). If you’re having trouble carving out the right balance, step back and determine the cause.

Fede: Enjoy your kid because the time goes by very fast.

Natalie: Laugh often.

Phill: Use it to your advantage. It’s not hard to feel overwhelmed or frustrated, and for those emotions to spill out at home. Instead, remember all the things kids represent: an excuse to put aside work to refresh the mind, a responsibility to be proud of, and a model of the unbridled enthusiasm toward life that we all had as kids and that most would give almost anything to reclaim.