Before leaving for college in 2018, Karissa Cline discovered she was pregnant with her first son at 18 years old.
But this discovery did not stop Cline, who graduated from Elon University in fall 2022.
“I just didn't want it to be like the typical, ‘Oh, you have a kid and you drop all your goals' kind of thing.” Cline said. “I didn't want anything to stop me. … I didn't want anything holding me back.”
She attended Rutgers University while pregnant in the fall of 2018 to stay close to her family, taking the spring of 2019 off to give birth and take care of her first son. During her pregnancy, she said she and her boyfriend — the father of her son — decided it would be best for them to move to Elon where his job and where his family was so they could have a “strong support system.”
That summer, Cline and her boyfriend got married and she transferred to Elon. She had her second son in the spring of 2021.
This fall, Cline is the first in her family to graduate college, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in dance science with her husband and kids by her side.
Looking back on her time as a college student, Cline said the difference between Rutgers and Elon was how they accommodated student mothers.
“When I started at Rutgers, there were a lot of resources that I found on campus, but I didn't necessarily need it yet because I hadn't had my baby,” Cline said. “But then when I got to Elon, I realized there's absolutely no resources for student mothers.”
As a part of Rutgers’ Office of Transfer and Non-Traditional Students, there is a resource dedicated to students with children. Rutgers students can bring their children to various study spaces, use three lactation rooms located across campus, access discounted childcare and gain moral support from peers. They can also access help if they are food insecure or struggling with housing.
Though there are no resources on campus directly targeted toward student mothers at Elon, the university offers resources for food insecurity and housing in the Student Care and Outreach Center, located in the Janice Ratliff building. Information about childcare is unavailable.
Director of Student Care and Outreach, Paul Tongsri, said the office supports pregnant students by utilizing their goals in order to direct them to specific resources.
“Depending on a student's situation, there may be questions related to classes, housing and personal support related to finances, child-care and relationship support, and more,” Tongsri wrote in an email to Elon News Network. “Since each student's situation is different, it really depends on how a student wants to be supported.”
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, nearly 22% of undergraduate students in the U.S. are raising children while attending a postsecondary education program, and 53% of these students are raising a child under the age of six.
When Cline was searching for help at Elon, she said the services she used told her she was the only student mother Elon has ever had. Information about the number of students who are pregnant or have children at Elon is not available.
Cline said she had to jump through some hoops to get the services she needed, but that Elon was still helpful about making sure she got what she needed.
“If there was a point where I needed childcare, they were able to help out with trying to find money for me to get a babysitter,” Cline said. “They didn't have the resources already, but when I went out there and had to physically look for it, they weren't bad about trying to help. They were very supportive in that way.”
Aside from the systemic help from Elon, Cline said she got a lot of her support on an individual level. She said she would ask some of her classmates if they could babysit on certain days as well as seek help from her family to make sure she made it to a class.
Cline also said her professors were very understanding of her situation and if she ever needed to be absent, they didn’t penalize her. Cline said the professor that helped her out the most was her adviser, Lauren Kearns.
“She was very helpful in guiding me because I'm a first-generation college student, so I was completely lost on what to do,” Cline said. “She helped me out a lot with pointing me in the right direction and constantly giving me encouragement like, ‘You got this, you're doing great, your GPA is great for having these things going on in your life.’”
Kearns, a professor of dance, said through the dance program’s “hands on” approach in mentoring and advising students, she was able to spend a lot of time with Cline and appreciate her good qualities and her dedication to her children.
“Karissa approached everything with a calm and focused demeanor,” Kearns wrote in an email to Elon News Network. “She juggled many things in her college career, including raising two small children, and always made sure she was focusing on their needs first and then her academic goals.”
Cline’s professors even allowed her to bring her children to class sometimes, and those days bring Cline some good memories.
“I took them inside the dance studio and they kind of did the workouts with us. … I have a lot of videos of interactions with my classmates while pregnant and of my son dancing in front of the camera,” Cline said. “So they were actively a part of my classes.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic when classes were hybrid, Cline said she was able to stay online while she was pregnant with her second son. Outside of COVID, Cline’s children accompanied her for a lot of her studying and even some exams.
“There were days that I had him on my lap while I was doing homework or studying,” Cline said. “Sometimes I had to take both kids to some exams with me because if there's no childcare and I had to do an assignment or an exam, that was it, they had to come with me.”
Despite the individual help Cline experienced at Elon, she said she wished Elon accommodated student mothers on a systemic level, such as directly promoting childcare.
“If there was a place that I could go to, like a daycare, to leave my kids at so that I knew that they were close and I could just attend classes with no problem, that'd be nice,” Cline said. “Or even some kind of encouragement like, ‘You can do it, keep going’ and not have it be from individual professors or people.”
Cline is currently pregnant with her third son, who is set to be born in April 2023. She said she will take a year off from her job as a tattoo artist in Mebane to take care of him and then has plans to attend online graduate school for clinical psychology. She hopes to open her own practice one day.