Tackling UH Law School with Kids in Tow – and Getting Support to Make it Work

August 14, 2012

At the University of Hawai‘i William S. Richardson School of Law, it’s not uncommon to see children sitting through classes with mom or dad, darting through corridors, or sipping milk in the student lounge. The school prides itself on its welcome of “Students With Keiki” and has built a support program around the growing number of students hitting the law books while also raising young children.

On the eve of a new semester that starts Aug. 20th with 86 freshmen, 16 part-time evening students, and 13 international Master’s degree students, the school brought the incoming class together for an afternoon picnic that included parents and children, a clown, and an informal advice circle offering survival strategies from student parents who recently graduated or are part way through Law School.

“If you feel overwhelmed, talk to the deans, they’re very supportive,” advises Summer Shelverton, a May graduate who gave birth between semesters in her first year. “I felt I could always ask for help,” agreed Mericia Palma Elmore, also a May graduate.

“I remember sending many emails that began…‘Can I just come in and talk? I need help with this…’”

The support group for students with keiki was begun several years ago to assist students struggling with double life loads. Law Lecturer Liam Skilling, Director of the Evening Part-Time Program, remembers how important it was when he was a student with a young child. Now he’s a sympathetic faculty adviser who helps orchestrate an annual Halloween party for the kids and ensures there’s a “keiki room” at other Law School campus parties.

The support system is particularly important as a transition for students from beyond Hawai‘i. When international student Elmira Hadzhieva was looking for an American school to pursue a Masters of Law degree, she remembers how two important words on the school’s website caught her eye: family friendly.

“This school is the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Hadzhieva, who moved from Bulgaria to Hawai‘i a year ago with two young children just as her husband, a security specialist, was posted to the American Embassy in Mongolia.

“‘Are you sure you want to do this with two little kids?’’’ he asked and I said ‘I’m 100 percent positive,’” recalls Elmira who received her LL.M. in May, with her children holding tight to her graduation robes. “Coming from Eastern Europe, and a Communist country, where the relationships are very formal, we don’t have this kind of aloha family environment. My classmates and the professors, everyone was just awesome and supportive. This was something very new.”

With college graduates looking for ways to define themselves for a highly competitive workforce, finding the right match for graduate training can be an arduous task. At Richardson Law School, one of the most diverse and innovative in the nation, the match is made easier by a warm-hearted faculty and an unusually kid-friendly atmosphere – all of it hand-in-hand with exceptional legal training.

“Including keiki in the life of the Law School is a way of recognizing that juggling school, work, and parenting is a reality for many of our students,” says Skilling. “It also comes naturally because the faculty, staff, and students at Richardson really are one big ohana.”

Robyn Pfahl, who graduated in May, remembers how tough it was to move from Montana and to adjust to rigorous classes – with two toddlers under four – and how much it meant to have understanding professors willing to make adjustments plus a daycare on campus. “You can’t study when you’re worrying about your babies,” said Pfahl.

“I wouldn’t have been able to go to law school if I hadn’t found an amazing place for my children….And I had nothing but support from all my professors. When I was run over by a car, they helped me get through it, giving me extensions, and an incomplete in one of the classes. That would never happen in a big law school where you’re just a number. It’s the spirit of this Law School.”

This past year, before formal graduation ceremonies in May for more than 100 new JD and LL.M. degree candidates, there was a special ceremony just for the children. During that ceremony, almost a dozen youngsters stepped forward to receive a ‘diploma’ asserting they’d been the best “helper” ever for mom or dad during law school.

“My daughter hung it up in her room,” says Mericia Palma Elmore, who started law school in 2009 as a single mother, marrying her second husband, filmmaker Gerard Elmore, halfway through. “She was very excited about it. For me going through Law School with the kids at their age has really put something in their brains that they can do anything.”

Dean Avi Soifer called the pint-size graduation “a new tradition” at the Law School and had special words for the children: “There were wonderful shorter people around,” he said with a broad smile. “They enlivened the lives of all of us.”

 

Strategies from student parents to survive law school as a student with keiki:

  1. Never hesitate to ask for help from a dean, especially the dean of students. Accommodations are possible to move day classes to night classes, or make other schedule adjustments.
  2. Build a support network of family and friends. Single mom Lisa Higa, who is headed into her second year and has three young children, depends greatly on her family to help, including dropping off and picking up children from school.
  3.  Share babysitting with other parents going to Law School. You can build your own support system within the school.
  4.  Make use of library resources such as lectures on CDs downloadable to ipods to listen on your own timetable. Commercial outlines for courses are good study guides.
  5.  Know that while law school is important, your family is still the first priority. “At the end of the day I want to make sure I did something to make their day good,” says Elmore.
  6. Utilize social media like Facebook to keep in touch with other students with keiki to share ideas, and offer support and encouragement.
  7. If your child is sick and you cannot finish a paper, don’t be afraid to ask for a dean’s note to explain the situation to a professor.
  8. Line up childcare or day care or preschool well ahead of starting Law School to reduce your anxiety.
  9. Create an informal support/study group with other law students with keiki. You and the others can use the time to study while the spouses or significant others take the kids to the park, a movie, the Children’s Discovery Center. These bonds and friendships will be strong and lasting.
  10. Minimize outside activities, especially during the tough first year, and focus on studies and family. Use your second and third year to take on other activities like pro bono work or externships. This is when that’s especially important as these activities often lead to a job.
  11. Don’t compare yourself to your classmates who don’t have children. Having children forces you to take breaks – and in the long run, that’s good for both you and the children. It helps everyone stay balanced.