Student Parents Unveiled: A Photoadvocacy Project Revealing College Student Parents' Experiences

DeVos Center Wall Gallery, Pew Campus
January 7 - June 17, 2022

Lake Ontario Hall Wall Gallery, Allendale Campus
January 6 - June 16, 2023

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According to a recent summary report in the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (Contrares-Mendez & Cruse, 2021) student parents at the undergraduate level have a higher rate of nondegree completion than the general population, nearly twice as much. Multiple issues interfere with the student parent’s ability to persist to graduation such as financial support, childcare, lack of online course offerings, and family informed guidance counselors.  Further in this report, student parents are more likely to report the lack of available and affordable high-quality childcare as a barrier to degree completion. Complicated by the limited hours childcare is offered, students who work during the day are forced to take classes at night when most childcare options are not available. The voices of student parents can be a powerful tool in creating policy, programs and leveraging funds to support degree completing for this population.

By inviting student parents at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) to share their experiences of parenting while attending college, we hoped to raise public conscious about the needs and lived experiences of this population. Our project uses Dr. Caroline Wang’s methodology (Wang, 2006) employed in her Photovoice projects. Literature reveals that there are multiple areas within some universities that do not address the specific needs of these students. Some examples of the needs pointed out in the literature (Demeules, J. & Hamer, B., 2013); Estes, D.K., 2011) are housing, program (scheduling; extracurricular access-study abroad), policies (Seitz.; et al), childcare, and financial supports. 

We asked students, “What are your experiences as college students who are parenting while pursuing their college degree?” After an extensive discussion, they were asked to take photographs that represent their experiences as a parenting student at Grand Valley State University. Employing Dr. Wang’s method of codifying students’ photographs provided stories for each photo offering meaning to the picture. Those photos were pared with participants story of the photo to inform in the Photoadvocacy project. Participant’s stories along with the pictures that they believe best revel their experience as a college student parent are displayed in the exhibit.

Potential benefits to society include raising the voices of student parents within the wider GVSU community, recognition of a population of GVSU students who are often ignored/forgotten, sharing perceptions of student parents, promoting institutional policy changes, extensions to this research by others, empowerment of students-parents, advocating for additional resources and support for current and future student parents, and promoting photo advocacy as a tool for making visible the experiences and challenges student parents face while enrolled in college.

Andrew Topper, Associate Professor
Literacy, Educational Foundations, and Technology
GVSU College of Education and Community Innovation

Olivia A. Williams, Associate Professor
Literacy, Educational Foundations, and Technology
GVSU College of Education and Community Innovation

Sharalle Arnold, Interim Director
GVSU Laker Educational Opportunity Center (TRIO)

We would like to offer our deepest appreciation to the following students who graciously shared their time, artistry through photographs, and personal stories. Because of their commitment to this cause, they will have a platform to communicate the representative needs of student parents.

  • Ashley DePetro
  • Virginia Franklin
  • Reanna Griggs-Taylor
  • Lariesha Lee
  • Daphnea Sutherland
  • Phillip Todd
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drawing by small child of mother and child

Photograph and narrative by Ashley DePetro.

bus and small girl coloring while riding bus

Photographs and narrative by Virginia Franklin.

mother fixing her daughters hair while sitting on bed

Photographs and narrative by Lariesha Lee.

exterior of Children's Enrichment Center at GVSU

Photograph and narrative by Daphnea Sutherland.

man and child eating in GVSU dining hall

Photograph and narrative by Philip Todd.

To see more photographs and hear stories from GVSU student-parents visit the exhibition in the DeVos Center Wall Gallery, Pew Grand Rapids campus or visit our YouTube channel

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Project References

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Contrares-Mendez, S. & Cruse, L. (2021). Busy with Purpose: Lessons from Education and Policy Leaders from Returning Student Parents. Summary Report. Washington, DC: Institute for Women’s Policy Research (accessed October, 2021).

Demeules, J., & Hamer, B. (2013). Retaining young student parents: A growing challenge. About Campus, 18(4), 22-25.

Seitz, C.M.; Strack, R. W.; Rice, R.; Moore, E.; DuVall, T. & Wyrick, D.L. (2012). Using the Photovoice Method to Advocate for Change to a Campus Smoking Policy. Journal of American College Health, 60(7), 536-540.

Wang, C., (2006) Youth Participation in Photovoice as a Strategy for Community Change, Journal of Community Practice, 14(1-2), 147-161.

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Campus Resources for Student-Parents

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January 6 - June 16, 2023

Lake Ontario Hall Wall Gallery
Lake Ontario Hall, Allendale Campus
4023 Calder Dr
Allendale, MI 49401

For directions and parking information visit


For special accommodation, please call:
(616) 331-3638

For exhibition details and media inquires, please email:
Joel Zwart, Curator of Exhibitions
[email protected]

For learning and engagement opportunities, please email:
Amanda Rainey, UX/Learning Manager
[email protected]

Page last modified November 1, 2022