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Time to help — not punish — pregnant university students, Ottawa woman urges

A graduate student at Carleton University says both the school and the federal government need to do more to help students who get pregnant and need to take time off.

Carleton University says parental leave treated same as other breaks in study

Carleton University grad student Clare Glassco was working toward her master's degree in social work when she became pregnant and had to take time off school, losing most of her benefits and on-campus privileges. (Submitted)

A graduate student at Carleton University says both the school and the federal government need to do more to help students who get pregnant and need to take time off.

Clare Glassco, 38, was pursuing a master's degree in social work at Carleton University when she got pregnant and gave birth to her son, Henrik Whamond, last spring.

The government keeps telling us that they want us to become educated and they want us to have children. Yet when you do that [at the same time], this is the result.- Clare Glassco

The university stripped her of a number of benefits and she was forced to pay a $280 administrative fee to save her place in her program while she took time off for parental leave, Glassco said.

While she expected her scholarship to be cut off during her leave, she didn't expect the added expenses.

"I knew that I wasn't going to be getting any sort of income from Carleton, but what I didn't know was that they were actually going to make me pay them to take the leave," Glassco told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning. "On top of that, they took away all the sort of privileges that I had as a student there."

Lost access to gym, library

Those privileges include her gym membership, discounted bus pass and even access to the school's library. Glassco has had to pay out of pocket to continue receiving medical and dental benefits under her student plan.

Even though she expected her scholarships would be put on hold, she said policies need to change.

According to a written statement to CBC from the university, graduate students must pay the administrative fee if they take leave from their program for any reason. They may opt back in to the student health plan through the Graduate Students' Association at a cost of $388 per year. 

The university also said graduate students can apply for an emergency bursary worth up to $250 or a one-time family leave grant worth up to $1,500 through the Graduate Students' Association.

Students ineligible for EI

At least three Canadian Universities — the University of Alberta, Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo — provide some support for students who take parental leave.

Glassco isn't eligible for employment insurance because she's a student.

The mean age of graduate students in Canada corresponds with the mean age of Canadian women having their first child, she said, which is something she feels both the government and post-secondary schools need to address.

"The government keeps telling us that they want us to become educated and they want us to have children. Yet when you do that [at the same time], this is the result," she said.

Glassco said she plans to return to her studies next September.

A different approach

Some universities are taking a different approach to graduate students with young families.

The University of Waterloo has a parental leave bursary for students or their partners who are having a baby or adopting. Students have access to a $5,000 bursary in their first term and up to $4,000 in the second term.

In an interview with CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning, Jeff Casello, associate vice-president of graduate studies at the University of Waterloo, said universities across the country are taking steps to make graduate studies more accessible.

The notion that students should put their lives on hold for school is not feasible anymore, Casello added.

He noted that the retention rate among students starting families at the University of Waterloo has increased because of the bursary, but added the program could be improved with additional financial support from the federal government. 

"Ethically and humanely, it's the right thing to do," he said.

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning