WASHINGTON — Alex Gaskin’s life changed the day her father found a Catholic college that was right for her: a place she could finally pursue her dreams of higher learning as a young, single mom.
“I always wanted to go to college, and with two babies, I knew I had to figure something out,” Gaskin, a 22-year-old Catholic on her way to becoming a nurse, told the Register.
Gaskin described the “rough road” she traveled when she became pregnant at 17. She left the child’s father when he became abusive shortly after the baby was born, but then discovered she was pregant again. Gaskin ruled out abortion because she is pro-life, but she also knew that she could not bring herself to put her child up for adoption. It was at this critical point that Gaskin’s father discovered the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Neb., a Catholic women’s liberal arts college that is a national leader in offering comprehensive support to pregnant and parenting students.
“It has been amazing,” said Gaskin, who is now in her third year, living on campus with her 2- and 3-year-old children. The student body has been supportive to her and other student-mothers with child care and various other needs. “I don’t feel like I’m on my own here,” she said.
She is indeed not alone. Students for Life of America recently released its list of the top 11 colleges and universities that strongly support pregnant and parenting students — and the College of St. Mary took the top spot.
Seven other Catholic educational institutions dominated the list’s rankings: Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, N.C. (No. 2); St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn. (3); Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa. (4); the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. (5); St. Louis University in St. Louis (6); and John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio (8).
According to Students for Life’s research, the Catholic schools listed do not offer abortion counseling or contraception at their health centers and do not refer women to Planned Parenthood or abortion centers.
In addition, the schools all have policies in place to welcome and support pregnant and parenting students, including housing. They also have in place additional resources on campus, such as lactation rooms, diaper decks and child care.
“What this list shows is that Christians are putting their money where their mouth is, and that’s very important,” said Kristan Hawkins, Students for Life’s president.
She praised the schools for fostering an environment where students can both choose to parent their children and achieve their education, while showcasing the pro-life movement’s holistic care for women and children before and after birth.
The list is part of Students for Life’s “Pregnant on Campus” initiative, in which the organization is trying to get all colleges and universities to adopt welcoming policies and services to support pregnant and parenting students, both unmarried and married.
According to a 2011 study by Guttmacher Institute researchers, published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, women who have not completed their college education are almost twice as vulnerable to abortion as women who have obtained their degrees.
Compared to the national average of 19.4 abortions per 1,000 women, the researchers found that women who had not completed their bachelor of arts had substantially higher rates of abortion (23.6 per 1,000 women), while college-graduated women age 20 and older had a substantially lower abortion rate of 12.4 abortions per 1,000 women.
Sister of Mercy Maryanne Stevens said the College of St. Mary’s commitment to pregnant and parenting students began in 2000, when a junior told her she was pregnant. Sister Maryanne and the administration decided to take action, leading to the creation of Madonna Hall and the “Mothers Living & Learning” program. “A program was born because of her need,” Sister Maryanne said.
Students for Life praised the program’s unique design: The students live in suite-style housing, complete with kitchens, dining areas and free laundry facilities. Study areas and lounges include space for children to play. In addition to free child care, children eat on their mothers’ meal plans at no additional cost.
“This flows out of our Catholic identity, out of our commitment to pro-life and out of our commitment to women who find themselves in all kinds of situations,” said Sister Maryanne, who is the college’s president. “We want to respond to those situations.”
Eight students were helped at first; now, 35 student-mothers are part of the student body.
“They graduate in very good numbers,” Sister Maryanne said. “Probably about a third of them have gone on to graduate school.”
Belmont Abbey College was ranked second on Students for Life’s list for its partnership with MiraVia, a donation-supported nonprofit that opened its first student-housing facility for pregnant students at Belmont Abbey. The Benedictine monks at Belmont Abbey donated the property to MiraVia, enabling the facility to be built right next to campus.
Jeanne Wray, executive director of MiraVia, told the Register that the monks and the college have been “very welcoming and very pro-life” to them and their pregnant students.
“One of the classes held a baby shower for one of our young women who had transferred here from Washington, D.C., and it made her feel so welcome,” Wray said. “She’s since become good friends with a number of people in her class and has built a community for herself.”
At MiraVira’s student residence, pregnant students have free housing in private living spaces, with meals, counseling and limited child care for up to 24 months. The program also includes teaching life and parenting skills. The students work part time to set aside savings for their future living situations and work with a case manager to develop their exit strategies, which include setting up jobs, housing and child care.
“If people are willing to think outside the box, this can be done anywhere,” said Wray.
The University of Notre Dame, often considered the nation’s most prestigious Catholic university, was recognized for its pregnancy-support services that include free pregnancy tests, lactation rooms, counseling and pregnancy-support specialists. The university allows pregnant students to continue living in campus dorms, but also has options for on-campus family housing as well as off-campus housing.
“We’re committed here at Notre Dame, rightly so, to our mission to life,” said Erin Hoffman Harding, vice president for student affairs. “We certainly do train all our students, especially our hall staff, on the availability of these services each and every year.”
Harding said students know they have “the support of the university to have a family and to finish their education.”
“The students I’ve worked with feel a huge sense of relief knowing that there is that support for them on campus,” added Erica Kelsey, a pregnancy-support specialist at Notre Dame.
Beth Rahal, a graduate of Belmont Abbey and head of Students for Life’s Pregnant on Campus initiative, said the chief resistance to adding such support services for many private Christian universities is based on fear that supporting pregnant or parenting women will somehow encourage promiscuity or premarital sex.
“That’s just not true,” said Rahal, explaining that it does not conflict with campus efforts toward chastity education.
Students for Life currently works with 140 groups on campuses that are fully committed to networking with their administrations in promoting welcoming policies and building support services for students.
“In order to end abortion in our country, we have to make abortion unthinkable,” Rahal said, “but the only way we can make abortion unthinkable is to provide the resources and support that women need to answer the concern and the fear that they have when they find themselves in an unplanned pregnancy.”