Celine Fender

Celine Fender, PhD student, education policy and leadership studies

Tracks success of Black student-mothers

“Celine is an empathetic scholar who centers diversity, equity, and inclusion in her academic inquiry. She is constantly inquisitive and pushing her field and colleagues to be more equitable and highlight the need to dismantle systems of oppression.” -Margaret Kaus, academic coach, Center for Inclusive and Academic Excellence

North Liberty, Iowa

Faculty mentor/advisor:
Jodi Linley, PhD, associate professor, higher education and student affairs; and Saba K. Vlach, PhD, assistant professor, elementary literacy, College of Education

What is your degree program and anticipated graduation date?
PhD in education policy & and leadership studies: higher education & student affairs, May 2024

Please describe your research:
Student-mothers’ narratives are consistently framed in a deficit. This problematic framing across most scholarship portrays student-mothers as struggling students too busy with childcare to focus on schoolwork, too busy with academics to be good mothers, and on a path to failure. The limited scholarship on student-parents emphasizes that the lack of support and resources available to graduate student-mothers puts them at a high risk of not completing their degrees. I study Black graduate student-mothers from the perspective of success because women and mothers are capable of complex and challenging ventures.

In simple terms, why does this research matter?
Claiming student-mothers as victims and underachievers is an old narrative, perpetuating gender inequalities within higher education systems. Scholars and practitioners need to uplift the accomplishments and positive impact of student-mothers to break the cycle of student-mothers being stripped of their agency. Previous scholars and I have identified persistent barriers graduate student-mothers encounter, including (1) finding childcare options; (2) work-life-school balance; (3) finding funding or other financial burdens; and (4) completing their degree on time or at all. For Black graduate student-mothers, these barriers are exacerbated by racism and racist campus climates. Higher educational achievement is tied to positive short- and long-term benefits for graduate student-mothers and their children, which emphasizes the importance of degree completion for graduate student-mothers; that is why this research matters. My scholarship explores why higher education literature is so transfixed on framing student-mothers as “superheroes” and “superwomen”? When can we stop viewing struggle as essential to the female mothering experience? Finally, and most importantly, why have we stopped asking student-mothers what they need to succeed?

The methodological predicaments in the scholarship about Black graduate student-mothers are equally concerning in my research. Scholars also often combine student-mother data with student-parent data without differentiating between gender roles, race, and issues mothers specifically face. Much of the student-mother or student-parent research does not include discussion or consideration of race, instead predominantly referring to the struggle of parenting in higher education. Thus, considering the unique gender socialization issues graduate student-mothers encounter and the economic benefits of having mothers in the workforce, it is imperative to engage in research that studies Black graduate-student mother success.

In my scholarship, I explore community love and its essential role in Black women’s lives. Moving towards love is a movement toward freedom and liberation. Yet, I do not seek to liberate Black graduate student-mothers, as they have shown time and time again that they have and will continue to liberate themselves. Instead, I seek to uplift what already exists – their success, resilience, and revolutionary ways of mothering.

How soon after starting at the University of Iowa were you able to participate in research?
I started as a research assistant at the University of Iowa my junior year and continued through my senior year. I then went to graduate school at Iowa and have been a part of research teams both years of my master’s and every year of my PhD (currently 4 years).

How has being involved in research made you more successful at the University of Iowa?
I have learned so much about myself as a researcher, scholar, and even on a personal level. I have been able to take part in research topics of all kinds, from internationalization to student-athlete success. I have had opportunities to study in Oslo, Norway, write proposals and attend international conferences, and seek out amazing opportunities such as the Fulbright. The mentors and leaders I have had in these research spaces have given me the confidence that no idea or concept is too hard to achieve, and I have been fully supported in my research both in and out of team or academic settings.

What are your career goals and/or plans after graduation?
I have various ideas for myself for after graduation. One part of me would like to stay in higher education and work at a women’s resource center, teach, or work in Title IX. Another part of me wants to work for education outside higher education, possibly working for companies such as PBS or Sesame Workshop (which creates the curriculum for Sesame Street). Or perhaps finding a women’s non-profit company to work for and continue to support women in their dreams of education.

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