Megan Briggs and family
Megan Briggs, Ph.D. candidate in Spanish Literature, and her family.
Marla Johnson and children
Marla Johnson, Ph.D. candidate in biostatistics, and children.

It was a Friday afternoon when Marla Johnson learned that her son’s in-home daycare would be closed the following Monday for a funeral in the owner’s family. As a Ph.D. student in biostatistics and a graduate student instructor, she was scheduled to teach that day. Her husband — who works equally long hours for a biotech start-up company — had a meeting he couldn’t miss. Both transplants to the Bay Area, neither parent had a built-in family support system for such emergencies.

Fortunately for Johnson and hundreds of students like her, UC Berkeley offers the Back-Up Child Care program, which provides student parents with much-needed support when their regular child care arrangements fall through. For a very low hourly co-pay, registered graduate and undergraduate students can receive up to 60 hours of care by professional caregivers each year.

“This subsidized care has been such a huge source of relief to us, both in terms of time and money,” says Johnson, who now has two sons, aged three and one. “And we know that we’re getting experienced, vetted providers who are also first-aid- and CPR-certified.”

Megan Briggs — a Ph.D. candidate in Spanish Literature, a student instructor, and mother to an eight-month-old — agrees. “I usually work on my dissertation, teach, and prep for class in the mornings when my husband is home, and then I return in the afternoons when he leaves for work,” she says. “So if there’s a meeting or presentation scheduled in the afternoon, the back-up care has been a great solution, and truly the only one we can afford.”

Parent stresses are child stresses

Catherine Hutto Gordon
Catherine Hutto Gordon

The Back-Up Child Care program was launched in 2013 with a generous gift from the Hutto Patterson Charitable Foundation. Its trustee and president, Catherine Hutto Gordon, received her BA in Social Welfare from Berkeley and her MSW from the University of Southern California. Since then, she’s been a devoted Cal alumna, serving as a UCBF trustee, a member of the School of Social Welfare’s Advisory Board, and a member of the Graduate School of Education’s Dean’s Advisory Board. In 2003 she was awarded the UC Berkeley Foundation Trustees’ Citation.

While working as a family therapist at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, Hutto Gordon noticed how the stresses of a medical internship or a parent’s work schedule could affect the entire family. “I saw that when parents are stressed, it’s communicated to the children in unspoken ways,” she explains. “When kids are stressed, they can’t take in new information and their learning abilities are impacted.”

The Graduate Division — long an advocate for greater support to student parents — heard of Hutto Gordon’s interest in families and contacted her about helping graduate students challenged by family stresses. Adapting a back-up care program already available to UC Berkeley faculty, the program for student parents was soon piloted with oversight by Professor Susan Muller, an Associate Dean of the Graduate Division.

“Catherine’s gift has enabled the Graduate Division to stretch limited campus-designated funds to provide a resource that makes a critical difference in the academic and personal lives of our graduate students,” says Muller.

A critical resource for student parents

Since inception, approximately 660 students have registered for the program; doctoral and master’s students outnumber undergraduate students by more than two to one. A limited number of center-based spaces are available at the Bright Horizons Child Care Center located in west Berkeley, just two miles from campus. Parents can also access Bright Horizons services in locations around the Bay Area and across the nation, such as when they travel to conferences. Most student parents take advantage of subsidized in-home care available 24/7 (for up to three children at once), especially useful when a child is ill.

Hutto Gordon is gratified that her gift to Berkeley is making such a difference in the lives of student parents. She offers this advice: “Reach out and ask for help when you need it. Don’t feel you have to be a hero and do it all by yourself.”

For more information, visit the UC Berkeley Back-up Child Care Program website.