Interns at the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science (CAES) Student Support Services (SSS) are pioneering a new initiative that creates supportive spaces for student mothers to discuss challenges they face in balancing student life and motherhood.
Former CAES SSS intern Ms Wendy Corfe launched the group which fills a need among women who are studying and striving to parent their children.
Corfe was inspired to start a peer support group after returning to the University in 2015 to complete her honours degree as a mature student with three children. She teamed up with Counselling Psychology masters candidate Ms Cebisile Kubheka, also a mother, and the two conducted postgraduate research into the experiences of student mothers at UKZN.
Corfe’s research indicates that an estimated 15% of students experience unwanted pregnancy, with the bulk of responsibility for the child falling on the mother, who is often stigmatised if unmarried. The resultant stress can cause negative psychological effects as well as the possibility of the student dropping out of her studies.
While running a research focus group for student mothers, Corfe and Kubheka recognised the need for a forum when participants asked for regular meetings, after discovering that engaging with each other was helpful.
‘We were amazed by the determination and courage of the student mothers we interviewed and by the enormous challenges they faced in many aspects of their lives,’ said Corfe.
The support group meetings started during Corfe’s internship at the CAES SSS, which she called ‘the ideal place to run a support group thanks to the backing of other student counsellors’.
Corfe had to differentiate between student mothers parenting their children daily and those who have family members care for their children away from home, tailoring discussions to suit the different challenges and difficulties faced by each group.
Regular participants were attracted to the group through advertisements around campus and referrals of interested students from other counsellors.
The group meets weekly with the initial focus group meeting for nine sessions and determines the topic of discussion, operating as a peer support group rather than a therapy one. The exchange of information, emotional support, recognition from other mothers and sharing of experiences enabled mothers to make sense of their own situations, and the forum became something many students looked forward to each week.
Participants reported feeling empowered, more confident and more optimistic, with an enhanced sense of self-esteem as well as acceptance of their circumstances. Participants also reported better academic performance, improved psychological coping and less use of individual counselling appointments.
Corfe is now completing her masters, while CAES SSS intern Ms Cebisa Nkatu continues to run the group under the supervision of her supervisor. The peer support group includes the option for therapeutic interventions such as art therapy, parenting skills, deep relaxation skills and more.
‘I hope that SSS in other Colleges will be inspired to run similar groups and will encourage student mothers to join these groups, and thereby enhance their functioning,’ said Corfe.
* The group meets on Fridays at 9.30am. For more information or to join contact Nkatu at phone 033 260 6550 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Words and photograph: Christine Cuénod