Zehra Abbas spent her second year at UCLA hiding her belly after she found out she was pregnant.
“I hid my pregnancy with jackets because I was under the impression that there was something wrong with me,” Abbas said.
Abbas’ family worried she wouldn’t be able to manage motherhood and her education at the same time, and that she would have to drop out of school. But she was determined to prove them wrong.
“My main goal has always been graduating from UCLA so that my daughter can be proud of me and I can provide (for) her a better future,” said Abbas, now a fifth-year history student.
Abbas is one of about 800 students with children on campus, said Jean Libby, the director of the Students with Dependents program.
The SwD program gives students who struggle with managing school and parenthood resources such as helping them find jobs and housing.
“Being a parent on campus is very isolating,” Libby said. “(It) is sometimes an invisible identity.”
Libby said it’s hard to measure the number of students with dependents because UCLA doesn’t ask for that information in applications and other documents.
Aside from caring for her now 2-year-old daughter, Raylyn, Abbas focuses on her internship at SwD, where she works to bring more visibility to the parenting community. Though Abbas said she has grown since she struggled with her pregnancy, she is still disappointed that UCLA did not try harder to make her feel accepted as a pregnant student.
Abbas learned she was pregnant at the end of her first year, at the same time she was going through depression and an unstable relationship.
When she moved to the Hill a few months later, Abbas kept her pregnancy a secret because her resident assistant told her not to tell anyone. She said she felt alone and didn’t want to make any friends so people wouldn’t find out about her pregnancy.
She had planned to live with her sorority sisters, but the sorority asked her to take a leave of absence after they learned she was pregnant. They refused to let her stay in their house and asked her to refrain from wearing the sorority’s letters. Abbas did not want to disclose the sorority’s name.
“In retrospect, I understand that they didn’t want their house reputation to be dirtied by a pregnant woman living in the house,” Abbas said. “But these were women that I expected to be my sisters … I felt degraded and belittled when telling them I was pregnant.”
Abbas gave birth to Raylyn during finals week at the end of her second year. She returned to school after spring break with stitches and staples on her belly from the surgery.
For a year and a half, Abbas commuted two-and-a-half hours to UCLA and packed all her classes into two days. During that time, she dropped several classes and her grades dropped to a C average. Some nights she would bring a pillow and comforter to spend the night at Powell because it was more convenient than commuting, she said.
“It felt like I was living two different lives (as a mother and student),” she said.
She decided something had to change, so she moved to a transfer student hall on campus and only sees her daughter weekends.
More than two years after she gave birth to Raylyn, Abbas decided to do something about the invisibility of students with children. Abbas hopes to build an inclusive community for students with children by getting them involved on campus.
Abbas said students with children are so invisible, she didn’t realize there was someone similar to herself just two floors below her transfer student dorm.
Amanda Sandoval, a fourth-year psychology student who lived in the same dorm, is now Abbas’ best friend and roommate. Abbas met Sandoval, who also has a 2-year-old daughter, through a friend.
“I almost cried (when we met) because it was like, ‘What? There’s someone else like me?’” Abbas said.
Like Abbas, Sandoval only sees her daughter on the weekends.
Sandoval said she thinks UCLA should make more of an effort to make students with children feel like it is not something to be ashamed of.
SwD will hold its Annual Parenting Student Graduation at the end of the year of with the Parenting Students at UCLA, which is a separate graduation ceremony specifically for students with children.
Parenting Students at UCLA is a student group that aims to support students with children.
Libby said that after seeing parents struggle over homework and midterms, she thinks the ceremony is a way for their kids to understand the importance of education.
At the Annual Parenting Student Graduation, children will accompany their parents as they walk across the stage to receive their commendations.
Despite everything they have been through, Abbas and Sandoval will be able to walk with their children in matching robes and caps.
“Everything is finally coming together,” Abbas said.