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New policy gives grad student parents what they need most: time and financial support

When classes resume Aug. 28, Cornell sociology doctoral candidate Matthew Hoffberg and his wife, Lisa, will be more distracted than most graduate students heading into the new semester. The couple are due to become parents the next day.

Fortunately for the Hoffbergs, however, their daughter is arriving in time for them to take advantage of Cornell's parental policy for graduate students announced in June.

The policy -- Graduate and Professional Student Parental Accommodation -- is designed to help students balance academic and research responsibilities with parenting demands by providing them with the time and the funds to deal with the demands of childbirth, adoption, newborn care, foster care and acute child health care.

For example, all enrolled students in good academic standing -- including graduate student assistants, fellows, trainees and students in degree-granting programs without minimum semester course credit requirements -- can request time away from their studies if they are new parents.

And their academic funding need not dry up. Those who receive full tuition, stipends and health insurance from or through Cornell have the option of continuing to receive support for six weeks. They will receive their stipends directly from the university, so that the regularly budgeted stipend can be used to hire a replacement for the student's time away.

A second option allows eligible grad students, regardless of their funding status, to reduce academic obligations for up to one year in full-semester increments. They will retain registration status and eligibility for library access, e-mail and electronic collections and other services. Although this option does not provide for financial assistance, students can request one conference grant annually and will have the individual student health insurance premium paid by the Graduate School.

The new Cornell program is available to both mothers and fathers, and, as with other university policies for faculty and staff, it applies to all graduate students regardless of marital status or sexual orientation.

Graduate School Dean Alison Power notes that the new policy places Cornell at the forefront of its Ivy League peers for extending broad benefits and support to the increasing number of graduate students with children and families.

"We've worked to define a policy that reflects the changes we recognize in the graduate population and an approach that serves their changing needs," she said.

More Cornell graduate students are finding themselves at the right time of life to start their families. The spring 2008 survey of graduate students showed that the graduate student population is getting older -- more than 20 percent of Cornell graduate students are over age 30, and more than 11 percent have dependents.

"The first few months of a baby's life are an important time for creating a nurturing environment and for the family to adjust to the unprecedented shifts that take place," said Hoffberg. He said that he and his wife, a teacher at the Elizabeth Ann Clune Montessori School of Ithaca, "feel fortunate that Cornell has recognized this value and is actively assisting expectant parents in our efforts to balance work and family responsibilities."

Like the Hoffbergs, Andrea Woodward, a doctoral candidate in development sociology, and her husband, Josh, a biology teacher at Ithaca High School, are grateful for the opportunity to avoid having academic studies overrule parental duties.

Said Woodward, who is expecting their first child in October: "I can't imagine having to come right back to work during a time of such huge transition, and it would have been financially stressful to take a semester of leave without funding."

A pdf of the new policy is available at http://www.policy.cornell.edu/vol1_6.cfm.

John Tonello is director of communications for the Graduate School.

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