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Saturday May 28th

What happens when you become pregnant during college? Students share their stories

Elizabeth Sandoval studying with her daughter, Maria, shortly after she was born. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Sandoval.
Buy Photos Elizabeth Sandoval studying with her daughter, Maria, shortly after she was born. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Sandoval.

A year after starting at UNC, Elizabeth Sandoval faced a situation she could never have anticipated.

Sandoval, now a junior, knew something was different. A pregnancy test confirmed it. Her daughter, Maria, would be born in the second semester of her sophomore year. Sandoval said she’s pro-choice, but abortion and adoption just weren’t for her.

Now that Maria is nine months old, Sandoval continues to navigate life as a student, mother and wife. 

Once she and her then-boyfriend found out the news, they married within the week. To Sandoval, it wasn’t even a question. She said bringing a child into the world was a two-person job, and her soon-to-be husband agreed.

At UNC, Sandoval knew Maria would be born mid-semester. She let all of her professors know, and many were supportive. But one Spanish professor told Sandoval she needed to go on medical leave and shouldn’t come back to school after the birth that semester. She switched out of his course.

Sandoval’s dedication to her studies persisted. Sandoval, a psychology major, attended a biology lab the day before her planned C-section. She was back the next week.

“Nobody really expected me to come back,” Sandoval said. “So they were all shocked when I came in the door and they were more shocked when I had turned in my homework on time. I didn't miss an assignment, and I told those professors nobody can have an excuse ever now.”

But not all students who become unexpectedly pregnant during college make the choice to continue the pregnancy. First-year Amy, who asked to use an anonymous alias because of the sensitivity of the topic, was only two weeks into her first year at college when she began to experience pregnancy symptoms and missed her period.

Raised in a conservative, Christian family, Amy said she felt she couldn’t go to her family for help.

The man involved was a friend of Amy’s from her hometown. He tried to convince her not to go through with an abortion because of his religious views, but he also told Amy he wanted no part in raising a baby.

Amy didn’t want to tell her roommate or new friends because of the stigma attached with becoming pregnant as a teenager. Making her decision was even more prolonged as Amy was still a minor. Amy turned 18 weeks later — on the same day she had her appointment to receive the abortion pill.

“I felt super lonely, kind of trapped and then also I was really sad because I didn't want to have to make a decision like that, and I felt like really selfish about it,” Amy said. “But, I’ve put basically my education and future first.”

Still, Amy cried throughout the ultrasound — which is required by law in North Carolina — and upon hearing the heartbeat. The decision was not an easy one, but Amy made it for many reasons: she wants a career, she wasn’t ready for childbirth and she felt she would not be a good, attentive mom, she said.

Resources for pregnant students 

When Amy told some of her professors, they were accommodating and helpful toward her, normalizing what previously seemed like a decision only a small portion of women ever have to make. By age 45, about one in four women will have an abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

The Planned Parenthood location in Chapel Hill can also serve as a resource to students in this situation. In addition to services like birth control, STI testing and breast and cervical cancer screenings, Planned Parenthood offers pregnancy options, counseling, in-clinic abortion, the abortion pill and emergency contraception. 

All of Planned Parenthood’s services are available to college students whether they have insurance or not, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic's communications director, Sarah Riddle, said.

“College students who experience unexpected pregnancy have options,” Riddle said. “Planned Parenthood counselors offer all options counseling including information on parenting, abortion and adoption. When the Trump administration issued its Title X gag rule, Planned Parenthood refused to be forced into silence."

There are a range of accommodations at UNC for pregnant students or mothers. Elizabeth Hall, UNC’s Equal Opportunity and Compliance assistant director, said some of these accommodations include extending deadlines, allowing makeup work and providing remote learning opportunities and reasonable space and time to pump for breastfeeding, among others. 

“I think maybe students don't know how flexible and interactive the accommodations process is and that we do work to try to find creative solutions that are individual to student's needs,” Hall said. “It's really not one size fits all.”

UNC does not have an official family leave policy for undergraduate students, but the University hosts resources like parent support groups through Counseling and Psychological Services and an ongoing program called What to Expect When You’re Expecting @ UNC.

Challenges of student pregnancy 

Sandoval had varied experiences with UNC professors and said some of them need more education on how to treat expecting mothers. In addition to the Spanish professor who told her she should take medical leave, one biology professor assumed she would just need the day of her due date off. She asked if Sandoval was sure she wanted to continue college instead of taking a semester off.

“I think they need a little bit more training or just awareness about not every student is like living in a dorm room and going to clubs,” Sandoval said. “Not every student has the typical student life. Some of us have kids, and I think that the insensitivity of some of those professors struck me the worst, and they were quite discouraging.”

As a student mother, Sandoval’s life is full of sacrifices. Sandoval moved back to her hometown of Ararat, North Carolina so her mom can take care of Maria while she’s at school. Sandoval currently drives two hours to and from campus two times a week. 

The first six weeks after Maria was born were a blur of diapers, breastfeeding, pumps and bottles. One of the most difficult challenges for Sandoval is the emotional struggle of leaving Maria for hours at a time to attend school. Overall, Sandoval said, through her pregnancy and having Maria, she realized she’s stronger than she thought she was.

“Motherhood is incredibly hard,” Sandoval said. “It's extremely hard. It is the hardest thing you will ever do in your life, I promise. But that being said, I've had my happiest moments and I'm more in love with Maria than any other being on the planet that could exist."

Both Sandoval and Amy feel there are misconceptions surrounding women who become pregnant during college — including that the woman must be promiscuous, lazy, lacking ambition, careless or irresponsible to get into this situation — but that this is often far from the truth.

Amy ended up with a 3.8 GPA her first semester, and Sandoval plans to graduate early this summer with plans to eventually become a clinical psychologist. 

Amy continued to question if she made the right choice after her abortion. She isolated herself from friends and especially didn’t want to socialize with male students. 

“Initially I thought that after I had the procedure done that the anxiety would go away, but I felt really guilty afterward and just turned to basically self-hatred,” Amy said. “I felt so bad. I felt so guilty, and also the constant questioning of 'Did I make the right choice?' was really hard to get over.”

But as time passed, Amy moved forward. The pregnancy now feels more in the past, and she doesn’t continuously think about it as much.

And while Sandoval turned her situation into what she now calls a happy family, she has empathy for other women who did not have the same resources she did and made a different choice.

“We're very blessed,” Sandoval said. “My husband works 80 hours a week so I can go to school full time and stay at home with my daughter. I couldn't ask for a better husband. And I know a lot of girls don't have the support that I do, and that's why I have so much sympathy for girls that make the decision to terminate or to adopt. I have an amazing support system.”

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