When I started my master’s in social work at Washington University in Saint Louis, I didn’t tell anyone I was pregnant. I was worried I would be treated differently or not taken seriously as a student. I didn’t realize how correct I was. Not only was I treated differently; I was actively punished for choosing to become a parent.
I was recruited to pursue my master’s at Washington University in Saint Louis with the promise of a full scholarship from the Kathryn M. Buder Center Foundation. Specifically, my program was the Masters in Social Work with a concentration in American Indian and Alaskan Native studies.
The Buder Center scholarship program recruits Native people from across the country—including myself from the Bishop Paiute tribe in California—positioning itself as a supportive, community-centered program for Native students.
But my experience was the opposite. When I arrived in Saint Louis, Missouri in the fall of 2018, I found a program—funded by a non-Native foundation—that uproots Native people from their communities by offering them a full ride, and then uses the scholarship as a kind of blackmail against us if we can’t meet the foundation’s unfair, undisclosed standards.
I was pregnant, isolated, and trapped.
Shortly after announcing my pregnancy, the Buder Foundation and my peers began to treat me negatively. It was as though my pregnancy immediately made me less valuable to them.
I was no longer taken as seriously as a student, or in my elected position as a powwow co-chair through the University’s Leadership in Indian Country class. I suddenly stopped receiving as many communications from the Buder Foundation regarding my co-chair position, which led to unavoidable mistakes in my responsibilities.
My experience of being pregnant while in this program was so traumatic that I actually lost weight throughout my pregnancy instead of gaining it.
I eventually resigned from the volunteer position of powwow co-chair because the mistreatment-induced stress was bad for my health. But I was told afterward that resignation would mean losing a portion of my scholarship.
I retracted the resignation, with acknowledgment of my faults, but that wasn’t enough. The position was pulled from me anyway, citing “unprofessional conduct,” and I lost a portion of my scholarship.
I thought I had the right to step down from a voluntary position without being financially punished, but I was wrong.
That was the first time the Buder Foundation used my scholarship to financially punish me. They did it again when I took a one-year leave of absence after giving birth to my daughter. Despite being reassured twice through formal letters that my scholarship would be available for me to return in August 2020 to complete my degree, I received a shocking letter in June 2020 informing me that my scholarship was, in fact, being revoked.
Unfair Treatment of AI/AN Students
Fortunately, Washington University in Saint Louis promised to fund me with their own scholarship after learning about my predicament from a post I had made on the Brown School for Social Work Facebook page.
Although the university did not pay the living stipend I was promised through the Buder Scholarship, I consider myself lucky.
Other students have been saddled with a lifetime of debt if they couldn’t complete their degree for some reason. If they decide to leave due to a lack of supportive community, or can’t stick to the foundation’s strict timeline (like me), they are then informed that they will have to pay their scholarship back in full.
For me, that would have been about $60,000.
I never would have accepted the scholarship if I knew how many dangerous strings were attached. I assumed that a social work program with a scholarship funded by a nonprofit foundation would treat its student recipients with basic human decency. I was wrong.
After transitioning out of the program, I could see that the Buder Foundation had created a very limiting experience of University life for students in the American Indian and Alaskan Native concentration, and limited our access to university resources.
Once you accept the Buder Scholarship, you can not choose a different concentration without being forced to pay back the scholarship. This truly limits AI/AN students from exploring their true potentials and passions.
In spite of the Buder Foundation’s betrayals, I completed my master’s in social work thanks to the university’s scholarship. The discrimination I endured pressured me to change my concentration when I returned, from American Indian and Alaskan Natives to Social and Economic Development, but I was able to continue my studies remotely from California due to COVID-19, surrounded by my family and community.
To make it through the experience, I had to research many resources in addition to going to school and working. It wasn’t easy, but I found Pregnant Scholar, who put me into connection with Equal Rights Advocates, a nonprofit that helps students and workers facing gender discrimination.
It was a breath of fresh air to have someone fighting with me and not against me. You can accomplish a lot with the support of individuals fighting for your rights.
The Motherhood Penalty
I was essentially pushed out of my professional education program for becoming pregnant, and I know I’m not the only one. Mothers in every profession fight a constant uphill battle to maintain our careers, let alone succeed. Mothers raise the world’s future doctors, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and taxpayers. It’s the hardest job in the world, yet we receive little support, even as many struggle to keep a roof over their kids’ heads.
Mothers everywhere must make an impossible choice: Sacrifice either their careers, their valuable time with their children, or a little of both.
Society as a whole benefits from mothers’ unfair sacrifices. According to Salary.com, the average stay-at-home parent produced labor worth $178,201 in 2019, but the market chooses to ignore the value of this labor. Mothers everywhere bear the upfront cost of raising children, and society as a whole reaps the long-term benefits without compensating them for the lifetime of costs they incur. For Native mothers, it’s almost as if we’re not wanted in the workforce at all. Everyone wants our labor, but not our success.
I left a good job in Washington, D.C., to pursue my master’s in social work. Yet I currently rely on food stamps, WIC, and Medicaid to get by.
Outside of volunteer work, I’m not sure when I’ll be able to rely on my degree as my sole source of income, because sending two kids to daycare would take nearly all of my paycheck as a social worker—and that doesn’t even account for their health insurance, rent, or groceries.
We must advocate for increased and more accessible resources for pregnant women, both those in the workforce, and those pursuing degrees. The success of our communities depends on it.