School of Education doctoral candidate receives grant funding for collaborative research project with young moms

By Laurel White

When she was a pregnant teenager, Kate Westaby remembers seeing posters tacked up at her high school that said, “Less than 2 percent of teen parents get a college degree by age 30.”

She believes the posters, which referenced often-cited data from the privately-funded nonprofit National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, were meant to discourage teenagers from getting pregnant — but she found them to be stigmatizing and dismissive of real-world circumstances.


Now a doctoral candidate in the UW–Madison School of Education, Westaby is conducting research that seeks to shed more light on the barriers to college access for young parents. She is also empowering young mothers to work alongside her as researchers, providing tools for them to help identify the troubling trends and obstacles they hope to subvert.

Westaby says working alongside young mothers is one of her favorite parts of the research process.

“Partnering with them centers their voices and shares power to avoid further stigmatization,” Westaby said in a recent blog post for New America, a nonpartisan think tank. “And it offers others a chance to understand and empathize with the complexities of young parents’ lives and understand the systemic barriers to their educational success.”

Westaby, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, received a Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Seed Grant this summer to support the project. Her work includes crunching federal data on high school graduation and college admittance, as well as one-on-one interviews and focus groups with teenage and other young mothers who had children before the age of 23. 

She launched the project in the spring, working in part with high school students at Capital High School in Madison. Capital High has had a longstanding relationship with the School of Education, including a partnership with occupational therapy students in the Department of Kinesiology.

Westaby says she’s built good relationships with some of the young mothers at Capital High, and has stayed in touch with several following their high school graduation. She says the obstacles they face, especially after leaving high school, are formidable. 

“I’ve seen them struggle,” she says. “Resources are lacking. Child care is inaccessible for different reasons. There are all of these systems intersecting and stalling their progress.”

With that in mind, Westaby also launched a new initiative this summer, separate from her research, called the Young Parent Collective. The group is aimed at creating community among young parents in the Madison area. Westaby hopes the organization will combat isolation and help her develop a structure for advocacy that seeks to better support college access and well-being for young parents. 

“The point is to organize young parents — to see each other and have support and not feel alone — but also to see what needs to be done,” she says. “I think young parents could really lend support there. A lot of them have done research looking into how to support themselves and their kids, so they are great resources for other parents.”

Westaby is working on getting the organization official designation as a nonprofit. She has hopes of providing steady paychecks for young parent researchers in the future, and imagines hosting a summertime research bootcamp for teen and young parents. 

“They could meet people and build connections, and have power over research findings and stop stigmatizing research about us,” she says. “Those are my ideas, but they see their own possibilities and the Collective can increase the likelihood those possibilities are realized.”

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