Posted: October 25, 2017 at 6:28 pm

This is the first part to a series on pregnancy and parenthood at West Virginia University. View part two here and part three here.

By Caity Coyne and Jennifer Skinner

Maddilyn Sawyer (21) found out she was pregnant for the first time at the end of her freshman year of college. She now has two daughters.

Maddilyn Sawyer finished her first year at West Virginia University by cramming for final exams and figuring out how to tell her family and friends that she was expecting a baby.

“I’ve wanted to be a mom forever,” Sawyer said. “I was excited, but it felt too soon.”

Sawyer, now 21, decided to go through with her pregnancy — and the complications it would add to her education., which ultimately led to Sawyer not returning to classes for her sophomore year.

Less than one in 10 students with children finish their bachelor’s degree within six years of starting college, according to research from the University of Wisconsin. The majority of unplanned pregnancies in the United States are among low-income, cohabitating women between the ages of 18 and 24, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization focused on sexual and reproductive health.

While WVU follows a specific procedure when students face academic or legal trouble, the University does not have an official system in place for pregnant students.

“Beyond student health, I’m not sure what we offer for pregnant students specifically,” said Amy Johns, director of Public Affairs at WVU Medicine.

Untapped resources

It was over spring break of her freshman year when Sawyer found out she was pregnant.

“I bawled my eyes out,” she said. “I locked myself in my room. I was by myself, and I was terrified.”

She considered taking an abortion pill. After researching, she discovered the nearest abortion provider to Morgantown was in Pittsburgh.

“I was a freshman in college, I’d just moved away from home, I was scared,” Sawyer, a Wetzel County native, said. “I really considered abortion, but I don’t think I would have been able to live with that choice.”

On the federal level, pregnant students are protected under Title IX, which prohibits universities from discriminating based on sex. These protections mean pregnant students cannot be denied educational opportunities or school programs because of pregnancy, parenthood or the choice to have an abortion, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

Sawyer’s daughter Charlotte was born in January 2016.

When classes started again after Sawyer’s spring break, she missed the first week as she grappled with the reality of her pregnancy. Sawyer, wanting to focus all her time on her child, knew she was not going to be returning to school for her second year.

In her two semesters at WVU, she could not recall hearing anything around campus about what students who find themselves in her situation should do.

The WVU Medicine Student Health Center, located on campus and within walking distance for freshmen in residence halls, is physically the closest medical provider for students.

When it comes to pregnancy, Student Health focuses most of its resources on prevention tactics, like contraception and education, according to Carrie Pratt, one of two women’s health nurse practitioners at Student Health.

Most of the pregnant patients Pratt sees are unplanned pregnancies.

“We try to do everything we can to help our students prevent an unplanned pregnancy,” Pratt said. “But once we identify a pregnancy, we want the mom and baby to have a healthy, normal pregnancy.”

When Pratt sees a pregnant student, she makes sure the student is aware of all three major options — abortion, adoption and keeping the baby. She presents the student with a packet full of resources, including obstetrical care, counseling, financial assistance, adoption services and the closest abortion providers.

Pratt said she is not aware of any resources or trainings provided to advisors or professors specifically that would make them aware of services offered by Student Health for pregnant students. Most of the outreach and publicity, she said, comes from social media channels.

“Do I think everyone knows about us? No, I don’t,” Pratt said. “If they did, I’d be seeing a lot more patients.”

Finding direction in the community

Sawyer was not sure who to go to at first. Looking for guidance, the first, and just about only, person Sawyer told on campus was her advisor, who shared an eerily similar experience — Sawyer’s advisor had also gotten pregnant during her second semester of college.

Maddilyn Sawyer’s first daughter, Charlotte, is now almost two years old.

“I definitely felt less alone. I was lucky — I went crying to the right person,” Sawyer said. “I didn’t want to talk to the university … (But), even if WVU couldn’t provide any services, all advisors should be able to direct students to places in Morgantown that can help.”

New to Morgantown as of the summer of 2017, Compass Women’s Center is a helpline focused on providing emotional support to anyone in need of help in the midst of an unplanned pregnancy.

Nancy Strader, executive director of Compass, is working with WVU to shed light on local options for students who unexpectedly become pregnant.

“The more people come together and collaborate to meet [a pregnant woman’s] needs, the more likely she is to succeed,” Strader said.

Through Compass, women can receive a free initial OB-GYN appointment and connections with other resources they might need, from medical insurance through the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources and professional counseling to baby items, like diapers and carseats.

“We only want to be what she needs. We don’t have these straight-forward programs because not everyone is the same,” Strader said.

WVU’s growing relationship with Compass includes communication with the WVU Title IX office and assigning service learning and marketing classes to Compass to develop its new presence on social media and the community.

“WVU has a lot of young people, and young people are generally the people getting pregnant, so we want to make sure faculty and staff are aware of us and students are aware of us as well as the community,” Strader said.

In Sawyer’s case, it helped that the father, her now-fiance Tyler Mercer, was from Morgantown and still had family there. Mercer’s mother was able to refer Sawyer to BirthRight, which helped Sawyer apply for Medicaid and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits from the West Virginia DHHR.

“If his mom hadn’t gone there, if I hadn’t have met the right person, I don’t think I would have found out about that,” Sawyer said. “I’m not from around here, but I think there should be a way for other girls to know about services [like BirthRight].”

BirthRight, centrally located in downtown Morgantown, also would have provided Sawyer with a crib, car seat or other items she might have needed, but she would not have known about BirthRight if not for hearing about it through her family.

“I feel like if I would have not gotten pregnant by someone from this area, it would have really sucked,” Sawyer said. “I feel like I lucked out with my resources and knowing people.”

Sawyer plans to take online classes and work in accounting.

Sawyer knew she was not going to be returning to school for Fall 2015, and she gave birth to Charlotte in January 2016.

When Charlotte was a few months old, Sawyer considered going back to school, but found out she was pregnant with her second daughter, Emma, now six months old. 

But that time, Sawyer said, “I wasn’t scared. I was excited.”

Today, Sawyer and Mercer take turns working throughout the week to provide for their children while they save money by living with Mercer’s family. Sawyer said she’s planning on finishing her degree online through Penn Foster with the hope of working as an accountant.

“[Parenthood] isn’t something that has to stop you. I personally didn’t want to focus on school — I wanted to focus on [my daughters],” Sawyer said. “I do think it’d be a good idea if there were some kind of counselor trained specifically for pregnant students. I feel like a lot of girls would like that — something specific to [their circumstances], not just general counseling.”