Student Spotlight: Grad-student parents form a playgroup

Horner and her daughter

Horner and her daughter pose at a cooperative play session.

Photo by Daniel R. Burke

Moving to a new city with a spouse and small child in tow can make life pretty overwhelming. Add pursuing a degree to the equation and it becomes even trickier.

A new program, called Graduate Parents at Penn (GPP), is now here to help those who balance both school and parenthood.

Founded by Jennifer Horner and organized with the help of Marni Sweet, director of the Parent Infant Center, and Anita Mastroieni at the new Graduate Student Center, GPP coordinates cooperative play groups for children of graduate students.

The group, which currently has 70 members on its listserv, meets twice a week—once a week at the Graduate Student Center and one morning a week at the Parent Infant Center, just west of campus.

At the Graduate Student Center, a conference room serves as the playground. Chairs and tables are pushed to the side, creating a safe, wide space for children to play with each other and their toys.

But the program offers more than just fun time for children. It’s also a social outlet for the parents.

Horner, a fifth-year doctoral student at the Annenberg School, regularly brings her toddler daughter to the play sessions. Before that, Horner said, she found that life as a graduate-student parent can sometimes get lonely.

“I realized that I was going to playgrounds to talk to other mothers, to let my child play of course, but it was a fulfilling social contact too,” she said.

At GPP, there’s the added benefit of talking to others who can relate to life as a graduate-student parent.

Horner said conversation is easy, especially when coffee and donuts are provided. And there’s plenty to talk about, such as time management.

“It’s hard to get used to dividing your time into chunks that are so completely different from each other,” said Horner. “Before I had my daughter, I could work all day long. I could think about my work while I was at home. You could pick something up [and] write something down, but now being with her requires a totally different kind of concentration. You have to get used to shifting gears abruptly a lot.”

Horner said the organization is as much for Penn’s graduate students as it is for their spouses.

“When people come here to go to graduate school and bring their spouses and children along, a lot of times the spouses feel pretty isolated, so it’s actually for the spouses as well as for the graduate students,” said Horner. “If the spouses don’t know anybody, it’s a great way to get to know people.”

Currently, about 10 toddlers and babies join each session, sometimes with both parents present.

Horner said that while GPP is in its initial stages, she hopes the future will include more organized activities like sing-alongs. With funding from the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and Graduate Student Associations Council, she hopes GPP will act as a clearinghouse of information, linking parents to family-friendly campus and community events.

To learn more about GPP and when it meets, e-mail

Originally published on March 28, 2002