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In the fall of 2020, Marcella Mares made headlines by standing up to a professor who refused to let her breastfeed her baby in a virtual class. Marcella is in her 3rd year of studying for her AA in Criminal Justice at Fresno City College. Her daughter, Olivia, just turned 11 months old.

Here is the Pregnant Scholar’s conversation with breastfeeding college student Marcella Mares on her struggle, her victory, and advice for others in a similar situation:

Q: Why was it important to you to breastfeed your daughter?

A: It is so important to me to breastfeed my daughter because I give her the vitamins and nutrients she needs. My body makes the milk that is needed if it can feel she is getting a cold. My body can sense through her saliva that she is getting the flu. My body makes milk with extra cortisol in the morning for her to have energy and be more alert. My body makes extra vitamin E during the day and extra melatonin at night for a better night’s sleep. Breastfeeding is and was the only plan I ever had for my baby.

Q: What happened when you asked to breastfeed in your virtual class?

A: So there were 2 statistics courses that I was taking back-to-back. One was a statistics help class that was 50 minutes long and  after that class was the actual Statistics course that was 2 hours and 50 minutes long. …most days we would have a 5 or 6 minute break.

There wasn’t any requirement to have the camera and microphone on during class but since we recently started working in groups and the instructor didn’t see as much participation as he’d like, he made it mandatory to leave the camera and microphone on during class time. I emailed him back instantly and told him since the requirements were changed I needed to turn the camera and microphone off if needed. My daughter eats “regular” food now so it wasn’t going to be a for sure thing that every single class I would need to feed her. I sent the email stating my needs and he replied with “you should not be breastfeeding during class lecture. Just do that on your own time.” About 45 minutes after receiving his response class started. The first thing he said to the whole class, which at that time was around 25-30 people, was, “I received a “weird” email from a student stating she needed to do some “inappropriate” things during class time… if you have children at home you guys need to get creative and figure something out during my lectures…”

Q: How did your professor’s response  make you feel?

A: The email stating I couldn’t feed my baby if she needed to eat her liquid gold was upsetting. I didn’t expect to receive a “no” to feeding a child in her own home. The things he said about my email to the class, even if he didn’t mention my name, were publicly humiliating. I felt as if I did something wrong and that I overstepped. I was so unmotivated during the whole class time. I felt myself shut down at the fact that this actually happened to me. I felt defenseless in that situation and it made me feel even worse because I felt like I had to choose between feeding my baby or attending class. 

Q: When/why did you decide to reach out to Title IX for help? What happened next?

A: When class ended that night, I emailed him asking for the rules from the school and his class regarding breastfeeding or pregnant students and he said there were no rules. That is when I CC’d the Title IX coordinator, Lorraine Smith. The Dean of his department and the Title IX coordinator both emailed me apologizing for his behavior and said that they had a talk with him. He agreed I could breastfeed in class, but I didn’t think they did enough by just sending him the rules and having a talk with him.

Q: What message do you have for other students out there being told they can’t breastfeed in class?

A: Do not ever let anyone, especially a man, tell you what is right for your child. You are your baby’s mother and you know her/him better than anyone else. Don’t stop fighting for your babies. I know I won’t stop fighting for a better future for mine. If someone tells you that you can’t feed your baby, remind them that you have rights and use them. Speak up for your baby. Your baby is your number one and will always root for you no matter what. 

Q: What is it like being a new mom in college?

A: I am actually really surprised at how smooth it’s been. I also have an upper hand because my husband has been working from home since COVID-19 started in the United States. He is such a great father and he helps me as much as he can while I’m in class lectures or doing homework. But baby wants what baby wants! Even if it is at a time where I am the most busy, I have to drop what I’m doing to make her feel comforted by breastfeeding her and this is so many moms reality. 

Q: What advice would you give to other student moms reading this?

A: My advice would be to keep going. I had to drop the two statistics courses for unrelated reasons but I am still enrolled and taking another class. It doesn’t matter if you are working and being a parent or going to school and being a parent or doing both and being a parent, you are strong and important to a little human and have that precious baby boy/girl looking up to you now. Don’t give up. Keep fighting your fight. You will get through any situation that is thrown at you.

Q: What advice would you give to professors or administrators looking to support student parents?

A: Never tell a parent they can’t do something. Even if it is just turning off their camera and microphone for a few minutes to feed their baby. It has such a huge effect on someone personally and you don’t know the obstacles they are already trying to get through. This is a new world for all of us. We are all trying our best to go to school, work, raise children, cook, clean, be nice, drink water, shower, maintain our health, and get a full night’s sleep. Be understanding of student parents and try to work with them just as much as they work with you. A little kindness goes a long way.

Marcella, baby and husband smiling at the camera

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