Three colleges launch new travel grant for faculty to pay for dependent care
When Lara Anderson had a baby in the fall of 2017, the associate professor of physics and affiliate professor of mathematics in the College of Science vowed that parenthood wouldn’t derail the dozen-plus trips she took each year for conferences and research collaborations.
“I felt professionally like that would be a big setback in terms of the research I could do, the connections and collaborations I could make, and also just the impact of my own work,” she said. “My field is not going to wait for me.”
Yet figuring out child care for her son while she traveled proved to be a logistical and financial nightmare. Because he was allergic to baby formula, she couldn’t leave him at home. Anderson had to either arrange child care in the city she was visiting or bring a babysitter along with her — both pricey propositions. As the first tenured faculty member in her department to ever give birth, "I felt like this was uncharted territory that I had to deal with," Anderson said.
The introduction of a new Dependent Care Travel Grant aims to acknowledge and ease that financial burden for faculty members. This spring, the College of Science, the College of Natural Resources and Environment, and the College of Liberal Arts and Humanities launched pilot programs to offer grants of up to $1,000 to defray the cost of care while faculty members travel for research or conferences.
The grants, which are supported by private sources of funding, are meant to offer extra help to faculty members who must balance the sometimes expensive and exhausting demands of caregiving with nurturing an ambitious career. “It's about removing barriers,” said Rachel Gabriele, assistant provost for faculty initiatives and policies. “We're trying to pay attention to how different faculty are able to find success and to be nimble about how we support their progress.”
Gabriele and the Office of Faculty Affairs began working on the Dependent Care Travel Grant program after Anderson proposed it to the College of Science’s diversity committee in 2019. Anderson had seen how universal the problem was when she invited female scientists to participate in a conference she was planning. “A huge number of them were canceling because of child care logistics,” she recalled.
When the pandemic hit, most work travel paused — but the difficulties of working while providing care only became more dire. A fall 2020 survey found that faculty members were spending almost twice as many hours on hands-on caregiving as they had been before the pandemic. At an office hours session held by the Office of Faculty Affairs, emotional stories of caregiving-related stress spilled out.
Meanwhile, the results of the 2020 Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education survey of faculty job satisfaction showed that Virginia Tech faculty members wanted more family- and life-friendly university policies. Gabriele and the Office of Faculty Affairs researched similar programs at other institutions; reviewed current research and data on caregiver concerns; consulted with Kim Thomason, the program manager for early childhood education initiatives in the Office of the President; and met regularly with interested colleges to ready the Dependent Care Travel Grant for launch.
The grants may be especially valuable for female faculty members, who are disproportionally impacted by caregiving responsibilities. But they also could have helped LaDale Winling, an associate professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, when he was a newly widowed tenure-track faculty member raising a 2-year-old son as a single father. “Living a 10-hour drive away from my nearest family member, it was really challenging to travel,” he said.
When Winling asked to use some of his research funds to pay for child care while he traveled, he was told no; Virginia Tech policy prohibited it. “That's how I became extremely sensitive to this issue,” Winling said. “I was in an exceptional circumstance, but this is an issue for basically anyone with children.”
The grants will provide support not just for parents, but for caregivers of any kind. “If someone is a caregiver to a parent or an adult family member, this is for them as well,” explained Catherine Piché, a program assistant for the Office of Faculty Affairs. “This really is for dependent care across the board.”
Grant requirements will vary from college to college, but funding will be flexible enough to support expenses such as extended hours at daycare or on-site care at a conference or research site. Interested faculty members in the pilot colleges can contact their dean’s office to learn more about the program.
The hope is that the Dependent Care Travel Grant is a game changer for some faculty members. “Having the funding and support could be very crucial professionally for a lot of caregivers at stages where they really need that help in their career,” said Anderson.