On family and unconventionality

Julie Liu/Staff

Move-in day: Carts rattling over uneven sidewalks, the arrangement of twin XL bedding and the proud mother and father sending off their beloved child. College climactically marks the beginning of independence, but the presence of family is ironically visible in the experience from the beginning. Just on move-in day, family members help haul boxes from cars to residence halls, decipher furniture-assembly instructions, wonder whether there’s something that one has forgotten at home. But the expectation of this situation, as well as many others during the four-year process, is that students will have an archetypal family structure — that is, the family will consist of two heterosexual parents and their biological child. This is the fundamental  assumption upon which many portrayals of family, common inquiries such as “Do you miss your parents?” and even the concept of Parent’s Weekend are based in college.

“Nonarchetypal” or “unconventional” family structure refers to any family composed differently from two heterosexual, married parents and their biological child. This leaves a large number of configurations of what a family may otherwise be. There is no standard for such a diverse group, but there are certainly common themes and challenges. That being said, these challenges are not limited to students of unconventional families; family can be a sensitive topic for anyone. As the students interviewed for this article warn, even if a family appears to fall into a certain category, the only authorities on who and what a family is are the students themselves.  


While filling out forms throughout the college application process, Johnny Menhennet, a freshman, found himself in a situation that recurred “throughout education”: having to choose between parents. The FAFSA guidelines explain that for financial purposes, students should mark the parent they spend more time with, but Menhennet insists that the amount of time spent with someone is not an accurate indicator of their relationship. He eventually “ended up going with (his) mom because (he) spends a little more time with her,” but he was afraid that doing this might be ungrateful to his dad. Menhennet wishes he could “put both (addresses) as co-primary residences” in order to represent his close relationship with both parents. He did eventually mark a permanent address but was frustrated that this meant deferring to the quantifiable label of “most time spent with” instead of the quality of relationship.

Furthermore, college meant that Menhennet would have a single address for the first time in years. Having grown up with divorced parents, he was used to having two rooms and two homes, and scrambling between these two places when he had forgotten something. He considered it a “50/50 situation,” in which he split love and time equally between both parents. After starting college, however, Menhennet found it was difficult to maintain this 50/50 because of logistical concerns. He explained that just his dad moved him in on his first day, “which is sad because my mom came to Cal, and it was her lifelong dream to move me in here, but financially couldn’t make it work.”

Similarly, Menhennet’s dad wanted to come up for the Cal football game against the University of Southern California, but because his mom was already visiting, “her visit precluded him from coming.” In college, the “alternating houses” situation is reversed, and parents themselves must alternate between their child’s single address. For Menhennet, this new scenario has more variables and is less likely to be as balanced as what he was used to.

Stories such as Menhennet’s are prevalent among the undergraduate population.

When it comes to family, the “blanks” on applications and forms are as confining as they are open-ended. By necessitating that primary contacts be  “guardians,” leaving only two spaces for this and often syncing the guardians’ contacts with an email list, the form places expectations on what a family is and how it behaves. Looking at these blanks is unnerving: How can a student describe an experience that is unexplainable within the limits of the form? Where is the checkbox for “estranged” or the space for a beloved stepparent, for a separation with an outcome to be determined?

For some, the form’s structure means moving through the application only to be confronted with a tiny but glaring “deceased” button to be marked on each page. It means cringing at the realization that, once admitted, the campus will start sending emails to a parent who doesn’t support a student’s choice to go to UC Berkeley. The form’s tidy, technical headings and pinched fields for text demand a type of logic often disregarding families and the way they operate — students cannot summarize years of experience in a short blank. With the existing format, however, students may feel that their family is inadequate if it is unconventional.

Even when students are welcomed to school, the expectation that they will be accompanied by a conventional family is ubiquitous. During UC Berkeley’s back-to-school Homecoming Weekend, parents are accommodated with official Parent’s Weekend activities. Blue-and-gold banners billow on campus, tents are constructed, and the campus presents parents with an ample agenda to highlight its best features. The aims of the weekend are community celebration and togetherness, but the limited scope of the label “Parent’s Weekend” makes the event unwelcoming to those whose primary guardians do not fit the narrow label of “parents.”

Many students in college know little about their peers at first. Everyone’s been asked, “Where are you from?” and many of these get-to-know-you conversations end up veering toward family. A conversation’s path could diverge from favorite at-home meals to family dinners to “Oh, so are your parents divorced?” — then a sudden break in the conversation and a careful “I’m so sorry if that’s too personal.” An interaction such as this one leaves one student feeling as though he or she has pried, the other perhaps slightly upset or afraid that by answering truthfully, he or she has ruined the conversation’s light tone.

The image of the family tree has reinforced traditional ideals of family since elementary school: A mother and father beam down at children from higher branches, while grandparents perch on the top boughs. Everyone is connected evenly and equally with branches according to blood relation, and the whole thing is fun to color and decorate. To the frustration of many students with unconventional families, this arts-and-crafts project and geneology diagram make it difficult to accept labels that deviate from their meaning in the family tree. For some students, it feels more comfortable to refer to a stepmother as “mother,” family friend as “grandfather” or any other label change. These situations should not be met with the well-meaning but painful question: “So they’re actually your …” Rather than referring to that perfectly symmetrical, hierarchical family tree, listening to students’ terms, definitions and connections is a more accurate way to understand and respect their family.

Amy Jarich, assistant vice chancellor and director of undergraduate admissions, explained that the UC system is reworking the admissions application to better fit various family structures. Jarich emphasized that with the help of student focus groups, the University of California is making a “concerted effort” to “ask the right questions” and “ask the questions in a way that is easy to understand.” She said the Office of Admissions is willing to help individual students struggling with what to mark and hosts application workshops to further elucidate the questions and why they are asked. Jarich explained that family-related questions on admissions forms are simply used for “context” in order to understand “what level of opportunity” and “challenge” the applicant has experienced, and to prevent the admissions department from making false assumptions about the student’s situation.

Cruz Grimaldo, the associate director of the Financial Aid and Scholarship Office at UC Berkeley, described the tools that FAFSA has published to help students with unconventional family structures. There are instructions that explain how to identify someone as a parent or guardian and other guidelines for filling out the form. Because the financial aid department aims to find the “true family’s financial strength,” it is important to identify with whom the student lives. The financial and contact information of biological parents, however, is often still required in the financial aid process, to which Cruz responded that “there’s exceptions to everything” and that the financial aid department also uses “professional judgment” when evaluating the cases of different families.   


According to the Pew Research Center, only 46 percent of families in the United States are composed of two parents in their first marriage, and 34 percent of families are single-parent households. Fifteen percent of families are remarried, and 5 percent of families live with someone other than a parent, such as a grandparent. In spite of this, forms and the expectations that shape them have not adjusted to fit the needs of the diverse majority.

For those who decide to brave the often difficult and complex conversation of family, the UC Berkeley students interviewed recommended using the individual’s terms and asking sensitive questions. Students would rather explain to others their family and how it has shaped their identity than react to assumptions peers have made. For conversations of family to reflect a student’s closest connections, open-endedness is necessary, or else important aspects of family can be left out of the discussion. People want their friends to know whom they care about and whom they rely on for corny jokes, pictures of their dog or cat at home, or unsolicited links to New York Times articles — and often, these people may not be who we assume they are.

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