Pursuing higher education when you’re raising children can come with significant financial and logistical barriers. But the upcoming expansion of an Arizona State University chatbot hopes to make higher education easier for any parent to access.
On July 8, Imaginable Futures — a venture of the Omidyar Group — and Lumina Foundation, along with a group of leading partner organizations, announced that ASU earned a $50,000 grant to expand the Sunny chatbot to reach parents and to offer help in Spanish for the first time. ASU was one of 15 grantees who were selected from 300 applicants for funding to support “accelerating the success of student parents.”
Sunny launched in 2018 and has reached more than 36,000 students, answering questions about admissions deadlines, move-in, meal plans and other frequently asked questions of incoming Sun Devils.
ASU Assistant Vice President for Outreach Lorenzo Chavez said the new initiative embodies ASU’s charter to reach all students.
“ASU’s community outreach has always involved parents in supporting their kids’ journeys to higher education. But education should also be accessible for parents of any age,” Chavez said. “We are thankful to be Rise Prize recipients so that we can build on the infrastructure that Arizona State University and our partners have built to reach families and empower communities with access to education.”
There are currently about 11,000 parenting students attending ASU on all campuses and online. About 68% of them are Pell grant eligible. Nationally, more than 1 in 5 college students are parents. These students are likely to be older, take more time to graduate, have less time for being involved on campus and are more likely to need child care, financial aid and flexible class schedules.
The new chatbot, which Chavez estimates will launch in early 2021, will be informed by both a student-parent focus group as well as feedback received from parents who have participated in ASU’s Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program, which for the last 35 years has provided college preparation and bilingual mentorship to hundreds of student-parent teams in Arizona.
Marcela Lopez, executive director for ASU Outreach, said that a byproduct of bringing college preparatory resources to Arizona children has been that it has also inspired their parents. More than 5,000 Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program parents have voiced an interest in postsecondary education.
One of those parents was Maria Ramirez, who participated in the Hispanic Mother Daughter Program with both her daughters, Elizabeth and Staphany Ramirez. Maria Ramirez said she was inspired to go to college “for a better career and to inspire both of my daughters.” She started taking classes at Maricopa County Community College but didn’t have enough information about scholarships or how to pay for tuition. Once she had that information, it turned out that she qualified for a scholarship for single mothers.
“I've always had the desire to become a teacher and have always valued the power of education,” said Maria Ramirez, who graduated from ASU with a degree in elementary education in 2018. “It is very important to educate yourself in order to have more opportunities for a better career.”
Both of Maria Ramirez’s daughters were first-generation college graduates from ASU who were extremely proud to see their mother graduate soon after.
“My mom is one of the reasons I dedicate my time and energy in providing access to resources to students who are pursuing postsecondary institutions in both English and Spanish,” said Staphany Ramirez, who now works at Scottsdale Community College as an embedded high school adviser. “From personal experience I learned that everyone is deserving of the information in order to create an equitable and fair educational system.”
Lopez said the barriers that Maria Ramirez cited are common.
“Often the questions we get at forums are parents having questions about their own education,” said Lopez, who went through the Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program herself as a student. “We often hear, I’m interested in earning a degree or I have a degree in my home country but how do I do that here at ASU? They feel like this might be attainable for even (themselves).”
Lopez said the convenience of a chatbot is paramount for parents: having 24/7 answers about FAFSA, child care, parenting support groups on campus, parent-specific scholarships, career resources and more in their native language — without having to go anywhere or wait in a line.
Part of the key to the expanded Sunny will be information, but it will also help build community. Similar to the artificial intelligence of the FAFSA chatbot Benji, Sunny will help to ensure that key information and resources reach students regarding opportunities specific to them, including parenting student support groups on campus.
“It’s exciting because we’re already building on an existing platform. We are now able to extend that support to make it easier for people who are juggling competing priorities in their lives,” she said.
The ability to meet students where they are is crucial also because the parenting student population is itself so diverse in terms of age, marital status, financial situation, language and more.
“It’s an opportunity to look at nontraditional students. There’s no one category,” Lopez said.
“We know they come with multiple challenges and are balancing all the aspects of their lives. For parents, their children are their priority. So how do we bring ASU assets directly to them? How do we make that accessible for them and in a format they are comfortable with?”
The ASU Sunnybot student-parent expansion is a way to reach parents with the same opportunities they probably hope their own children can achieve. To learn more about Sunny and updates about its expansion, visit ASU Admissions.