At Baby Gator Child Development and Research Center at Lake Alice, some of Isu’s friends, who are all about 2 and 3 years old, lick the chalk and streak it on their faces.
Her mom, Soon Yang, squats next to her on the sidewalk in the playground. She is a calm adult in the chaos of toddlers in bright tutus who squeal and giggle and chase each other.
Soon, 34, has a routine: Wake up. Make a fried egg and tomato juice for Isu because she doesn’t like vegetables. Drop Daddy off at the Florida Gym for work. Drive to Baby Gator in the family’s one car. Stay until Isu is comfortable. Study. Cook dinner. Clean. Back at 5 p.m. Repeat.
Of the 156 children at Baby Gator’s Lake Alice center where Isu plays, 48 are the children of UF students. And those students cost Baby Gator money, said Baby Gator Director Pamela Pallas.
UF student parents pay a discounted rate for Baby Gator child care.
The group requested about $173,000 from UF for the next fiscal year, which would come from a $0.14 per-credit-hour increase in the student activities fee.
This would allow the group to increase the enrollment of students’ children to 75 and cover the gap between what student parents pay and Baby Gator’s expenses, Pallas said.
Their request was denied unanimously by the UF Local Fee Committee, along with other groups’ proposals to increase the student activities fee.
Matthew Hoeck, the Student Government director of external affairs, said the students and faculty on the committee had to decide if the requested student activities fee increases were priorities.
"This was a year to focus on what’s a need and what’s a want," he said.
Before the Spring semester, Baby Gator will become even less affordable for Soon and her husband, Youngmin Yoon, who are transitioning from student parents to just parents.
Youngmin graduated in May. When Isu was born, Soon was pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry, but she decided to take a break for personal reasons — and for Isu.
To help student parents, Baby Gator charges them less than faculty for the child care services, which includes hot breakfasts and healthy lunches, late pick-up hours and bilingual teachers, Pallas said.
Because of Soon and Youngmin’s changing student status, their daycare tuition will become $190 per week instead of $170 per week. In a 15-week semester, they’ll shell out an extra $300.
With Soon staying home to study for her upcoming GRE graduate school entry exam to return to school in the Fall and Youngmin’s small adjunct professor salary, the child care tuition is becoming difficult to pay.
The couple’s parents send them money from Seoul, South Korea, their home country. It’s 88 degrees, and they won’t turn on the air conditioning in their apartment. They use food stamps.
About one in four UF student parents’ incomes are below the federal poverty line, according to a 2013 survey distributed to more than 2,000 students by Baby Gator and the PhDMoms organization.
Baby Gator is convenient to student parents: Their children are close to classes and on-campus housing. It’s open late, which allows Soon to spend nine hours in the lab.
Buses regularly pass by the decade-old facility. Plus, it’s a good deal for student parents, Pallas said.
"Our mission is to support students," she said.
Baby Gator was started in 1969 by a group of student parents who would share babysitting responsibilities.
Today, it provides day care for children up to 4 years old. Most of their parents are UF faculty, students and staff.
There are two Baby Gator facilities with student parents from any college or department at UF, one near Lake Alice and another near Diamond Village.
With the current faculty-to-student-parent ratio, Baby Gator will be more than $32,000 in debt.
Student parents are charged about $15,200 on average annually, Pallas said.
She said providing affordable care becomes more difficult as the costs of maintaining Baby Gator increase. The program is receiving less state funding than it was a decade ago, but it is taking care of more children, has more teachers to pay and regularly paints over the fingerprint smudges that cover the building’s walls. It also accounts for increases in the cost of living.
"It’s hard to pass (those costs) onto the parents," she said.
Overall, it costs Baby Gator $4.1 million per year to provide high-quality care to 332 children, Pallas said.
This year, maintenance work will be more than $30,000, she said.
"There’s always something," Pallas said. "A child’s always flushing a toy down a toilet."
For working parents
Soon didn’t plan on getting pregnant. Youngmin told her to take the pregnancy test twice.
She and her husband met in elementary school, stayed together in middle and high school and dated in college in South Korea. They both worked on their doctoral degrees at UF; Soon studied and taught chemistry while Youngmin studied sports management. They got married in South Korea in May 2011 and Isu was born the next year.
She originally planned on staying home with her baby. But she said her mom told her, "You have to send her to day care or else you cannot study."
"She was right," Soon said. "It was harder than I thought."
Isu was enrolled in Baby Gator when she was 2 months old. At the time, Soon was still a student. She earned money through her teaching assistant position, and although it was difficult, it was enough to pay for Baby Gator’s tuition and an apartment.
While Isu was sleeping, Soon would scoop her up around 8 a.m., drop her off at Baby Gator and spend the day in the lab.
Baby Gator was the best day care in Gainesville because Soon didn’t have time to pack a lunch for her daughter, she said. She was a working mom. She was busy.
But last Fall, Soon decided to take a break from school. She said she plans to go to another college when her husband finds a job.
"I want to focus to take care of my baby more," she said.
Like most 3-year-olds, Raphael Wu likes cutting paper, eating watermelon and seeing his day care teacher.
"If he’s happy, you can tell," said Xiaoman Wang, Raphael’s mom.
The 31-year-old came to UF to pursue her master’s degree in business administration after teaching at a school in China.
Since Xiaoman and Raphael moved to the U.S. in August, Raphael has been enrolled in three daycare centers: O2B Kids, then Open Arms Child Development Center and now Baby Gator.
At O2B Kids, Xiaoman said she felt Raphael’s language barrier ostracized him (Chinese is his first language), and the center was far from home. At Open Arms, she had to prepare meals for Raphael, which was difficult when she had to leave early in the morning for class.
But at Baby Gator, she said the meals are included, the schedule works for students and the teachers are knowledgeable. The classrooms are full of children from around the world.
"Everyone is speaking in a different language, but they all understand each other," Xiaoman said.
She said she was surprised she was able to enroll Raphael in Baby Gator. As of Oct. 20, Pallas said there are 64 student parents on the waitlist.
Xiaoman said there’s a demand for child care, and Baby Gator isn’t able to meet it. The facilities need to be expanded.
"We need more," she said.
Isu celebrated her third birthday this weekend. At her party, she wore a Disney Princess Sofia dress.
Isu is a growing girl, Soon said. She eats more food and groceries are expensive. The family uses food stamps and the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.
But parents like Soon rely on Baby Gator for meals and child care. Without an increase in Baby Gator’s funding, they won’t be able to take in more student’s children, Pallas said.
They’ll send a mail-out fundraiser at the end of this term. And then they’ll have to evaluate the budget again. They may have to cut student parents from the program in the future.
"We won’t have any choice," she said.
Former UF PhD student Soon Hye Yang, 34, pushes her 3-year-old daughter, Isu Yoon, on a tricycle at the Baby Gator daycare center on Nov. 5, 2015. Baby Gator’s request for additional funding was denied, and without it, student parents like Yang may be cut from the program.