By Jillian Sitjar, Program Manager of Higher Education at SchoolHouse Connection.

Did you know that 26% of undergraduate students have children? Neither did I, but within minutes of hearing Anjanette Vaidya from Rutgers University speak at the #RealCollege 2018 national convening, she had put a face to that statistic and humanized the urgent need to support student parents and ensure that they were heard and included in the conversation on homeless youth in higher education. When I started in April as the Higher Education Program Manager at SchoolHouse Connection, I faced a steep learning curve. While I have a strong background in higher education, diversity, and social justice, I knew less about homelessness.  I had spent the last few months familiarizing myself with McKinney-Vento, unaccompanied homeless youth, and becoming intimate with the FAFSA. Attending #RealCollege 2018 was a “crash course” in the best sort of way. This conference was unlike any I have ever attended. Participants were uncensored and genuine, free to be themselves amongst friends. This sense of community strengthened sessions and reaffirmed that the various topics – housing, food, immigration, policy, practice, and more – weren’t isolated. We learned from one another as well as from the presenters, and especially from the more than 72 students who attended and informed the discussions with their lived experiences.

Me, Barbara Duffield, and Brandy Gros from Dorm Room Dreamz.

Here are my top three reflections from the #RealCollege Covening.

1. “Food pantries are just the start.”

This quote from the “Igniter” talk of DeRionne Pollard, the president of Montgomery College, put the conference in context for me. Food insecurity is a very real thing on college campuses. Students are hungry, and this isn’t something a box of Ramen noodles can fix. Food is a flexible living expense compared to set costs like rent or tuition, so students may spend less money on food as a strategy to manage their limited budgets. Some colleges are addressing student hunger with food banks and pantries; however, this should just be the start. Students experiencing food insecurity may also be experiencing homelessness and need additional services and support outside the scope of emergency food. Some institutions of higher education may be using food pantries to “prove” that they’re doing something to address the needs of students; however, they’re just scratching the surface of the larger issue of college affordability. This report from the Joint Economic Committee highlights the college affordability crisis, including skyrocketing tuition rates and declining Pell Grants. This results in students taking out student loans just to attend school, with less left to cover costs beyond tuition, room, and board. Before institutions jump to a food pantry as the immediate solution, they should conduct a basic needs assessment of the student body to see what other underlying financial obstacles students face.

2. Financial aid needs to be part of the conversation.

Student affairs practitioners from across the country attended the conference. There were folks from various offices ranging from academic advising, housing, and case managers, to the very specific niche role of homeless higher education liaison/single point of contact. These different perspectives prompted great conversation, and we learned from one another. However, there were moments of confusion during discussions about financial aid and emergency funds. During one session in particular, we spent about 15 minutes discussing financial aid’s involvement and influence on where, when, and how emergency funds can be used. While the answer seemed to vary by institution, it was evident that more guidelines and clarity are needed around both this issue and the role of financial aid in basic needs more generally. Financial aid administrators didn’t seem to be present at the conference, but, in practice, they are crucial advocates for students experiencing homelessness and hunger. We need financial aid professionals to be part of this conversation and work to address the basic needs challenges students are facing. Filling out the FAFSA and providing determinations of homeless status is already a complicated and confusing process, but financial aid administrators can be caring, compassionate supporters if they take the time to understand where these students are coming from. For more information about financial aid, see our Financial Aid Tip Sheet.

3. It’s not enough to empower students; we need to support them.

Student voice is critical at all levels of education, but especially when working with young adults, and I was surprised and heartened to see the number of students participating in the conference–not only as attendees but also as presenters. It’s not easy to share your story with anyone, and much less to a crowd of strangers. During a session on Students at Elite Colleges: Action & Experience, students revealed the challenges they faced in making themselves known to college administration. Even the words chosen by students and college administrators can be problematic: one student suspected that her school doesn’t use the term “low-income” because they don’t want to admit that these students exist. It might be tempting to think a college student population is homogeneous, but that just isn’t accurate anymore. Our college student bodies are now more diverse than ever, in all aspects. After attending the Supporting Student Parents session, I was struck to learn that 26% of undergraduate students have children. I was moved and inspired by the stories the student parent panelists shared about the need to be recognized and supported on their campuses. Amber Angel from Los Angeles Valley College Family Resource Center said, “I don’t need to be empowered, I need to be supported. I’m already empowered.” She had the vigor and tools for self-advocacy, but she needed the school to listen and provide solutions. We often salute and encourage student activism; however, schools need to follow through and take action.

Special thanks to Terry LaBan at Breakthrough Visuals for creating this graphic during our presentation! I’m on the bottom left. 

In addition to attending incredible sessions, Barbara and I worked together to organize a session on Supporting Homeless Students in Higher Education. Our insightful panel addressed issues ranging from the transition from high school to housing solutions to comprehensive support programs on campus. To access our presentation and resources, click here

Our wonderful panel presenting on supporting homeless youth in higher education. (L-R): Michael Kendall from IUPUI, Eric Turman from Reading High School, Travis Douglas from Rowan University, Marcy Stidum from Kennesaw State University, and Eric Hubbard from Jovenes Inc.

I left Philadelphia both exhausted and energized. The progress that has been made in the three short years from the first #RealCollege convening is astounding. I’m confident and hopeful there will be a time where #RealCollege won’t exist and no student will have to worry about their next meal, or where they’ll sleep that night. Until then, I’m ready to work. I can’t wait to see #RealCollege in Houston September 2019!

If you or your institution would like a sample needs assessment survey or to share the great work you’re doing in supporting students experiencing homelessness, please fill out this form or contact Jillian Sitjar.

P/S SchoolHouse Connection was very happy to be there for the launch of the Hope Center, and proud that our Executive Director, Barbara Duffield is an affiliate of the Hope Center.

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