By Miguel Arellano Sanchez, Basic Needs Navigator at The Human Services Resource Center (HSRC) at Oregon State University (OSU). 

Navigating college as a first-generation college student can feel like making your way through a maze with no map, filled with “learn as you go” lessons, and “wow, I wish I knew this then.” When you combine it with being low-income, homeless, and/or food insecure, it can feel like you’re navigating the same maze blindfolded, on a tightrope, balancing multiple responsibilities. It should not be like this.

I started my undergraduate studies at Oregon State University (OSU) in 2008, and graduated with my Master’s degree in 2014. I know firsthand how difficult it is to navigate college on your own. Of seven siblings, I was the first one to attend college. I have one memory in particular about my transition to OSU. No matter how far removed I am from that day ten years ago, I still feel overwhelmed with emotion just thinking about it. I was walking across from where my office is now, eating cheerios out of the box. It was the only thing I had eaten that day. I had no money to buy anything else or my next meal. Out of the blue, I began to sob as I stuffed handfuls of Cheerios into my mouth. It was 10pm, dark with no lighting, and I knew no one would see me cry. I had never felt so alone in my life. Not knowing where to go or who to turn to for help, I felt like I had no choice but to get through this experience alone. “Who else would be experiencing this in college?” I thought to myself, convinced I was the only one struggling this much. 

The reality was that I was not alone in my experience. Of the 970 OSU students who applied for food assistance funds using the OSU Human Services Resource Center Food Assistance Application in the Fall of 2018, 54% percent were experiencing “very low food security” as determined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition, with 18% of applicants reporting to have gone an entire day in the past 12 months without eating because of financial concerns. That is 172 students, 42% higher than last year, when 117 students reported very-low food security!

In Spring 2009, OSU was the second university in the country to have a pantry. Now, nearly ten years later, there are over 641 food pantries on college campuses. Due to the continued state and federal divestment of funds for education, increased tuition costs, and stagnated increases to Pell grants, food insecurity is more common across the country. I was not alone in my experience back in 2008, and students are not alone in their experience today.

Meeting the Need: The Human Services Resource Center (HSRC) at OSU

The Human Services Resource Center (HSRC) at OSU is an office dedicated to serving students who are homeless, are food-insecure, or otherwise experience challenges related to being under-resourced. The HSRC has continued to be a national model for supporting low-income students. The HSRC consists of 3 FTE and 10 student staff, overseeing a variety of services like textbooks lending program, Food Assistance Fund, Emergency Housing, Food Pantry, educational programing, and other services.

I serve as the first ever Basic Needs Navigator at the HSRC, a position that was funded by students. My role is a combination of a social services case manager and a variety of higher education positions, mashed up into one position to care and advocate for students. Basically, I’m a generalist who helps students navigate resources and policies. My role boils down to connecting students to resources that help ensure basic needs are being met. I also oversee our emergency housing services and act as the single point of contact for homeless students on campus.  Not many positions like mine exist within colleges and universities. 

Above are some common ways I help students access additional financial resources.

What Does My Work as a Basic Needs Navigator Look Like?

I get paid to navigate basic needs resources; it’s literally in my job title! If I do not know the answer to a question, I try very hard to find a person who does. Here are some common problems I often help students resolve:

  • Access to food and groceries
  • Homelessness, or when students believe they are a bill away from homelessness, or facing eviction
  • Unforeseen emergency expenses causing barriers to enrollment
  • Tuition refunds due to an extenuating circumstance
  • Lost scholarships due to unforeseen circumstances
  • Finding help paying for utility bills
  • Signing up for Oregon Health Plan (Oregon’s version of Medicaid)
  • Grant money! I work with students to revise and update financial aid applications.
  • Financial assistance with a medical bill/emergency
  • Pell/financial aid running out a few terms away from graduation
  • Hard time making ends meet
  • Financial stress

Although, I wish I lived in a world where my role and my office were not needed, I have seen how necessary my role is as I work with students who are on the edge of a financial knife.

What Advice Would I Give Others Doing Similar Work?

  • Learn as you go. I am constantly learning about new policies, “secret drawers of money,” and/or “completion grants” that are scattered throughout the campus. Most of my learning came through past cases. You too will add to your tools as you learn.
  • Resources are everywhere and people want to help. Don’t be afraid to ask for help on complex cases. We cannot do everything alone; this is why campus partners are key.
  • Partnerships are key. Develop and maintain key partnerships with various community-based organizations that support low-income and homeless individuals, as well campus partners, for example, the financial aid office, cashier’s office, care/crisis team, etc. Having a formal point of contact or developing an informal “ally” from each office or agency is helpful. Find a way to forge and MAINTAIN those healthy relationships. Sometimes you will have to navigate political landscapes to forge those relationships, or explain to campus professionals the value of community partnerships, but it will almost certainly be worth the effort.
  • You might step on a political land mine, overstep a policy, or violate an “unspoken rule”; it is to be expected and can be resolved with help. At times, institutional policies and practices can be at odds with the needs of the most marginalized students. During these times, mentors can be helpful in navigating these situations and thinking strategically. To be honest, for me, these types of institutional “mess ups” matter less than when I mess up with a student, and bruise the trust I’m trying to build.
  • You will mess up. It is just as important for you to forgive yourself during these learning experiences as it is to circle back to impacted partners and apologize. For example, a few times, I have unwittingly set students up to be hurt through various school processes that I encouraged them to take. Mistakes allow us to reflect on “new ways” of doing things or developing new partnerships that mitigate the re-traumatization of those we wish to support.
  • Be trauma-informed. Having a working understanding of a trauma-informed approach has been key to my work. Learning about the ACES study or reading Trauma Stewardship is a good place to start.
  • Students first! My position was funded BY students to support students. You will run up against campus politics and policies. I try to make sure my work should always be in the best interest of the students.
  • Avoid a scarcity mindset. It can be detrimental trying to determine which students are worthy of our advocacy or more worthy of the “limited resources” of our campus. Every student deserves and is worthy of the best care we can provide.
  • Get them wins. As you begin to establish your new role, faculty and staff will begin to trust you when you “show them the wins.” Faculty and staff will align themselves with you based on the value you bring to their role/department goals. If you are helping to retain more of their students, you will begin to see more and more student referrals. I remember getting a few “wins” and advisors would literally call me to ask, “How did you do that? It was awesome!” Some example of the wins can be:
    • Helping a student secure a completion grant, allowing them to register
    • Getting a registration hold lifted
    • Helping a student secure TANF or SNAP after being wrongfully denied (become familiar with the eligibility requirements in your state and arm yourself with the FERPA and Release of Information waivers needed to advocate for students)
    • Helping students secure course materials
    • Supporting students with Academic Regulations or Satisfactory Academic Progress financial aid appeals
    • Supporting special conditions appeals or change of situation through the financial aid office
    • Helping students find emergency grants in the community to pay for basic needs
    • Helping a student get their scholarship reinstated due to an extenuating circumstance that impacted their GPA
  • Referrals are a good sign. A colleague once mentioned that everyone wants to collaborate with a healthy organization/department. In this case, if students are going back and saying good things about you to staff members and their friends, referrals will come. If referrals stop, look into that.

Love is an action never simply a feeling, love is a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust.

bell hooks

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