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We have an accreditation visit on Tuesday, so I was only able to visit the first day of the #RealCollege conference in Philadelphia. It was well worth it, though. The focus of the conference is helping colleges address student needs around food and housing insecurity, but the recurrent motif of the conference is the cold-water splash of reality.  I counted several.

I’ll just share a few of them here. They’re worth mulling over at greater length, which I’ll do over the next few weeks.

Ruben Canedo, from the UC-Berkeley Global Food Initiative, set the stage by declaring forcefully “we’re not going to food-pantry our way out of this.” He called for “transformative solutions,” such as making campus food services EBT-accessible, as well as moving from the language of charity to a “critical economic understanding.”

Pam Eddinger, the President of Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, followed with a dryly delivered “[m]y students don’t need financial literacy.  They need money.”

And we’re off.  

Canedo came back with a call for executive performance evaluations to include progress made addressing students’ basic material needs. If a president gets dinged on failing to get material obstacles out of the way, then she’s likelier to make it happen.  

John King, former US Secretary of Education, keynoted, arguing that “the work is political.”  In other words, this wasn’t about charity or philanthropy; it was about power. 

This is not how discussions of student needs typically go. They’re usually about financial aid policy and/or scholarships, sometimes with a dollop of food pantry on the side. This was about a much more systemic, critical, and unapologetically political interpretation of how hunger comes to happen in the first place. It was bracing, but soon became more so.

A pair of formerly homeless students, Mary Baxter and Justice Butler, offered first-person testimony about struggling to make it through college while couch-surfing.  

“Couch-surfing” sounds slang-ish, but in many ways, it comes closer to the truth than a term like “homeless.” Dennis Culhane, from UPenn, pointed to data showing that the majority of people who fit the definition of “homeless” don’t recognize the term as applying to them. A term like “couch-surfing” comes much closer to describing their lived reality as they recognize it.  

My Aspen colleague Russell Lowery-Hart reminded us to “love the students we have.” By that he seemed to mean recognizing their complicated humanity, and taking the time to listen. In a later sidebar, he gave an example: Amarillo College, where he works, has made deals with some local mechanics to provide discounts for emergency auto repairs for students for whom those repairs would make the difference between staying in class and dropping out. That came from a recognition that local mass transit is limited, and for all practical purposes, many students simply have to drive. I’ll admit making a mental note of that one.

The coldest splash of all, though, came from a student. In a q-and-a, she mentioned that in her life, she often had to choose between staying in an abusive situation or being homeless. She chose abuse, because it seemed safer.  In a later conversation, she mentioned that when couch-surfing, each new couch comes with a new set of strings attached.  That’s a lot to navigate while also trying to navigate difficult classes and the stuff of daily life. It also raises tricky questions around choice and agency. Yes, she “chose” to stay. But when the alternative is homelessness, calling that a choice misses a lot. 

That’s the sort of line that cuts through the statistics.  “I chose abuse, because it seemed safer.”

Rashida Crutchfield of California State University, Long Beach fired off an instant classic: “Colleges discovered student hunger in the same sense that Columbus discovered America.” It was there the whole time, and people had been dealing with it for years; the fact that many of us are only noticing now says more about us than about hunger.  

Sara Goldrick-Rab isn’t known for pulling punches, but this conference proudly let them fly. (Apparently, she also doesn’t sleep; she got married on the Saturday before the conference of about 400 people from 29 states. Color me impressed.) As bracing as it was -- and it was -- it was also oddly hopeful.  There’s an energy that comes from recognizing difficult truths out loud. Hegel claimed that freedom is the insight into necessity; until you recognize necessity, it just throws you around. By that standard, the conference offered a tantalizing glimpse of freedom. Well done.


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