On Wednesday, Brookdale had “Scholars’ Day.” It’s a mini-conference in which faculty and staff present to each other on subjects of interest. Sometimes they’re scholarly in the sense of research in a given discipline, but often they involved locally applied research in teaching and learning. (The day was rescheduled from the Spring due to a construction mishap. Classes start Thursday.)
I attended two panels and several poster presentations. Here, I’ll focus on the presentation by the Student Basic Needs committee.
The group was commissioned as part of the Academic Master Plan. Its charge is to find ways to help students address unmet needs for food, transportation, housing, and the like, to ensure that no student has to suffer academically for economic reasons. The presenters included a program coordinator (Synde Kaufman), two faculty members (Hanli Huang and Nicky Nicola), and a county social worker (Sylvina Mendez) who works at the college two days per week.
It was both heartening and harrowing. Heartening, to the extent that the basic needs efforts have really flourished, and we’ve been able to attract more community partners. Harrowing, in that the reports about students’ needs are so much worse than anyone expected.
We have new partnerships with multiple local restaurants, stores, and churches. The local food bank will bring its mobile pantry to campus once a month, for anyone to pick up whatever they need. We’re opening a basic needs “studio” in a few weeks, featuring donated furniture and equipment paid for through a state grant. It will offer a safe place for students to relax, get and cook food, pick up some basic toiletries (including feminine hygiene products), and get moral support from staff. It’s central-ish on campus, but not conspicuous. The county social worker, who is bilingual, can connect students with various social service agencies and nonprofits to work on housing, childcare, immigration issues, legal aid, and transportation.
The committee also acknowledged the work the faculty has done on OER. It’s helpful to consider that as part of addressing basic needs, to the extent that OER can spare students a significant expense. Someone in the audience volunteered that for many students who manage to scrape together enough to come to school, the cost of textbooks can come as a shock. Sometimes they try to get by without them, which creates issues of its own. We don’t control the cost of housing or transportation, but we do have some control over textbook costs.
The hard part was hearing about what students endure. Monmouth is an affluent county, but even here, we have police reports of students sleeping on campus because they have nowhere else to go. Mendez reported that one of the most common issues for students is unpaid utility bills. For students who live at home, when the parents’ utilities are cut off, the students suffer in many ways. They have to endure extremes of hot and cold, they can’t necessarily cook or keep food cold, they can’t use laptops or charge phones, and it gets dark early in winter. With utilities, there’s often a reconnection fee, so any savings that might have been the silver lining from going without are consumed when reconnecting. And you can’t pay utility bills in food stamps or vouchers. Connecting those families with, say, home heating aid can make a dramatic difference.
To make matters more complicated, many issues overlap with each other. Anxiety can be a freestanding psychological issue, but it can also be -- at least in part -- a response to a volatile and/or dangerous situation. Sometimes, as the folks at the #RealCollege conference point out, people will choose to stay in abusive housing situations -- and endure the very real psychological and physical damage -- because the alternative is homelessness. In a suburban county with limited public transportation, a $200 car repair can be a life-changing crisis. When everything is precarious, anxiety is an understandable response. To the extent that we can provide a break from precarity, we may be able to help students breathe long enough to start to come to grips with other issues.
As Kaufman noted, we can’t do everything. But we can do more than we’ve done, and we can work with partners who can connect students to provide help where we can’t. Helping students climb out of poverty is a spectacular social investment. It’s the sort of thing that really needs to be done at scale, using agencies much larger than community colleges. In the meantime, though, I’m happy to see us starting to step up. We aren’t at the level of Amarillo College yet, but I wouldn’t mind giving them a little competition. Our students are worth it.