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When ‘College as Home’ Is Not a Metaphor | Inside Higher Ed

Stories abound about students and their questionable decision-making abilities in and out of the classroom:

  • Setting couches on fire in the middle of an intersection
  • Running naked in the streets after a first snowfall
  • Throwing detergent into fountains to make bubbles
  • Stealing golf carts and driving them through the library
  • Having sex and leaving a used condom behind a large outdoor sculpture
  • Singing and dancing topless on a spinning ceramics wheel in the art studio
  • Writing a paper while high, admitting to it in the paper and turning it in
  • Locking themselves in a mail locker accidentally

So many stories, so little time. So many eye rolls, exasperated sighs, tedious reports to file, so little time.

On the other side of the “incredible things students do in college” continuum are the extraordinary things students do to obtain an education. Working with alums, donors and students to inspire giving, award scholarships and manage endowments has given me access to many stories of hardship, broken families, perseverance, resilience and determination. And as frustrated/perplexed/annoyed as I am about the dangerous/ridiculous things students do, I am equally humbled and inspired by some students’ bravery and courage to overcome their circumstances.

Often, we are unaware of our students’ struggles when they don’t have financial resources, guidance from parents, support for their identity and talents, or a safe home.

Can you imagine being

  • Sixteen and working in a factory before and after high school classes to pay for your clothes and food and trying to save enough for college?
  • So afraid of a violent family member that you hide with your little brother in a locked closet but still find a way to achieve academically, give back to others, apply to college and explain your need for scholarships with grace?
  • So poor you’re willing to couch-surf or live in your car because you only have enough money for tuition?
  • Abandoned by your family, kicked out of your home and have nowhere to go for the holidays because you’re gay?
  • So food insecure that you dumpster dive behind the dining hall in the middle of the night?

These circumstances and many others are rarely known because of the shame and guilt accompanying them. Students’ real lives are often hidden or unrecognized because we’re busy with our roles and responsibilities.

In their Jan. 31, 2022, article, “Food Insecurity on College Campuses: The Invisible Epidemic,” Maureen McCoy, Sarah Martinelli, Swapna Ruddy, Rachel Don, Adam Thompson, Matthew Speer, Randy Bravo, Michael Yudell and Saigayatri Darira explain the life many students lead:

“Prior to the pandemic, a staggering 30 percent of all college students experienced food insecurity at some point in their college careers. According to the most recent Hope Survey from fall 2020, 38 percent of students in two-year colleges and 29 percent of students at four-year colleges reported experiencing food insecurity in the previous 30 days. The report also highlighted significant racial and ethnic disparities: 75 percent of Indigenous, 70 percent Black, and 70 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native students experienced food insecurity, housing insecurity or homelessness, compared to 54 percent of White students.”

Alternatively, perhaps we say, “When I was in college, I worked three jobs to pay my tuition. I sold my blood plasma to get money for food. The struggle is a part of life. Sometimes you must work hard to get what you want.” Yes, sacrifice and hard work are associated with achieving and realizing dreams. But the question for all of us should be, does there need to be suffering? Are there things we can do to lift profound hardships? Just because we struggled, do others deserve to struggle, too? I think struggling and suffering because others did, is a perverse, twisted and cruel logic.

Remembering we are all here to enable a greater good through education also means we must seek ways to alleviate some of our students’ struggles. We can create more lenient policies about staying on campus for breaks, find ways to use funds more strategically, create avenues of support like food banks or make/encourage contributions for scholarship funds.

And when we push forward the notion of a college being a home away from home, we need to know it’s not just a tagline to enroll more students by placating helicopter parents. We must recognize that a college campus may be a student’s only home. Also, faculty, staff and fellow students may be the only family to give certain students acceptance, care and help. Many students today, like many in the past, aren’t entitled snowflakes. Many are dealing with much more than we know or could imagine.

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