She didn’t set out to become an activist, but Northern Virginia Community College student Maria Paz says her own struggles with poverty — and learning how widespread the problem is on American college campuses — changed her mind.
“Students should not go hungry or worry about homelessness,” said Paz while attending a forum focused on real-world challenges faced by growing numbers of students. “The Real College conference at Temple University opened my eyes about the extent of this problem.”
Paz was inspired at the gathering to share her own story, revealing that her carefully considered budget plans for attending NVCC fell apart when her mother became ill and she faced the unexpectedly high cost of living in the Washington D.C. area.
Paz told North Carolina non-profit ednc.org that she would go long periods without eating and eventually turned to NVCC’s campus food pantry.
“As an international student, I have to carry 12 credits at a minimum so that my Visa doesn’t get cut off. How can I maintain good grades and still be hungry?” said Paz. “Sometimes I had to give up transportation, or maybe I only ate the canned food from the pantry — high in sugar and sodium. Then when you don’t eat well, you don’t feel well, and then you don’t study well.”
Paz still struggles, but she’s landed part-time work through NVCC and picks up some extra cash tutoring students in Spanish. One of her teachers helped her secure an emergency cash grant and the college waived some of her class requirements once it received her college transcripts from her native Honduras.
“While Maria has overcome many challenges while studying at NOVA, we recognize that struggles persist. We continue to work together to provide her with needed resources and support as she works towards her goal of graduation,” said Rachelle P. Thompson, coordinator of NVCC’s Financial Stability Program.
“In 2015, NOVA launched a program to support students and their non-academic needs. In response to the issue of food insecurity, this includes operating a food pantry on each of our six campuses and connecting students to long-term food supports like the SNAP program or local food banks,” Thompson added.
“I’m still going through this,” says Paz. “I still have to pick what to eat. But I’ve also become more creative — like okay, I’m not going to buy this, but I will buy ground turkey and eat it three times,” said Paz. “And I’m not ashamed anymore of going to the food pantry, and I’ll get canned tuna and things that don’t have so much sodium.”
“I had never, never visited a food pantry – never in my life – but you experience these things and they’re for a purpose,” said Paz. “They build you; at first you’re a rock, and I guess I’m polishing into a diamond.”
To learn about campus food pantries at VCCS colleges, and see statistics on student hunger and homelessness, click here.