Two leading national experts in student hunger and poverty told VCCS faculty and administrators in clear terms that they must do more to help students cope with serious issues they face outside the classroom.
Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab and Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart bookended New Horizons, the annual VCCS faculty conference that brought more than 900 instructors and administrators from around the state to Roanoke April 10-12.
“We’re not asking you to be social workers,” said Goldrick-Rab. “But I am suggesting that you can do a lot of good if you find out who can help your students who face hunger and housing issues.”
Goldrick-Rab, faculty member at Temple University and founder of the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, has lead the most widely cited national studies into food and housing insecurity among U.S. College Students.
Dr. Goldrick-Rab said her latest research indicates that one out of two community college students in the nation has faced food insecurity in the past 30 days. A similar percentage of students have experienced housing insecurity in the same time frame. She estimates that 10-15 percent of community college students have experienced outright homelessness in the past 30 days.
Goldrick-Rab urged the audience to find out about social services that are available to help students in need, and proactively share that information in the classroom and in course materials.
“If you take a few moments when you’re introducing yourself to your class, let students know where they can get help. And that accomplishes two things: students get important information, and they learn that you are aware of their problems. If they know you’re at least a little clued-in to their world that will strengthen their bond to you as a teacher.”
“I understand very well what she is talking about,” said Ruth Greene, a faculty member at Rappahannock Community College. “At RCC, we’ve had homeless students, living in their car. I often bring a piece of fruit and a couple breakfast bars to class with me, and just set them out, because I know that students need them. And they’re never left behind.”
Greene and several other faculty members said they are encouraged to see the VCCS has taken official notice of the issue and appears to be moving affirmatively to address the challenges faced by students.
“I think she is right on target with addressing some of the issues that we’re facing,” said Keisha Samuels, faculty member from Thomas Nelson Community College. “This is a good wake-up call for all of us.”
“We can’t just talk about it, we have to act,” added Valerie Burge-Hall, also from TNCC. “It’s great to get the information but now what are we going to do with the information?”
“We have to love the students we have, not the students we wish we had,” said Lowry-Hart.
Amarillo College, in response to dropping enrollment numbers, took a hard look at the realities of the communities and families it serves, and changed everything from how student services are offered to eight weeks becoming the standard length of its courses.
Lowry-Hart says this kind of change is simply what community colleges must do to succeed in modern times.
“You are the solution to poverty, the education that you provide, and the pathway to a living wage that your education provides is a solution to poverty,” he said. “But, institutionally, we’ve got to build systems around helping and loving students through your classroom and into the workforce.”
Love is not a conventional systemic focus, Lowry-Hart admits. But it is what will ultimately make the difference in seeing hard-to-serve students routinely succeed.
“When everyone’s looking for a curricular answer,” he said. “Instead, what we have to be doing is looking for a heart answer.”
Amarillo College’s three year completion rate was 19% when they began this rate, Lowry-Hart said. It stands at 48% today, with a goal of reaching 70% by the year 2020.
“You do it every day. You do it in the work inside the classroom. You do it in the emails you send out and the office hours that you hold, the tutoring sessions you facilitate, with the mentoring you’re engaged in. You do that cultural pairing every single day. I think what is happening at Amarillo College, we’re just being really systemic about it,” Lowry-Hart said.