Student leaders reflect on their experiences with food and housing insecurity

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently profiled five student leaders at colleges across the United States who have experienced food and housing insecurity. The interviews took place at an event organized by Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder of the Hope Center for Community, College, and Justice at Temple University, called #RealCollege: A National Convening on Food and Housing Insecurity.

Related: First-ever survey of campus food pantries sheds light on colleges’ approach >

“College leaders are often embarrassed to admit that there is a problem on their campus,” says Goldrick-Rab. She calls on colleges to abandon the idea that food and housing insecurity is a personal, individual problem and instead work to involve their communities in systemic change that eases financial instability.

‘I’m paying interest for being homeless.’

Adult learner and first-generation student Chant’e Catt and her family become homeless upon moving to Arcata, California, so Catt could pursue her master’s degree in social work at Humboldt State University. She, her partner, and their daughter stayed in campgrounds with no internet access and unsustainably expensive hotels for 16 weeks as they were repeatedly outbid for homes.

“I’m paying interest for being homeless,” Catt told interviewers. “My student loans were how we paid to be homeless. And so this is the financial burden that’s going to be carried on for an extreme amount of time.”

Catt and her Humboldt State peers have created the Student Housing Advocate Alliance to support students living on the “financial edge.” Now, as one of the first off-campus housing liaisons in the California State University System, Catt helps faculty and peers to identify red flags that a student is struggling—such as failing tests or missing deadlines—and to lead with empathy. “This could happen to anybody,” she said.

‘Not knowing when your next meal is going to be’

As an undocumented immigrant and DACA recipient at University of Minnesota, Frankie Bercera is ineligible for financial aid and must work his way through school. He told interviewers of a time when a late night at work caused him to miss the bus, walk for miles outside in the Minnesota cold, and arrive on campus exhausted after the dining hall had closed. Too embarrassed to ask friends for help, Bercera went hungry.

“Food insecurity is not only just skipping a meal,” says Becerra, “because everyone at some point has skipped a meal.” Rather, “Food insecurity is not knowing when your next meal is going to be.”

As a kid, Bercera depended on free lunches provided by his elementary school, and he thinks the same system would help many college students. Bercera advocates for change as the president of the student cabinet at LeadMN, a nonprofit group focused on advocacy and leadership training for the 180,000 students enrolled in Minnesota’s two-year colleges. But, he says, college administrators unfamiliar with food insecurity may view related suggestions as complaints.

“For administrators to realize that some of their students’ stomachs are growling in class, that’s a very uncomfortable feeling, and it becomes even more uncomfortable the less interactions that you have,” Bercera said. He hopes more administrators and faculty can consider students’ basic human needs in addition to coursework.

‘It took a lot to fight through the shame and embarrassment’

Katherine Cowley was in her final undergraduate semester when she was forced to leave her apartment, belongings, and pet to escape an abusive relationship.

“It took a lot to fight through the shame and embarrassment to ask for help,” Cowley said. Failing a test prompted Cowley to open up to a professor about her circumstances. That professor—along with the University of Montana’s Student Advocacy Resource Center, a family member, and friends—provided Cowley with the support and resources she needed to continue her studies. Now a graduate student at the University of Montana, Cowley serves on the Food and Housing Insecurity Committee, which established a campus food pantry, and she tries to help students in crisis know that they are not the first, and they don’t have to go through hardship alone.

‘Either I buy a book, or I go and get a meal.’

Refugee and aspiring social worker Oballa Oballa works two jobs, which barely cover his expenses as a Riverland Community College student in Austin, Minnesota.

“I sometimes have to choose; either I buy a book, or I go and get a meal. So if I buy a meal, I know that I will fail that class… the decision will be, let me buy the book, because this book will save my life,” he said.

But in that vicious cycle, Oballa sometimes does not have enough energy for class. As a student senator at Riverland, Oballa helped launch a campus food pantry at his school, but he warns that the success of such efforts hinge on faculty and staff support.

Oballa also points out unnecessary sources of financial strain for students—for instance, mandatory parking fees, even for students without a car. He calls on college administrators to meet students’ basic needs, adding “We should be hungry to learn, but not hungry for food.”

‘I don’t know how to relax.’

Kassandra Montes, a full-time biochemistry, philosophy, and biology student at the City University of New York’s Lehman College, not only juggles classes and four jobs—she is also a single mother living in a shelter awaiting a housing voucher.

“Sometimes you are so tired and fatigued you let things go, and you just seem to be a procrastinator instead of a person that does what is supposed to be done,” Montes said. “I’m physically anxious all the time; I don’t know how to relax.”

Montes described to interviewers a web of competing financial demands. “It’s a constant thing that I have in mind: should I be sitting in class, or should I work harder? Should I get a full-time job and be a part-time student and get an apartment that I’m still not going to be able to afford?” Montes asks herself. “I just feel like the system is made to make everyone fail.”

Montes said she’s grateful for professors who have allowed her flexibility, such as bringing her son to classes. She serves her community as vice president of internal affairs for student government at CUNY-Lehman.

Watch the five interviews on The Chronicle website.


Georgetown University has launched an on-campus food pantry to support members of the university community experiencing food insecurity. Located on the fourth floor of the university’s Leavey student center, the Hoya Hub is available to all undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty and staff members. The team working on the pantry hopes the project will eventually grow to encompass additional programming and other aspects of food insecurity.

Interested in supporting the Hoya Hub food pantry? Donations will be used to purchase non-perishable food items, grocery gift cards, shelving, and storage containers to create a safe and sustainable resource for the Georgetown University community. Give to the Hoya Hub.

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