Cultivating a Mindful and Inclusive Campus Culture: Supporting Students with Diverse Lived Experiences
What does it look like to have a campus culture where students, no matter what lived experience they bring, are welcomed, included, and given a path to succeed? How can a college craft anti-hunger and basic needs programming that meets the complex, yet addressable needs of students?
Over this last month, we gathered our campus partners during two Swipe Session webinars to discuss the very real needs of specific student populations, namely parenting students and current and former foster youth. These are students who are choosing to pursue higher education in hopes of changing their personal and family circumstances, and yet many enter college not knowing the incredible campus resources available to them. As one speaker Terrence Scraggins, LSW, a Community Health Worker at JesseTree and foster alumni, mentioned, “On college campuses, there are so many resources and so much money that go untapped because no one talks about it. The only way you’d know about it is because one professor, one advisor, one staff member said something about it, and then you know. But if you don’t tell anyone, how would they know?”
Together with our campus partners, we’re demystifying and uncovering the incredible ways colleges are seeing, hearing, and supporting students who come from diverse lived experiences and “nontraditional” backgrounds that challenge the assumptions of what a “typical” college student looks like.
Connect Students with Similar Lived Experiences
College inherently throws you out of your comfort zone and into the unknown, forcing students to fend for themselves in many ways. But as our presenters shared, for those who are parenting or who are current/former foster youth, many have already experienced enough uncertainty for an entire lifetime. By providing students with the opportunity to connect to those with similar lived experiences, they can feel more understood and supported as they navigate this new environment.
One former foster youth shared while in college, he wished he had been connected with a professional with lived experience similar to his, “Somebody I can relate to who’s like, ‘Hey, I’ve been there, I know what it’s like, this is what worked for me, and this is what didn’t.’” Having faculty or staff members that genuinely understand the challenges these populations face allows them to not only provide better guidance, but allows them to be seen as a trusted support system.
Other colleges have built entire communities enabling students with the same experiences to cohabitate together. At Misericordia University, their Women and Children program brings moms of every age across four houses on campus, where they live and raise their children together. Students in this program shared that having this community allows them to have space to vent, space to share, space to ask for help. This program allows parenting students to experience different parenting styles, cultures, and according to participants, helps them to “be a better student AND parent.”
By connecting with others who share similar backgrounds, students will know they are not alone and that they don’t have to go it alone.
Provide Wraparound Support
Many of our partners come to meet students through their food security programs, but oftentimes, they may be perfect candidates for other resources that would be available to them.
For example, foster youth are commonly denied Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) eligibility because their full foster care payments are mistakenly counted against them. Applying for SNAP can be challenging, but many of our partners are equipped and have the knowledge needed to help students navigate the application process. As Dahlia Roman from Northern Illinois University shared, “The second you say to that person, ‘Hey, if you want, we can sit down and do this together,’ I promise you if they need it, they will sit with you.” Having a supportive person to help guide them through such a confusing system can significantly affect their ability to access these resources.
The Misericordia University Women and Children Program also taps into other on-campus programs for mutually beneficial programming and resources, such as free counseling, student tutoring, occupational therapy, speech pathology, and other services. These programs can make a positive difference in a parent and their child’s life and development. By offering this wraparound support, this program is helping to change the course of this family’s future for the better.
Asking for help can be extremely difficult for parenting students and current/former foster youth. This is why, when possible, having a centralized “resource hub” can increase access for students. West Chester University, for example, offers a single point-of-contact for referrals, school supplies, access to housing during breaks, priority placement for work-study jobs, a Student Emergency Fund, meal-plan partnerships with local businesses, along with workshops on financial literacy and resume building. Connecting students with other key programs on-campus and off-campus can enable them and their families to thrive in countless ways.
It’s the Small, Thoughtful Things
Above all, no matter how complex one’s background may be, students are people in need of care, love, and support just like the rest of us. We can never underestimate how small gestures can improve the experiences of parenting students or current/former foster youth. Scraggins shared “For foster youth and alumni coming out and asking for help, they’re afraid because they’re going to be shamed in a place and in a situation where they’ve already been stigmatized and shamed several times.” It may sound cliché, but simply asking, “How can I help support you?” can pave the way for impactful work.
Our presenters that work with current/former foster youth highlighted how valuable it is to help students with life skills that we don’t talk about, like how to renew your ID, create a budget, or understand and build your credit score. In addition, for staff that have a dedicated office on campus where students visit, they can make the space welcoming and positive, signaling to students that this is a safe space for them.
Campuses that support parenting students have family rooms on campus, including toys, games, areas for children to hang out while their parents study with them. Their children may be welcomed in campus areas like in classrooms or dining halls. Their departments may have a play area which shows parenting students they are welcome in those spaces. And during a recent snowstorm at Misericordia University, the mothers found sleds on their porches for their families to enjoy the snowy day.
These thoughtful and meaningful actions create a feeling of care and support in the lives of these students and their families, making them feel they belong on campus.
Our campus partners have created mindful, inclusive, and resourceful programs that have made students from these backgrounds “not scared of completion, but confident it will happen” and we’re proud to be working and uplifting so many campuses that are doing this work. To learn more details about the wealth of helpful programs our network offers to their students, watch the recordings from each Swipe Session below.
Swipe Session: Prioritizing Parenting Students
Special Swipe Session: Supporting Current & Alumni Foster Students