Creating Trauma-Informed Policies in Higher Education
Roshelle Czar is currently a Women’s Studies major at Sacramento State University, advocating to strengthen higher education basic needs and trauma-informed institutions. Pictured above: Roshelle after a meeting with Senator Dodd (CA-D) about AB 705 which requires colleges to use high school performance data—overall GPA, courses taken, or course grades—to be the primary measure when placing students, if transcript data is available.
I started my journey as a non-traditional student– I had left my country, my home, Pakistan and immigrated to the United States to enable myself for a secured future. With little financial resources to pay for my basic needs, I received a $7,000 scholarship to help me move from Bakersfield to Sacramento. However, that money eventually ran out in a few months. Due to an emotionally unstable family dynamic, I could not depend on my parents for help. I decided to take out federal loans, it was still not enough for me to cover my cost of housing and tuition combined.
Due to my class schedule, it became impossible to find a job. The two-year hiatus search resulting in the exhaustion of taking more than 230 interviews finally came to an end. I got a part-time job on campus at a research and policy center, based on a letter of recommendation that came from President of Sacramento State, Robert Nelsen, himself [pictured left]. Sadly, I was still not earning enough at this job to cover Sacramento rent.
This led to me receive eviction letters– and my living condition deteriorated. I could no longer even afford a basic cell phone service. My credit history declined and my bills went straight into collection. The accumulated stress led to a domino effect of my health worsening. Soon enough, I was prescribed antibiotics and steroids to combat my weak immune system. I even interacted with the Guardian Scholars Program, which is meant to guide students stemming from the foster care system or without a family. They explained that I was over the age limit of 18, which prevented me from being a part of the program. I felt the anger rushing through my veins: my age confined me from receiving the aid I needed simply to be an educated woman. It seemed that the systematic barriers in higher education would only delay my ability to graduate.
Worst of all, I could no longer give the meticulous time and attention needed to succeed in my courses. The passion to enlighten my mind was stripped away because equal opportunity was not to be found. When I spoke to my financial aid office, they shared that I could take out private loans, but I was ineligible due to not having a parent who could co-sign as a guarantor. Fortunately, I was able to find the CARES office, which provides support to students who are in crisis or experiencing unique challenges to their education. I met a case manager who helped me with an emergency grant to help me cover rent. She also linked me to the campus food pantry and Swipe Out Hunger. I was then able to get a meal card, allowing me to eat in the dining hall for free, thanks to the Sacramento State University’s Swipe Drive. This program allows students to donate their extra meal plan swipes to their peers who face food insecurity on campus.
How can we expect students to become successful on a fundamental level if they cannot even afford to live in a safe place which does not destroy their mental health?
My experience is not unique to students attending the California State University system. The data collected from the City of Sacramento states that “41.6 percent of students sometimes went hungry, with almost half describing their food security as low or very low. Somewhere between 5 and 11 percent of California State University students also experience homelessness at some point each year.” For students at two-year community colleges, that number jumps to nearly 20 percent as community colleges rarely offer campus housing and financial aid is less available for older students without family financial support.
Providing affordable and secure housing to students is not only vital for college success and a stronger workforce, but also a step towards closing racial and socioeconomic equity gaps in our higher education system. Students who are alone lack the privilege of a loving and positive support system. We must also acknowledge that students who come from violent or perilous homes experience a higher risk of depression as soon as they step foot onto a college campus. Active Minds, which advocates for student mental health, and The Steve Fund, which supports emotional health among young people, found that suicide is the second leading cause of death in college students.
It is an institution’s responsibility to recognize that trauma results in multiple vulnerabilities and affects many aspects of a survivor’s life. Hence, today, I hold the education systems accountable. How can we expect students to become successful on a fundamental level if they cannot even afford to live in a safe place which does not destroy their mental health? How can we become trauma-informed institutions? How can we ask students as they are growing up whether they are competent and kind to their own hearts? How can we create policies to protect the vulnerable so that equality is not a privilege, but a basic human right for all? How can we expect students to be successful if we failed to protect them from dangerous environments? But, most of all, how can we provide love in places where it is currently lacking? Education systems speak of greatness and demand it from their students, but to create a path of equal opportunity, we must also eradicate systematic privilege.