It’s hard to keep New Year’s resolutions. Less than one month in, I am losing it over one such resolution: to chill out a little. Here’s why.
Shortly before the New Year during the break, I returned to the university to gather some books from the open but really empty library. For an academic, a great library, even empty of people, is a wondrous place to be.
Except this time. There I was on the first floor near the booths that accommodate groups of students who spend their days and nights in study, camaraderie and solidarity. Almost all were now empty of course. Except this time. There, to my surprise, were two apparent humans totally and tightly swaddled in dark blankets sound asleep atop the cushions surrounding their respective long booth table. Ten o’clock in the morning and two souls deep in sleep in an area cluttered with large paper and plastic bags — could it be their belongings in those bags?
I am blessed with over four decades at FIU. This sight varied from anything that I had seen before at the university, in the library. I was alarmed. However, I had already vowed to chill with the New Year: to relax a bit, breathe the fresh air, smell the flowers … and live and let live. So, I kept moving, even though the scene was deeply etched in the vigilant corner of my administrator’s mind.
One week later, a new year, resolutions intact, classes start. That very first morning I am walking around to greet returning students. This is a fun morning. Fresh from their breaks, our students are always full of energy and anticipation with their new semester. I went through the library first floor again because I wanted to see new chairs and tables that we placed on the expansive fresh air patio overlooking Lake Canaves (where Professor Jaime Canaves hosts his annual “Walk on Water” contest).
But the renewed hustle and bustle of the first floor study booth area could not mask a disturbing sight. In the same booth, now were sitting two youthful but gaunt male students eating corn flakes — on the other side, the same swaddled inert blanket with presumably a human being inside.
Despite my resolution, alarm bells are now going off inside. This is NOT natural for the area. I then introduced myself, saying that I was a professor. I asked the student what he was studying. He carefully looked up, announced nervously: engineering. Next to him was his brother, who was in dual enrollment at the university, not quite, he apologized, a full student. Then I asked, pointing to the blanket, who is this? Pause. Then the older student barely pursed out: “our mother.”
I quietly said: “oh—I hope she is ok,” and waived goodbye. Not really. Alarmed I quickly alerted our capable Student Affairs staff to return to the site and see if the family needed help. Sure enough they were having serious challenges, apparently bereft of permanent living quarters and safe space. We are still finding out about them and helping as much as we can.
Is this a common problem? A recent survey by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice found that homelessness impacted 18 percent of those attending two-year colleges and 14 percent of those attending four year institutions. Perhaps up to 40 percent of students are food insecure. These basic needs insecurities are of course then positively correlated with poor academic outcomes. Housing insecurity has a strong significant relationship with completion, persistence and credit attainment. And parent and family conflict is another factor influencing student insecurity. We know that a combination of these factors probably adversely impacted our library guests.
But we can share with you other cases that tell the story. Just when Steeve Jean-Louis was wrapping up his high school years and should have been preparing for the next chapter of his life as a college student, tragedy struck. His mother died while on a business trip in Haiti, and on the same day Steeve was in a serious car accident that left him with a broken tibia and an almost year-long hospitalization.
Having lost his father two years prior, Steeve found himself orphaned. Despite an insecure home situation, he was certain about one thing – he wanted to be an FIU student.
“I visited FIU once when I was doing my college tours, and it was one of those colleges that stuck out to me,” he said.
Little did he know that FIU would not only become his home a few months later; it became a place that offered him hope, stability and a sense of family.
Our Fostering Panther Pride (FPP) initiative provided him the support system he needed to succeed. He’s now a sophomore living on campus, pursuing a degree in Marketing.
“It’s like a family away from home, that’s for sure,” Jean-Louis said. “They really get on you, getting your academics in order, but that is all just a backdrop.”
Our FIU’s Fostering Panther Pride (FPP) program offers tailored academic and support services to students identified as formerly in foster care or homeless. We launched this initiative in 2013 to assist former foster care youth and homeless students in their transition to FIU, their retention and graduation, and their pursuit of securing employment or graduate studies upon receiving their bachelor’s degree.
FPP utilizes success coaches as primary contacts between our university and students; it helps them navigate university processes pertaining to admissions, financial aid, registration, and housing, as well as accessing institutional resources (i.e. academic advising, tutoring, counseling services, career development services) for academic and professional development.
Students are paired with FIU faculty, staff, and/or alumni mentors who serve as guides through their academic journey. In addition, FPP supports faculty researchers to identify best practices to serve former foster youth and homeless students in order to develop a model that can be replicated for other communities.
Since its inception, FPP has served more than 500 students, and 176 have graduated. For Spring 2020, the program awarded 40 housing scholarships ranging from $500-$2000, and 51 book stipends.
As we edge further into 2020 and this new decade, we have significant challenges ahead. Recent data from the Florida Department of Education and the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies points to a rising number of students statewide experiencing homelessness. Indeed, the number has tripled in a decade from 34,000 statewide to over 95,000. At least 8,000 youth are unaccompanied by a parent or guardian. The number is likely higher. And nearly 30% of children in Miami-Dade County live in poverty.
So less than one month into the New Year, my “chill” resolution lies in shambles. But I gotta tell you that I am glad gratified we can be of some help in the face of rising student insecurity, homelessness and hunger. And right here at home. The national statistics are one thing. Seeing, feeling and dealing with our at risk students at home is quite another. Our FPP is one more way we can all help. It is a vehicle for hope and opportunity.
Please consider getting involved with your time and or resources. We will both feel better, even if we must break unrealistic resolutions at their inception … because in the process we will likely help to make our world a better place!
Special thanks to the Florida Department of Education, the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies, the Wisconsin Hope Lab, “Still Hungry and Homeless in College” (April 2018), Temple University, and USA Today Dec. 30, 2019.
In the Panther spirit,
Mark B. Rosenberg