Fueling Dragons: Meeting the Need
Many college students struggle with their basic needs. Here’s how HCC is helping them not only survive but thrive.
On the surface, Keenan Eldridge was a model student at Howard Community College.
The then-Columbia resident was a member of the prestigious James W. Rouse Scholars Program, a selective honors program for students whose goal is to transfer to a four-year college or university. He also worked a part-time job; joined Phi Theta Kappa honors society and Howard P.R.I.D.E., a program that encourages academic, professional, and personal development of Black male students; and became vice president of the Active Minds club – all while maintaining a 3.0 GPA or higher.
But off campus, life wasn’t easy.
In spring 2019, just months before graduation, Eldridge and his family were evicted from their apartment. The same weekend as the eviction, Eldridge was involved in an automobile crash that totaled his car and led to months of physical therapy. Suddenly, without a car or a permanent home, Eldridge worried about his future at HCC.
“It was the most stressful time in my life,” he said.
Like Eldridge, college students nationwide are facing basic needs insecurities. A 2018 survey by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found 45 percent of college students experienced food insecurity in the prior 30 days, while 56 percent were housing insecure, and 17 percent were homeless in the previous year. The Hope Center defines food insecurity as the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the ability to acquire such foods in a socially acceptable manner. Housing insecurity includes challenges like an inability to pay rent or utilities, while homelessness means a person is without a place to live and may be residing in a shelter, an automobile, an abandoned building or outside.
When students struggle with food, housing, or transportation, it’s difficult to focus on academics, said Dr. Jay Coughlin, III, director of HCC’s Counseling and Career Services. Add in the stress and anxiety associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, and needs only increase.
From food and housing assistance to social and emotional support, HCC offers range of programs and resources that address these basic needs insecurities and help students thrive.
“Everything is interconnected, and usually when there's one need, there’s lots of needs,” Coughlin said. “Obviously, students are coming to school for a reason. They want to be successful and financially secure. But sometimes, these basic needs are the only thing that’s getting in the way of that progress. We want to try and support them as best we can.”
Facing multiple challenges, Eldridge approached Laura Cripps, HCC’s associate vice president of academic affairs who was then serving as dean of social sciences and teacher education, and was formerly the director of the Rouse Scholars program, for guidance.
“Dr. Cripps took it upon herself to offer all the resources that the college had available to me,” he recalled. Those resources included the Howard Community College Helping Hands Fund, which provides emergency money for unforeseen student expenses. “I was surprised a fund like this existed,” Eldridge said. “The Helping Hands funds helped me secure a vehicle while we were going through the whole eviction process.”
The fund helps students with unexpected energy bills, car repairs, and housing costs. After the college switched to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the fund also covers increased bills for WiFi coverage and childcare costs.
“Students who are eligible for scholarship money can receive $1,000 per child for childcare costs,” said Eileen Diggs, a case manager for HCC’s Career Links – a program that supports single parents and displaced homemakers as they achieve their educational goals. “In some cases, this is allowing students to finish the semester.”
About 75 percent of the students who turn to Career Links for help are over age 25, said Maureen Marshall, associate director of Career Links.
“Many of our students never thought they would need help getting their basic needs met,” she said. “Then something happens to destabilize them.”
Career Links staff, who regularly reach out to students to share resources and information, have increased their efforts since COVID-19 hit.
“A lot of our students have lost hours at work as a result of the pandemic,” Marshall said. “Students are just needing those resources quickly...The digital divide was something we were looking to find assistance for students prior to the pandemic, so it was wonderful when HCC was able to provide loaner laptops and [WiFi] hotspots to students who needed them. That was a huge help.”
Career Links and programs like Howard P.R.I.D.E. also provide food vouchers to use in the HCC Cafe on the Quad, help students apply for scholarships and ensure students are receiving the maximum financial aid possible.
Fueling Dragons with Food
Still, when it comes to food, many college students have experienced insecurity at some point during their postsecondary education. Students at two-year colleges are especially impacted. During the 30 days that preceded the Hope Center survey, about 48 percent of students who responded at two-year institutions experienced food insecurity, compared to about 41 percent at four-year institutions. Whether they run out of food between paychecks, skip meals or even buy unhealthy foods that cost less, it all impacts students’ ability to learn.
“I can’t tell you how many students we’ve come into contact with who would say, ‘Geoffrey, I just couldn’t focus today because I didn’t eat last night,’” said Geoffrey Colbert, senior director of athletics and student conduct who formerly served as associate director of the Howard P.R.I.D.E. Program. “It became really apparent that the need was there.”
HCC opened its first-ever food pantry in 2016. Stocked with shelf-stable items like tuna, cereal and pasta, the pantry recorded 167 visits in its first year. Since then, use of the food pantry has steadily increased. In 2019, the college moved the pantry into a larger space and added fresh vegetables, meats, and other refrigerated items.
The pantry gives away more than 2,300 pounds of food a month to students in need, including Jennifer Phillips, an HCC nursing student and mother of three. “The food pantry is a good way to help those students who may be running low or having a rough time,” she said. “No questions are asked, no judgment. Just get what you need so you can provide for your family.”
Between January and March 2020, students visited the pantry 508 times – more than double the number of visits in the previous year. So when the food pantry closed in mid-March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Associate Director of Student Wellness Tara Rupp knew the college needed to boost its outreach.
“We put together a list of all the local food pantries that were still open and serving Howard County residents, and then we sent that information out to the students,” she said.
The college also launched “Fueling Dragons,” which provides resources to overcome food insecurity and develop lifelong healthy habits and skills. Supported by local philanthropists Rajiv and Hima Jain, the program includes the food pantry, cooking classes, and nutrition education.
“We are what we eat, and what we eat affects not only our health but our mood, our alertness,” said Hima Jain. “Those are things that affect our day-to-day decisions… If we have sources for seasonal, healthy produce, even if they’re shelf stable, helping students prepare them in a way that is more nutritious for them, it will be a win-win all around.”
As part of the initiative’s educational component, Robin Jean-Baptiste, an HCC graduate and private chef, created recipes using fresh, easy-to-find ingredients. Examples include tomato vegetable soup, shrimp fajitas and turkey burgers. Then, he starred in several online videos, showing students how to make the recipes and practice basic cooking skills like dicing vegetables. Eventually, the college will host in-person cooking classes for students in need.
“I thought it was important because food is something that we all obviously need,” he said. “But especially with my generation, cooking is becoming almost a lost art because we’re in an age of convenience. There’s just something about cooking and making your own food. Not only does it contribute to you saving money but it’s better for you in the long run. And you’re just learning a life skill.”
Fueling Dragons also includes meal kits produced by Roving Radish, a Howard County Government program dedicated to promoting healthy farm-to-table eating habits. Between August and November 2020, more than 50 eligible students, including Phillips, received weekly, free meal kits.
“Roving Radish has given me an opportunity to make good, healthy meals for everyone in my household,” she said. “All the recipes are provided, so even my kids could make it if I was in class or clinicals.”
“Not only are they making a meal for the night, they have leftovers for lunch the next day,” Colbert added. “It was absolutely phenomenal.”
To further address students’ food insecurities, the Howard Community College Educational Foundation provided students with gift cards to local grocery stores in November and December, Rupp said. But by January, the college realized it needed to do even more.
“After winter break, we knew there was still a strong need,” Rupp said. “With our pantry being closed [due to the pandemic], we had to come up with some creative solutions to this growing problem.”
The college once again partnered with Roving Radish, but this time, incorporated the program’s new Columbia market. Eligible students receive $20 a week to shop in the market for overstocked fruits, vegetables, and meats.
“I get a lot of emails back when we offer programs like this,” Rupp said. “Students are so grateful. They say things like, ‘You have no idea how much this means to me.’”
Looking Ahead to the Future
While meeting basic needs is important, the college also recognizes the benefits of providing non-essential support – especially the kind that brings joy to students’ families.
Each summer, HCC hosts a toy drive for children of Career Links students. Faculty and staff donate hundreds of toys for children ages 12 and under, including dolls, Legos, play kitchen items, bubbles and board games. Then in December, students who registered for the drive “shop” for free for their families, said Kassy Hargadon-Zester, a personal counselor with Career Links and toy drive coordinator. The drive usually serves between 80 and 100 children each year.
“These parents are so relieved and grateful when they come in to shop,” Hargadon-Zester said. “You have to remember that this time of year, money gets tight. The heating bill goes up, and many students have to cut back on their work hours because they’re studying for the final exams.”
This year’s event, where parents picked up gifts curbside, was especially meaningful for both the students and staff, she said.
“You wouldn’t believe how many people were sending us photos on Christmas morning,” Hargadon-Zester said. “My students would contact me and say, ‘Oh my God, I’m the happiest person in the whole world.’ The gratitude, it just warms your heart.”
And as Eldridge can attest, a little gratitude goes a long way.
After receiving emergency support from the Helping Hands fund, he graduated from HCC and received a full scholarship to UMBC.
“It was huge,” With a recommendation from Geoffrey Colbert, Dr. Hetherington, president of HCC, spoke to Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, president of UMBC, “They recommended me for a presidential transfer scholarship, even with all this chaos going on. It was amazing for all that to happen.”
Eldridge, who double majored in psychology and sociology and will graduate this spring, said he would not be where he is today without HCC’s support.
“I have a roof over my head now, a car, and a scholarship to UMBC,” he said. “It meant the world to me that my fortunes were able to drastically change in six weeks. It was great that they were able to help me through all that.”
For students struggling with basic needs, information about available resources and programs are at howardcc.edu/basicneeds. If you would like to support students in need, contact the Howard Community College Educational Foundation at 443-518-1970.