In 2016, San Antonio College started a program to meet the needs of students living in poverty.
Since then, the Student Advocacy Center has helped hundreds of students through financial emergencies and family crises, with the goal of keeping them on track to complete a degree.
When social work faculty member Lisa Black launched the center two years ago, the college knew anecdotally it was needed.
But Black said they didn’t know how common it was for students to be unsure where their next meal was coming from until there was a place they could go for help.
“We outgrew our space within a year. None of us were really prepared for the scale, and how fast it grew,” said Black, who serves as the center’s director. “Quite honestly, for many faculty members, it’s a relief.
“It’s very hard when so much of your success is measured by, ‘Are the students making decent grades?’ ‘Are they dropping from your class?’ It’s tough for a faculty member to help with needs that they’re not trained or equipped to help with.”
Both Black and San Antonio College President Robert Vela see the center as a retention effort: a way to keep students enrolled in class and focused on learning.
“Despite all of those challenges that our students may have, they’re still here at school. They still want to better their lives. And we’ve got to do a better job facilitating that process,” Vela said. “We want our students to stay and graduate.”
According to Black, more than 70 students a day use the center’s grab-and-go in the lobby of its new building. It’s stocked with snack items like cereal and noodle cups that students can take without answering questions. Around 160 students a month fill two bags of groceries from the food pantry upstairs.
Black said they added the grab-and-go because they noticed students using the pantry because they were hungry that day.
“They would burn an entire visit, where they could get sustainable food for their families to go home and cook in their kitchen because they had a math test and they hadn’t eaten or had a drink of water all day,” Black said.
Shortly after the college opened the center in 2016, SAC participated in a national community college survey conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The results were sobering: Out of the 1,600 SAC students surveyed, 25 percent said they sometimes go hungry because they can’t afford to eat. More than 40 percent said they’ve been evicted, couldn’t pay rent or moved frequently in the last year — signs of housing insecurity.
That goal of the Student Advocacy Center is to alleviate some of those problems and address the mental health concerns that can grow from stress and worry.
“If they have their utilities shut off, then it is very likely that they’re going to take a second job,” Black said, “or that the stress of that event when you have children at home is going to create a lot of chaos and an inability for that person to be present in a classroom.”
When the center opened in 2016, it was staffed by Black and four graduate students studying to get their master’s degree in social work. Now the center has two full-time counselors, two social work faculty members and 17 interns studying to become counselors and social workers.
The larger staff allows the center to offer both individual counseling and group therapy. The center now has 10 support groups, including groups for veterans and LGBTQ students.
“It is a really rich living-learning environment. Everything that we do here is practicing the work that these students are learning to do as professionals with the students who need them most,” Black said. “We didn’t need to look for clients, right. Our clients are right here on this campus.”
Black said that sometimes the inability to pay a $50 utility bill causes students to give up on college.
“If you don’t have that $50, what are you going to do? You’re going to get a second job,” Black said. “If you get evicted, how exactly are you going to take the math test the next morning? You have to figure out a way for you and your babies have a place to lay your head at night.”
So last year the center received a $25,000 grant from Texas-based Trellis Company, which the center uses for small emergency grants to students.
After the center opened, Black discovered that sometimes small amounts of money could make the difference between a student dropping out or continuing college.
“I’ve gotten an emergency fund request as low as $17,” Black said. “On average, of the 75 students that we’ve dispersed to, it’s about $300 and it’s for all of the things that you can imagine like rent and utilities.”
Trellis recently renewed the grant for $30,000, allowing the emergency fund to continue for another year.
Black said the center offers ongoing support to help students learn how to budget and plan for the future. But, at the end of the day, the only real solution for students is earning a degree that allows them to earn a bigger paycheck.
“This is their hope. It’s the way that I escaped poverty. It’s the way that most people escape poverty,” Black said.
Other colleges in the Alamo Colleges District are following SAC’s lead. Palo Alto opened a resource center in December 2016, and Northwest Vista is slated to open a center next semester.
SAC’s Student Advocacy Center is also in the process of starting a helpline that would be accessible to students at all five community colleges.
Several four-year colleges in the area also have food pantries, including the University of Texas at San Antonio, Texas A&M University-San Antonio, and St. Mary’s University.
Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@tpr.org or on Twitter @cmpcamille