Centralizing supports to promote student well-being and address short-term needs

From campus food pantries to emergency financial aid, and wellness support to mental health counseling, colleges are pulling together services to make it easier for students to locate what they need.

With issues such as homelessness and food insecurity hitting college students—as well as the likelihood that a family job loss or another financial emergency could create a sudden dire situation for any student—colleges and universities have established programs to offer various types of assistance. Such programs often have many pieces and students may have to make several contacts or visit several webpages to find the exact support needed.

Hudson Helps at Hudson County Community College in New Jersey, however, provides a single point of access for students in crisis. The resources include a food pantry on each of its campuses, clothing, emergency financial aid, career, mental health counseling, and wellness support. Eligible students receive help applying for federal benefits such as assistance for food insecurity and homeless and foster youth.

Also read: Campuses expand services for students leaving foster care

HCCC’s president, Chris Reber, committed to student well-being after reading Government Accountability Office reports on food insecurity and homelessness. Research on students facing these and other challenges convinced officials to initiate Hudson Helps. “If we really want to focus on student success, we have to be focused beyond some of the traditional things,” says Reber. “If you’re not sure where you’re going to sleep at night or how you’re going to feed your kids, that is priority number one.”

Student services in a pandemic

    The current covid-19 crisis has strained many student well-being programs and other services. At Hudson County Community College, which started spring break a week early so staff could prepare for a migration to virtual instruction, student services departments on campus have remained open. President Chris Reber says plans are to continue offering in-person services but that officials are researching alternatives. In addition, campus leaders hope to increase food pantry provisions.

    At HCCC and elsewhere, campus wellness administrators have pulled together resources to help students manage anxiety and other emotions and concerns during the pandemic.

    Many campuses are keeping essential services open, such as dining and housing, as international students are unable to go home and others who are homeless, says Shawnte Elbert, is co-chair of the NASPA Wellness and Health Promotion Knowledge Community and associate dean of health and wellness at Central Washington University. “The priority is the health and well-being of students but also being mindful of protecting our faculty and staff who are immunocompromised or up in age.”

    Rural colleges have an extra burden, as there are no outside resources to take over services potentially discontinued by the campus, Elbert adds.

    Regarding campus food pantries, Elbert expresses concerns that donors may face hardships themselves, reducing their ability to contribute.

Lisa Dougherty, vice president for student affairs and enrollment at Hudson, which serves more than 17,000 students, says that students can access Hudson Helps with any concerns, and the staff locates appropriate resources for the student, which may mean visiting different offices across more than one campus.

This fall, all of the approximately a dozen students who got emergency financial aid successfully completed the fall semester and re-enrolled for the spring.

A renovated building will eventually provide all services in a single, discrete location on the Journal Square campus. In addition to Hudson staff (two part-timers who are overseen by Associate Dean of Student Affairs David Clark, plus a newly appointed director), the center will include social worker interns from New York University and Rutgers, community volunteers to assist in federal program applications, and family planning services. Some resources will be available on the North Hudson campus until a second building can be constructed.

“The cultural impact of the visibility that’s brought to this shared value and the campus community awareness, has some palpable outcomes,” says Reber. Recently, two Hudson student organizations developed a prototype to raise food for the food pantry. “It’s increasingly defining who we are as an institution.”

One-stop wellness on campus

Other colleges and universities are moving toward building collaborative programs to support students in need. Reber reports finding inspiration in the Billie Bee Flesher Advocacy & Resource Center at Amarillo College in Texas. The Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA, meanwhile, features seven wellness areas to support students.

In 2011, Ohio State University became the first university in the U.S. to appoint a chief wellness officer. Bernadette Melnyk, who still serves in that role, says that approximately two-thirds of students who have left school have done so due to mental health issues. “Multiple studies that have shown if students are mentally and physically well, they will perform better academically.”

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