How living on the street informed my leadership
Two years ago, I sat on a cold street corner in Waco, Texas, and found myself muttering—almost in a trance—“We have to do more.” It was the second day of my participation in a two-day, two-night homelessness simulation, and I was undone. I felt dehumanized, invisible and unloved as I tried to obtain food and shelter. People wouldn’t look me in the eyes.
The feeling of isolation was overwhelming. But what hit me even harder was the devastation I felt knowing this simulation is a reality for too many people. The emotions of that weekend ignited something in me and transformed my understanding of my role as a college president: If I want my students to succeed inside the classroom, I have to be intentional about what happens to them outside the classroom.
If I want my students to succeed inside the classroom, I have to be intentional about what happens to them outside the classroom.
Understanding student homelessness
Many of the individuals experiencing homelessness are no different from the students I work with every day at Amarillo College. In fact, some of my students are or have been homeless at some point. Homelessness and housing and food insecurity are a reality for many students in higher education, and a disproportionate number of these impacted students attend community colleges.
A 2018 study conducted by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab and Temple University found that over 40% of community college students were either food or housing insecure or unable to pay for balanced meals. And 12% had experienced homelessness in the past 12 months. How can we expect these students to show up to class, learn a new trade and succeed when they don’t even know where they’re going to sleep or get their next meal?
Immediately following the simulation, I arranged for an open dialogue with students. I now meet regularly with students over coffee or lunch to learn about their challenges: What barriers are they forced to climb to reach their education goals? Where do they need support? What could keep them from graduating?
As we continue these conversations, we’re also putting what we learn into action. When we learn of new student needs or barriers to success, we develop new programs or adapt current systems. Our student support services range from free daytime transportation on Amarillo City Transit to a low-cost daycare center to a food pantry.
We also collaborate with community partners. We have dentists offering free dental care and mechanics helping repair cars at a reduced (or no) cost.
And when all else fails, our emergency fund is available to help students cover immediate financial needs, including rent. Of the students who received emergency aid in fall 2016, 57% remained in school a year later, compared with 48% of the overall campus population. This is particularly impressive because emergency-aid recipients are more likely to have major life distractions or barriers to education.
Working alongside our students to tackle these challenges makes a college degree more achievable. Through loving systems of support, students complete a degree or certificate at significantly higher rates. We help ensure that these outstanding people will be able to contribute to our community.
What I learned
Ten years ago I would have told you: “Addressing poverty is not my purpose or mission; my mission is to educate.” But what I’ve learned about generational poverty is that education isn’t even an option for people unless basic needs are met.
It’s not about handouts or making classes easier for students. It’s about helping them see that a college education is possible and creating a space where they can focus on learning—because we’re helping take care of their other concerns.
The only way to make education possible for more people: help eliminate barriers and literally love them to success.
Russell Lowery-Hart has served as president of Amarillo College in Texas since 2014.