A Culture of Caring

Jordan Herrera, the college’s director of social services, is also Cindy Lopez’s academic adviser.

By Katherine Mangan and Julia Schmalz

Amarillo, Tex.

The first time Jordan A. Herrera met Cindy Lopez, the 19-year-old single mother was pushing a stroller, financial-aid documents in hand and a long list of questions on her mind.

She remembers thinking that Lopez seemed determined and resilient, but she worried about how a first-generation student who was struggling to put food on the table and relied on her grandparents to care for her daughter, Athena, would manage to focus on her studies. Like so many students at Amarillo College, Lopez was one emergency away from dropping out before classes had even begun. A broken-down car or an eviction notice could stop her semester in its tracks.

So Herrera, Lopez’s academic adviser and the community college’s director of social services, helped keep her afloat. Over the next three years, while Lopez juggled coursework in radiography with up to three minimum-wage jobs at a time, Herrera met her more than halfway, sending her home with bags of groceries, cutting a check from the college’s emergency fund for a car mechanic when Lopez’s SUV broke down on the way to class, and helping pay Lopez’s grandparents for the child care. When financial and family stresses threatened to overwhelm Lopez, Herrera connected her with a mentor in the community. To cover her direct education expenses, she helped Lopez piece together scholarships.

This May, Lopez expects to graduate with an associate degree. She is optimistic about landing a job as an X-ray technologist.

‘Graduating Will Be the Reward’

Watch as Cindy Lopez, on her way to class at Amarillo College, drops off her daughter at her grandparents’ place.

“There’s no way I could have made it without their help,” she says of Herrera and her staff. “On days that I feel my lowest, they lift me up and keep me going.” In many ways, Lopez is a poster child for Amarillo College’s No Excuses Poverty Initiative, which has attracted national attention for the breadth of support it offers students.

The outreach comes at a time when colleges nationwide are facing increasing pressure to help students struggling to afford food, housing, and other basic needs. Last week dozens of University of Kentucky students called off a hunger strike after the university’s president, Eli Capilouto, agreed to centralize the university’s basic-needs assistance and hire a full-time staff member to assess the best way to help students struggling with food and housing insecurity.

At Amarillo, the college’s efforts have been buoyed by support from a local community that sees higher education as a key to bolstering its low-wage, service-based economy.

Early data show that the college’s intensive interventions are improving completion rates and reducing disparities in achievement. At the same time, the effort has raised questions about how much responsibility a college should take on to meet the basic needs of students who struggle with homelessness and hunger.

How, one might wonder, in an era of shrinking state support and declining enrollments, can a financially challenged two-year college afford to swoop in with rent payments, transportation vouchers, child-care subsidies, and free food and clothing? If you ask the college’s president, Russell Lowery-Hart, he’ll flip the question around: How, when so many students are barely making ends meet and so few are graduating, can Amarillo College afford not to?

Cindy Lopez hopes to graduate with an associate degree from Amarillo College in May and get a job as an X-ray technologist. The college has helped pay for child care for her daughter, Athena.

The wraparound support that Amarillo offers its neediest students reflects a growing recognition that poverty, rather than academic demands, poses the biggest barrier for many students in community colleges. That’s particularly true in this windswept rural region in the Texas Panhandle. In Amarillo, the region’s biggest city, just 56 percent of high-school graduates immediately pursue some kind of postsecondary credential or license, according to school-district officials. Along with local high schools, the college recruits at meat-packing plants and hog farms, and draws students from the fast-food restaurants that dot the interstate highways intersecting the city.

It might seem surprising that a college in a fiercely conservative part of the state, where pickup trucks, American flags, and cowboy culture are ubiquitous, and nearly 70 percent of voters chose Donald Trump in the presidential election, would become such a leader in the fight against poverty.

Spending a recent blustery, snowy day with Lopez and seeing how many times the generosity of the local community and the campus intersected, make clear that those connections are key to the college’s success: The retiring businessman who donates his suits to a campus clothing pantry so students can feel confident in job interviews. The motel owner who offers a $30-a-night rate to a student who’s been evicted just before graduation. The church group that paid the $300 training fee so a formerly homeless man could learn to operate a forklift.

All of the money that supports the emergency assistance and food pantries comes from outside donations, including the $300,000 that the Amarillo College Foundation has collected and funneled into it since 2012. The college kicks in about $200,000 per year toward the expense of running the student-support center, mostly to pay for its two full-time social workers and an administrative assistant.

At Amarillo College’s Advocacy & Resource Center (ARC) students can get clothing, food, emergency aid and social services. The coordinators Ashley Guinn, left, and Leslie Hinojosa hang up clothes from a walk-in donation.

The college’s efforts are further amplified by a charismatic president prone to tearing up when he talks about how a weekend of living on the street gave him a glimpse into the lives of some of his students. He was able to walk away from the homelessness simulation, but only after experiencing the intense discomfort of feeling invisible and dehumanized.

“If you had told me 10 years ago that I would so passionately talk about poverty, I would have said that’s not my purpose or mission — my mission is to educate,” Lowery-Hart says. “But what I’ve learned about generational poverty is that if I want to improve the outcomes for students inside the classroom, I have to be intentional about what happens to them outside the classroom.”

Although it’s hard to draw a straight line from the many recent changes the college has made and the improvement in its completion rates, early data suggest that its intensive interventions are working.

Since 2011, the college’s three-year completion-and-transfer rate has jumped from 19 percent to 48 percent. Meanwhile, outsize gains by black and Hispanic students have all but closed equity gaps in graduation rates.

What’s more, Amarillo officials say, students who receive social services and financial support through the college’s designated emergency fund have a 32 percent higher fall-to-spring retention rate, and 14 percent higher fall-to-fall, than their peers.

Lowery-Hart is a relentless promoter of the college’s No Excuses program, whether he’s speaking on panels at national meetings or hobnobbing with community leaders whose contributions range from money to mentoring to free eye-care appointments. His trademark pinstripe suit and bow tie suggest a formality that contrasts with his gentle demeanor and easy rapport with students he meets with at least every other week.

The president embodies the college’s commitment to alleviating poverty, says Karen A. Stout, president of Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit group that honored Amarillo this year for its work in narrowing equity gaps in achievement. “He wears it on his sleeve. He doesn’t make excuses for making it the first and last thing he talks about.”

The college has created a fictional student named Maria to emphasize its mission. Like Lopez, she is a single mother and first-generation student, working multiple jobs and often careening from crisis to crisis. More than 70 percent of the college’s 10,000 students are the first in their family to attend college, 55 percent are minority-group members, and 65 percent are female. About 40 percent receive Pell Grants.

A combination of factors is squeezing students nationwide. As tuition rates have steadily risen, the purchasing power of the Pell Grant for low-income students has slipped. A recently released report by the Government Accountability Office found that the average Pell Grant, about $6,000 per year, covers only 37 percent of students’ two-year-college expenses — down from 50 percent 40 years ago. Meanwhile, 57 percent of students who are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the main federal program that helps low-income people buy food, did not participate in it in 2016. Some didn’t know they qualified.

At Amarillo College, 55 percent of students are food-insecure, meaning they’re hungry, or at risk of hunger, compared with 43 percent of community-college students nationally, according to two studies released last year, including a detailed case study of Amarillo’s No Excuses program. Both were led by Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher-education policy and sociology at Temple University and founder of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.

Meanwhile, 59 percent of Amarillo College’s students were housing-insecure, meaning that they’re in danger of not being able to pay their rent, mortgage, or utilities, or have to move frequently, often into crowded living quarters, to make ends meet. That’s considerably higher than the 46-percent national figure for community-college students. Eleven percent had been homeless in the past year, on par with the national level.

‘Just Trying to Survive’

“It’s the same person that’s working two fast-food jobs and going to school here.” — Russell Lowery-Hart, the college’s president.

Cindy Lopez, who has known her share of cramped and crowded homes, is living with Athena rent-free now, thanks to a gift from a grateful employer. She had cared for the woman’s elderly father, working up to 60 hours a week at night after days of classes and clinical rotations.

On a recent morning, icicles hung from sagging gutters on the aging brick home she’s now living in as she poured cereal for Athena to eat in the car. Dressed in yoga pants and a workout shirt, with gold sparkles on her sneakers and her hair swept into a messy ponytail, Lopez seemed ready for the marathon day ahead. She described how her friends had helped her scrub and repaint walls stained by the previous tenant’s heavy smoking.

It was just one of many examples, she said, of how people have pitched in to keep her going. Her mentor provided money for food when things got tight and cheered her up with encouraging notes. When she’s dashing between class and a campus testing center, where she works, she often stops in the Advocacy and Research Center, known as the ARC, to grab a package of noodles or tuna that will sustain her through the afternoon.

Lynae L. Jacob, a semiretired associate professor of speech, started the college’s first food pantry in 2012 after recognizing the struggles she saw in her students. “When I was in college, I didn’t have funds from my parents. I was financially treading water,” she says. “I noticed that’s where a lot of my students were. They were OK as long as they didn’t have a flat tire or a speeding ticket, but if their tire blew, they didn’t get to school.”

A food pantry, she figured, would allow them to take some of the money they needed for groceries “and spend it on the tire so they could make it to class.” She spent about $300 a month to keep it going at first, but offers of help soon flooded in. Faculty members brought in donations. The student government held a food drive. When local grocery stores had a sale on Hamburger Helper, everyone stocked up. Jacob took classes in food storage to qualify for cheaper food from a local food bank.

The stories she heard could be heartbreaking. One student wanted food he could eat from cans without a can opener because he and his 10-year-old daughter were living in his car. A grandmother who was raising her four grandchildren while her daughter was in prison was grateful for anything she could take home.

Amarillo College isn’t alone in helping students meet basic nonacademic needs, although it’s gone much farther than most, experts note. Tacoma Community College, in Washington State, works with a local housing authority to offer housing vouchers for students who are homeless or in danger of losing their homes. City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP, is considered by many a gold standard in wraparound support for disadvantaged students. Nationally, nonprofit groups like Single Stop, which serves 31 campuses in 10 states, provide students with safety nets.

At Amarillo, the ARC serves as that single stop. Opened in 2016, it is located in the center of campus. It was designed with glass walls to broadcast the message that everyone is welcome.

“A lot of people were concerned students wouldn’t come if you’re putting them in a fishbowl,” says Herrera. “We did this to show that poverty is nothing to be ashamed of.”

Jordan Herrera, the college’s director of social services, is also Cindy Lopez’s academic adviser.

In addition to providing food and clothing pantries, the center collaborates with more than 60 local nonprofit groups to pay students’ electric bills when they’re about to be disconnected or locate dentists willing to treat them for free. The college uses data analytics to create at-risk profiles for all incoming first-year students and invites those with incomes below $19,000 to come in before an emergency strikes.

Some faculty members who are reluctant to question the mission publicly raise private concerns about whether the assault on poverty is too much of a stretch for the college, which only three years ago was laying off dozens of staff members because of its own financial deficit, brought about by declining enrollment and state support.

They warn of “mission creep” that could detract from a focus on education, and point out that charities and churches already help students meet basic needs. Some even wonder if it is too much to ask students who are living in their cars or facing other financial crises to stay in college. What happens if they cut into their Pell Grant eligibility, take out loans, and then drop out?

Karen S. White, an associate professor of mathematics who serves on the Faculty Senate, supports the college’s approach but says some of her colleagues suspect that the generous outreach could attract students who just want their cars fixed or bills paid. She feels confident, though, that the resource center does a good job of limiting aid to good students who really need it.

White has known students who were trying to support themselves and their siblings while their parents were in jail. Students who are hungry or sleeping in their cars won’t be able to focus on her lessons until those needs are met, she wrote in an email. “We don’t have to be the social worker, we just need to send the students to the outreach center so that they can get the help they need.”

And administrators say getting students to accept help is often a bigger problem than turning away those requesting too much.

The first time Herrera offered Lopez a bag of groceries, she balked at accepting it, fighting back tears, her adviser recalls. “I felt like someone needed it more than me,” Lopez explained afterward. But since she was broke, “I had to swallow my pride and let them help me.”

She’s not alone in her reticence. Staff members in the ARC describe students who borrow food one week and return the next to bring back what they didn’t use.

“Poverty is not about laziness or lack of work ethic or the need for a handout,” Lowery-Hart told educators at a recent meeting of Achieving the Dream. “People are working their tails off and still can’t make it. They’re one emergency away from losing everything.”

Lopez knows that all too well. While water bills and car troubles were the kinds of daily stressors she’d come to expect, a far more ominous worry closed in as her toddler was growing. Several times, when Athena fell and bumped her head, she stopped breathing and turned blue, Lopez says. Last spring, after the child’s third ambulance trip to the hospital, the doctor ordered an MRI, which detected a small tumor on her pituitary gland. The medical bills added up to nearly $10,000, and the doctor wanted her to come back for further testing. Lopez still owes $7,000 and is anguished that she can’t afford the follow-up test.

She came close to dropping out. “I had three classes and clinicals at that point,” Lopez says. “I wanted to spend more time with Athena, and I felt like I was picking school over her.” After receiving encouragement from the mentor with whom Herrera had connected her, as well as from ARC staff members, “I told myself she was going to get better and I just had to keep going.”

As an X-ray technologist, Cindy Lopez expects to earn $15-$16 an hour at first, with a pathway toward higher pay as time goes on.

Keeping going involved classes and clinical sessions during the day and nights working to care first for a high-school classmate who’d been in a coma for a year, and later, an aging veteran who needed round-the-clock help. “There were time when my grandparents would see Athena more in a day that I would in a week,” Lopez says. “That’s when I knew I had to cut back.” Back when she was living with Athena’s father, Dalton, he was earning $12 an hour in a uniform-cleaning business, and she was at home with the baby. “He’d work really hard on his job and come home to no food,” Lopez says. “That made him aggravated. Our relationship started going downhill.”

Athena’s illness exacerbated their money woes. Dalton would let one bill slide for a month so he could pay another. The day the water company threatened to cut off their service, their GMC Acadia broke down on the way to her class, and she turned to Facebook to see if any of her friends knew a reasonable mechanic. Back at the ARC, Herrera saw her post and arranged to have the repair covered the same day.

Should Your College Provide for Students’ Basic Needs? Here’s What to Consider.

Amarillo College has developed a national reputation for tending to the basic needs of students at risk of dropping out. Colleges across the country are facing demands for similar programs, but providing food, shelter, and emergency assistance for needy students can be expensive and time-consuming. Here’s what to consider if you want to build a sustainable antipoverty effort:

Can you connect with community resources?
Charities, churches, and nonprofits are natural partners, with resources and ideas to share. Encourage everyone on campus to make those connections. A custodian might know a generous car mechanic, for instance, while a faculty member might belong to an effective mentoring group

Can you get buy-in from everyone on campus?
Some colleges, like Amarillo, hold meetings on the subject that all faculty members and some staff members are required to attend. At the sessions, experts dispel myths about poverty and discuss the best ways to improve success rates among impoverished students.

Do you have a high-profile champion?
Much of Amarillo College’s success is due to relentless promotion by its president, Russell Lowery-Hart, who regularly gathers college employees and community leaders to build support for the effort.

Can you get national support?
A national group focused on improving success rates among disadvantaged students will enable you to share ideas with other colleges tackling poverty. Recognition from groups like Achieving the Dream and the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program can also enhance a college’s national reputation, making it easier to justify the continued investment.

As an X-ray technologist, Cindy Lopez expects to earn $15-$16 an hour at first, with a pathway toward higher pay as time goes on.

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