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By Rose Hoban
Most college students look forward to a welcome break at the holidays, when they head home to families, take time to catch up on sleep and old friends, and get their laundry done.
That’s if they have a home to go to.
On most campuses, there are students who have nowhere to go. Some are international students who can’t make it back to their homes, but others simply have no home to return to.
Kayla, in her second year in environmental studies at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, is one such student. Kayla (we are using only her first name to preserve confidentiality) was taken from her parents when she was 8 years old and placed in foster care with relatives.
“It still wasn’t a great place to live,” she remembered. “There was a lot of issues, lots of very stressful things happen that shouldn’t have happened. And I ended up leaving home when I was in the 11th grade.”
Once outside the foster care system, Kayla struggled when she got sick, worked to support herself, stayed with friends and managed to graduate high school in an early college program. That helped her transfer credits to UNC Pembroke.
But there, she felt isolated from her peers.
“Personally, it was hard. I was really depressed for a long time,” she said. “I cut myself off from people.
“It’s hard to explain. You just feel really alone and really isolated and hopeless sometimes … My grades started falling. I went from this straight-A student to like, barely a C student because other things became more important, like having somewhere to sleep at night or having some food. You just feel really alone.”
Things turned around for Kayla when she met Tamara Savage, one of the instructors in the social work program on campus.
Savage is the force behind the campus’s ASPIRE program, a mentoring service for UNC Pembroke students experiencing homelessness.
Catching the margins
Currently, Kayla is among 15 homeless students who Savage is mentoring, helping keep them on track, and connecting them to resources.
“I’m interested in not only students who are homeless during the summertime, and the winter breaks, but those who are precariously homed, those who are on the brink,” Savage told an interviewer on UNC Pembroke’s public affairs show Campus to Community. “That’s important to me too to catch those students also.”
She estimated there are several dozen homeless students on the 7,700 person campus, a number gleaned from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a form filled out by most students headed to college.
“FAFSA only catches those students who apply … or who do it correctly. You can check the wrong thing, or you can get frustrated as you go trying to answer the questions,” she said.
Nationally, there are about 58,000 homeless college students, according to the FAFSA data, but Savage said most researchers reckon the true number is three or four times that amount.
“There are students who don’t complete [the FAFSA] and those who don’t know about it, that are homeless and I’m sure they’re here on this campus,” she said.
Knowing there were likely homeless students in need, Savage started ASPIRE last year. She received a small pot of money from the administration to hold monthly dinners, holiday celebrations, movie and game nights, and other social events.
At first, Kayla didn’t attend.
“Dr. Savage just kept reaching out to me and reaching out to me and trying to get me to come and join, and one day I decided to have a meeting with her,” Kayla said.
She said it was a good decision.
“I cannot even explain how tremendous she’s been in helping us and gathering resources for us. There’s several times during the year that I’ve needed, like food or supplies, and she’s like right there on top of it, making sure that we’re all taken care of, making sure we have a place to stay,” Kayla said.
“It’s honestly really touching that like there’s someone at school that’s looking out for us and that cares that much.”
Savage said she understands intimately the importance of these students having the ear of a sympathetic adult. She was homeless herself when she attended UNC Chapel Hill in the 1980s.
Couch surfing amid privilege
“I, like these students, hid it and no one really knew what was going on in my life,” Savage told NC Health News.
Her parents had an acrimonious divorce that left her mom in financial straits. She and her brother lived with her mom until she went away to college, at which point, they all parted ways. Savage got through college doing work-study and couch surfing when the dorms closed.
“I’d hear people say, ‘I’ve gotta feed my cat.’ So I would just go, ‘I’ll sleep on the couch, you pay me some money, and I’ll feed your cat in the holiday,’” she recounted. “You sort of figure it out because you’re on your own, and you’re young. And so how do you navigate this world where nobody really understands you?”
Savage said she sees her younger self in the kids she works with now. She remembers being ignorant of the ways of the world when she landed in Chapel Hill.
“I was in this lap of privilege … you know how it is there,” she remembered. “I had no social capital, I had no idea. I didn’t know how to talk the way they spoke, I didn’t know how to, to act the way they acted. And so I just I was a good mimic … I was able to watch and sort of find my way, you know, climb ladders.”
Eventually, she found mentors and a handful of friends. But it was a lonely time.
Now, mentoring is a large part of what she does with ASPIRE students: mentoring, connecting them, coaching, problem-solving.
For instance, one young man had started freshman year strong, but as the semester progressed, his grades flagged. When she sat down to talk to him, she learned he hadn’t yet bought his textbooks. He was only 17, and without a trusted adult to co-sign for him, he was unable to open a checking account so he could tap into his financial aid money.
“He just didn’t want to come to me because he was embarrassed and didn’t want to talk about it,” she said. “We were able to get that taken care of and get his textbooks and get them in place. And once he had his textbooks he was okay, he could catch up because he’s so bright.”
Safe place to grow
Kayla said she can’t imagine where she would have been without Savage and the other students she’s connected to through the ASPIRE program.
“Most of us have left home because of family issues, abuse, whatnot. And that’s part of what we talk about there,” she said. “I feel like the more we spend time with each other, the more that we share, the more comfortable we get. We talk a lot about our feelings and how to deal with current emotions.”
Those are some of the things Jeff Frederick, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said he hoped for when he allocated funding to Savage to pay for the monthly dinners.
“My guess is as long as we have college students, we are going to have some that are facing these kinds of issues,” Frederick said. “I hope we get very good and continue to be very tactful at identifying students that have needs and provide ways for them to get some support and assistance without self-disclosing in any way.”
Last year, Savage also got a small grant that allowed her to give small stipends to students to help them get by.
“I didn’t get the grant this year, which is a testament to how much they like the program because they still come even though they don’t get any money,” she said.
Savage said it goes back to the basics of what people need to be healthy both physically and mentally: food, shelter and security. Once the students have those basics, they can grow.
“What I’ve seen is they start with me, and they get safe with me and then they’ll come to the group eventually and, and become safe there. And then the next thing I hear, they’re starting to join clubs. They’re starting to make friends outside of the group,” Savage said.
“It’s beautiful to watch them start to flourish as community members.”