For my first two years at Mason, I advocated for a hidden population on campus: homeless college students. I had first heard of this population while working with a local homeless shelter, and I have since grown a great passion to provide the necessary support and resources for these students. My efforts on campus led to the establishment of the Student Meal Assistance Fund, which provides meal vouchers for students in need at Mason.
However, a major question remained, how many students on campus were experiencing homelessness and/or hunger while attending school? There seemed to be no data available to answer that question. I decided to answer it myself! I teamed up with Michael Galvin, Director of Technology Integration, to assess the prevalence and nature of the homelessness and hunger at Mason. Michael had previous experience researching this population; he was (and still is) the perfect match. Together we went through the entire process of applying to the grant, crafting a thorough IRB application, and designing a research that would not only answer our main question but also guide us to establish a successful model of support.
At first, I was uncertain about the success of the research. I was unsure of the number of participants that would come forth and be a part of our study. However, time has only shown me that this population is extremely courageous and is willing to speak about their experiences in order to assist others. The most overwhelming part of the study is the amount of data and interviews we’re collecting – and this is a great kind of overwhelming! We’re meeting with students on a weekly basis and conducting semi structured, confidential, interviews. We are then transcribing these interviews and analyzing them using SPSS. So far, we have been able to come up with major themes that allow us to better understand these experiences. Financial struggles challenge student success and well-being, especially their mental health. Homeless and hungry students live in a constant state of anxiety, fear and uncertainty. Many of these hardships occur mid-semester where little to no resources are available for students to access; these circumstances arise typically after financial assistance has already been allocated. This is a pattern that is overlayed over other patterns of financial insecurity, lack of familial support, the constant search for housing and food, and hiding their identities, all while trying to be a student. Most students believe that a college degree will lead them out of the cycles of hunger and homelessness and toward a home, employment and personal stability.
We hope that our conclusions will assist the University in administering an effective and sustainable program that provides adequate resources to students in need in order to ensure their academic success.
Finally, conducting undergraduate research has exposed me to many opportunities to raise awareness and share my findings. In fact, recently I was able to give a talk at a TEDx event that was hosted by George Mason University!