At Ivy Tech Community College, a network of more than 40 campuses in Indiana, a pillar of their strategic plan is to ensure the basic needs of students are met.

By Kelly West and Jodi Gonzalez

Education, Food Security, Housing
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For Destiny Clark, it was a box of laundry detergent that felt like the tipping point. She was broke, and she needed to wash clothes for her four-year-old son.  “Sometimes it’s like the smallest things that can trigger you, you know? I don’t want my son to know we’re out of washing powder right now because mommy can’t afford it,”Clark says.

Clark was 17 years old and had just finished high school when she got pregnant with her son, Tevin. Her family wanted her to get an abortion, but she refused and was kicked out of the house. She moved in with her boyfriend and started working three jobs. “I can’t even tell you how many hours a week I worked,” Clark says. “I was working really hard and I was like, ‘I’m not happy with my life.’”

So the young mother decided to go to college. In 2017, she enrolled at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana in Sellersburg, Indiana, with plans to pursue a medical degree. By then her son was a toddler, and raising him as a single mom was part of her motivation to go back to school.

Destiny Clark volunteers as a coach for the Brandeis Elementary Bears cheerleading team every week, in between working, going to college, and raising her 4-year-old son, Tevin. “I’m going to school and I’m being a mom and I’m giving back to our community, I’m giving my time to my community and I’m working as much as I can. And so I feel like it should be a little bit easier for me,” Clark said.

“I was just thinking it’s time to get my life together,” she says. “It’s time to create a better path for my son, to be a role model for my kid so he can know that it’s important to work hard for the things that you want in life, you know, and that you can do anything you put your mind to.”

During her first semester of college Clark started having financial trouble. “I was only working weekends because I am in school full time,” she explains. “I don’t really have time to go to work all the time and raise him and pay for childcare and stuff. So, I was desperate.”

Clark went to the Student Resource Center on campus, and they helped her. Another month she couldn’t pay the electric bill and her electricity was shut off. After searching on the school’s online resource platform, Ivy Assist, she found a church that helped her cover the bill. 

College student Natasha Dennison picks out food items from the Bear Necessities food pantry at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana in Indianapolis. Ivy Tech offers the food pantry on campus as part of the college’s wraparound services, which seeks to address students’ non academic needs.

Ivy Tech is one of a growing number of colleges offering services for their students to address non-academic needs. With a network of more than 40 campuses across the state of Indiana serving nearly 80,000 students, this is no small task.

“Our students are here in the first place because a lot of them are trying to break out of that cycle of poverty, and they know that education is the way to get out,” says Kat Stremiecki, executive director of student life.

But increasing tuition costs and flatlined wages means breaking out of the cycle of poverty is not getting any easier. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 50 percent of all community college students face food insecurity, a disruption of normal eating patterns caused by a lack of resources. Of the community college students who fall into this category, about 75 percent also say they had housing insecurity — including homelessness.

“We are aware of the many challenges that our students face, not just academic,” says Jodie Beatty, vice chancellor for student success at the Sellersburg campus. “Food insecurity, housing insecurity, health challenges, child-care issues, transportation. All of these can distract students from academic success.”

Clark, so far, is a success story. Today, she and Tevin live in Louisville, Kentucky, about 25 minutes south of Sellersburg, in Scholar House, a quasi-government agency that provides housing to full-time students who are also heads of household. She fills in the gaps with help from Ivy Tech and other community resources, while also working and volunteer coaching a youth cheerleading team.

Samantha Owen is attending college full time at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana – Sellersburg in order to complete her respiratory therapy degree. Owen is also a mother of two toddlers, and found herself struggling to pay her tuition and textbook fees once she stopped working full time to go to school.

Even with resources, though, students like Clark are still struggling to afford higher education. Over the last 30 years, the net cost of attending a four-year public college has nearly doubled, according to The National Center for Education Statistics. During that time, the proportion of low-income students entering college has increased from less than 45 percent in 1990 to more than 67 percent in 2016.

“I do feel like there’s a big stigma about asking for help,” says Samantha Owen, a respiratory therapy student at Ivy Tech. Owen says she would have had to drop out of college if not for the school’s resources.

“The time that I needed the assistance, it was paycheck to paycheck,” she says,“and then all of a sudden I had this huge bill for school, not including supplies, uniforms, background testing, shot records. It’s just a lot just rolled into one. And it kind of just hit me like a train. I didn’t know what to do or who to go to.”

Samantha Owen quit her job to finish college, and her husband works full time on the night shift, so they switch off caring for their two toddlers. “My kids know I go to school, and they know that when mommy’s not here, that’s where she is, you know? And I want them to see how important it is for them to have an education and stability before they make a family,” Owen said. 

Owen knows what it means to live in poverty. She was raised by a single mother with multiple sclerosis who was unable to work. Now, Owen is raising her own two boys, Granger and Marshall, and still caring for both her mother and grandmother. She quit her job to go to school full-time, and her husband works the night shift at a local factory.

“Finishing school is so important to me because I want to be something, and I want my kids to see mom being something,” Owen says. “I don’t think that people understand how big of a deal this is for me. If I can’t be here, then…I don’t know where I would be or what I would be doing. I have to do this. I have to finish this. And that’s it.”