Climbing a mountain is tough on a good day; reaching the summit is almost inconceivable when conditions are poor. Similarly, without the assurance of food or shelter, achieving higher pursuits, such as earning a college degree, can be a difficult – if not impossible – task.

One student who has struggled to afford meals framed the issue like this: “As you can imagine, coming to class hungry can be a huge distraction – even a deterrent.”

That’s why Alicia Caudill, executive vice president for the Division of Student Affairs, has made tackling food and housing insecurity among the College’s student population a priority from the moment she took her post in 2015.

“Oftentimes, students can secure financial aid through grants or scholarships to pay for tuition,” says Caudill (pictured right above), “but then they don’t have the additional resources to cover basic needs. We want to keep students here and moving forward, because we know getting a college education is the step that will transform their lives after graduation. If there are barriers we, as a college, can remove so that students can make it to commencement, we want to do that.”

Momentum to address food insecurity among students at the College began to build in fall 2016 as Caudill worked with Vice President of Alumni Affairs Ann Pryor ’83 and the Student Alumni Associates (the Alumni Affairs’ student organization) to help students in need. The resulting effort, a biannual initiative called “Swipe Away Student Hunger,” collects monetary donations along with unused Dining Dollars and meal swipes for food-insecure students to use at campus dining facilities.

Data from a 2017 study by the College’s Joseph P. Riley Jr. Center for Livable Communities drove home the point: A total of 30 percent of College of Charleston students reported being either housing or food insecure.

Using those sobering statistics as a call to action in fall 2017, Caudill coalesced a group of campus administrators with the goal of creating campuswide efforts to assist students in need. Dubbed the Food and Housing Insecurity Task Force, the group brought together Student Affairs, Student Life, Alumni Affairs, Campus Housing, Dining Services, Academic Advising, Marketing and Communications, the Office of the Dean of Students, the Office of the President, the Riley Center, the Center for Civic Engagement and the Office of Sustainability.

Under the guidance of the taskforce, Student Life, in partnership with the Student Government Association, launched a pilot program in spring 2018 that offered students access to leftover food at campus events. After an initial test of five events, the Division of Student Affairs decided not only to continue the program, but to expand it to include more campus events.

“It has been very successful,” says Michael Duncan, associate vice president for student involvement, noting that each event gave dozens of students the chance to take advantage of the extra food.

This past September, the Cougar Pantry, which provides dry goods and hygiene products to students free of charge, opened in the Theodore S. Stern Student Center. Any College of Charleston student can access the pantry simply by presenting his/her Cougar Card (the College’s identification card).

Student Megan Stover, a double major in Spanish and public health, pushed for nearly two years to open a campus food pantry after a class project tasked her with creating a plan to make a difference on campus.

“After its opening, there have been so many students, staff and faculty that have reached out to me in order to donate, find ways to collaborate or simply learn more about the pantry,” says Stover, who serves as the pantry’s president. “I hope that we can increase collaboration with other organizations on our campus in order to increase awareness and decrease the amount of stigma that can be associated with being food insecure or needing help. Everyone needs help from time to time, and no one should feel ashamed about that.”

Housing insecurity, however, has proven to be a more complex issue
to address. Although the College hasn’t received as many requests for assistance from students facing homelessness, there have been a handful of students who have reached out for help after being kicked out of their apartments or who could no longer afford rent after their financial situation suddenly changed.

But issues of housing insecurity among the College’s students, Caudill suspects, is likely bigger than what administrators have seen thus far. “Often times students won’t identify as housing insecure,” she says. “They may not be homeless per se, but they’re couch surfing, moving from here to there without a consistent, stable place to live.”

For students who do need emergency help with housing, Caudill has coordinated with Campus Housing to offer up to 10 days of on-campus housing for those students who qualify. With the growth of food and housing assistance programs at the College, the Office of the Dean of Students has created an application and intake process, with about 60 students applying since 2017. Over that same time period, the College has provided around $34,000 in meal swipes and dining dollars to students in need. The appreciation and sense of support from them has been immeasurable.

“A peace of mind is what the meal swipe program means not only to me, but to my mom,” says student Jamarkus Hall. “It has made the College of Charleston an affordable place for me to attend without my mother worrying about if I am getting food to eat every day.”

Another student adds, “Having healthy meals available to me is one less thing I have to worry about during the school day, and now I can focus on my studies. This program shows that the College understands the importance of healthy meals and shows how much they are willing to step in and help to guarantee the success of their students.”

Duncan, who is taking over leadership of the taskforce from Caudill, says he plans to develop subcommittees to refine and grow initiatives like the Cougar Pantry and emergency housing assistance.

Like Caudill, Duncan feels growing these efforts are essential to ensuring the success of all students on campus.

“If a student is stressed about basic needs, then how can we expect him or her to be successful at higher levels of involvement and engagement personally, professionally or academically,” he says. “The ultimate goal with anything we do in student affairs is to enhance the student experience, to help our students grow and to enhance their development as young adults.”

Featured image (left to right): Meagan Stover and Alicia Caudill. (Photo by Mike Ledford)