Thursday, August 27, 2015

Friday Fragments

The Chronicle ran a couple of stories this week about homeless undergraduates, but in both cases, they focused on colleges with dorms.  

The great untold story is of homeless students at colleges without dorms.  

James Baldwin once noted that poverty is expensive.  That becomes clear when you realize how many forms of economic support effectively require some sort of stable address.  I say “effectively” because many of them offer theoretical workarounds, but the workarounds are often so difficult and obscure that even the people who administer the programs often don’t know about them, or go out of their way to avoid them.

From what I’ve seen in this sector, “homeless” is sometimes a misleading term.  “Shakily housed” comes closer.  Some students couch-surf, going from acquaintance to acquaintance, wearing out welcomes at unpredictable rates.  Others stay in abusive or otherwise awful relationships, just to have a place to live.  Some sleep in their cars.  A heartbreaking number of them have kids.  

I have to tip my cap to Sara Goldrick-Rab on this one.  Her “free community college” proposal goes beyond covering the cost of tuition and fees, and actually includes a modest stipend for living expenses.  It would allow students to move from couch-surfing, or abuse, or living in cars, to modest-but-acceptable conditions in which they could actually study.

Virginia Woolf famously claimed that writing requires a room of one’s own, along with a modest stipend.  She was right.  If we want to encourage student success, we need to stop requiring some of them to be superhuman.  You’re much likelier to stick with a program if you aren’t always looking over your shoulder.  It’s exhausting.

I salute the residential colleges that are making life easier for shakily housed students.  But far greater numbers of the shakily housed can be found at community colleges.  


Yesterday I told the story of an internship I did in the summer before my senior year of college, but today I realized that I left out a key point.

Although the internship was unpaid, I was funded through what amounted to a summer fellowship underwritten by a generous donor to my college.  That summer stipend made it possible for me to accept an unpaid position.  Without that stipend, I couldn’t have done it.

Summer fellowship stipends for internships aren’t a new idea -- I had mine back in the 80’s -- but they’re more timely now than they were then.  Tuition has gone up much faster than summer job income, and unpaid internships have become more widely expected as a price of entry to many fields.  Many capable students are precluded from internships simply because they can’t afford to work for free.

Note to development officers everywhere: for donors looking to make major differences, but who want to try something different, try this.  For me, it was life-changing.


This week marked the one-year anniversary of The Dog going missing.  She was lost for seventeen days in the wilds of Southwick, MA, and Granby, CT, dodging cars and fisher cats.  We found her through the help of some wonderful volunteers, the incredible reach of social media, and the great smell of bacon.

The Dog had no idea about the anniversary, but we did.  She got some extra chicken skin this week.