During the holiday season, it is typical to see many of our family members, friends, and colleagues experiencing the spirit of giving. In a non-denominational way, many in the higher education universe are struck with a sense of love for humankind that is much needed in today’s society. Throughout my decade of work in higher education, I’ve witnessed how students, masking economic insecurity, attempt to navigate their campus environments in order to have a fulfilling educational experience. Not only has this affected me deeply on a personal level, but professionally, as it motivated me to provide support so that students dealing with economic hardships have assistance along the way of their higher education journey. I would like to offer a few thoughts on what we can do to extend the spirit of giving, beyond the holiday season, and provide support for students who present with economic need.
First, find a partner in your financial aid office and see what is already being done. Many financial aid offices provide resources and information for students who have high economic need. Creating an intentional relationship with your financial aid office can provide an avenue of support and information often overlooked. Many seasons of giving only happen when you have willing partners who see and understand your vision to the point of committing themselves, their knowledge, and their resources for the betterment of the campus community.
Second, what are the needs on your campus? Do not be afraid to gather your “thinkers” and “doers” to collectively develop programming and services (or identify existing programming and services) to support students’ economic needs. I have had the wonderful opportunity to help create a food pantry, a necessities pantry, various book fund programs, an emergency fund, and a fund for co-curricular initiatives. One of the biggest steps in creating these initiatives was recognizing that we actually have students with these types of needs and we had an obligation, as a campus community, to help meet those needs. Often it is hard for institutions to grapple with the reality of societal challenges manifesting on their campuses, especially when students are awarded some form of aid and show up on campus for orientation. However, a season of giving goes beyond what economically challenged students are given in aid or in their first year. Students may have needs throughout their years of attendance that go beyond the initial cost of attendance and include the support for basic, human needs. In a giving sense, it is important for colleges and universities to review their policies, procedures, support mechanisms, and programmatic areas to see if the needs of these students are being met in order for them to have a collegiate experience not impeded by things such as hunger and homelessness.
Last, in the spirit of giving do not be afraid to create relationships with those willing to give. I used to think that giving meant that I had to do it alone, often out of my own pocket, in order to get students the help that they needed. I am not advocating that you cold call or door knock, disingenuously, in order to make this happen. What I am saying is there are probably more people in your higher education tribe who share the same spirit of giving that you have. Let people know what you are doing and for whom you are doing it. I think it is ok to let donors know that you have students on your campus who have economic barriers. In my experience, I have found that more people are interested in helping students realize their academic dreams and less interested in how the identification of high need students influences a school’s prestige. Work with your development office to identify people who share the same spirit of giving for students and connect those resource opportunities with the students who can benefit from them.
Having a spirit of giving for supporting economically challenged students takes willing partners, planning by thinkers and doers, and the heart of those who see higher education as a lifelong dream for students who have the aptitude but lack access to the discretionary funds to see the fulfillment of that dream. This kind of support can soften the financial duress and provide motivated students the security that can underwrite their educational and professional trajectories.
Darrien Davenport, Ed.D. currently serves as Executive Director of Multicultural Engagement at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, PA. Dr. Davenport has served in this role since 2016.