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For these college students, the most difficult test may be basic survival

October 25, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
The biggest challenge for these college students may not be exams or papers, but finding the means to survive. While the University of California system has worked to bring in more first-generation and “non-traditional” students, helping them stay, succeed and meet basic needs like getting enough food requires greater investment. Jeffrey Brown reports from Berkeley, California.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You will probably be surprised to hear that hunger and homelessness is a growing problem for thousands of college students across the country, particularly among those who are the first in their families to pursue a degree.

This is forcing some universities to figure out new ways of keeping low-income students in school.

Jeffrey Brown has the story from the University of California, Berkeley, as part of our weekly education series Making the Grade.

ANTHONY CARRASCO, Student, University of California, Berkeley: Oh, darn. These tortillas are not very good.

JEFFREY BROWN: Every Sunday night, Anthony Carrasco prepares the food he will eat for the week ahead, setting himself a quota of one meal a day.

ANTHONY CARRASCO: I can skip breakfast, skip lunch, and even skip dinner. And I have just saved myself close to $30 or $40. I, like many folks, come to college to get out of poverty. I really thought that was the end of the line when we got the admission letter. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

JEFFREY BROWN: Anthony is a junior at the University of California, Berkeley, one of the nation’s leading public universities. And he’s the first in his family to attend college. It was hard to get in, and now hard to stay in, but maybe not for a reason many people have considered.

ANTHONY CARRASCO: We were expecting long nights in the libraries and tough exams, but what we’re really facing is, you know, just, you know, sleepless nights worried about rent and really distracting lecture halls, when you just cannot stop thinking about food.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, almost a third of all students entering two- and four-year colleges are first-generation. They’re more likely to be minorities and come from low-income families. And by the estimate of one advocacy group, more than half of them lack reliable access to food. And that contributes to their lower graduation rates.

Many years ago, I myself was a student here at Berkeley. I was fortunate enough to have the means so I could concentrate on my studies, my grades, and, yes, the fun side of college life. But more and more these days, many students find they have to worry about more basic needs, including food and shelter.

A beautiful campus, world-class academics and now a new reality.

WOMAN: Is there any stock on Friday?

MAN: We’re going to restock on Friday, so everything is going to be here on Friday.

JEFFREY BROWN: A campus food pantry, where twice a month students can stock up on staples. The University of California system has worked hard to bring in first-generation, low-income and what are called nontraditional students, such as veterans and those with families. But more work is required to help these students survive and graduate.

RUBEN CANEDO, University of California Global Food Initiative: Twenty-five bags today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ruben Canedo is a first-generation graduate from Berkeley. He’s now a leading advocate for student food security, and oversees the campus food pantry.

RUBEN CANEDO: What we’re doing on our campus is making sure that campus becomes basic need secure. You have the recession, you have the increasing cost of living, and students are caught in the middle of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see students falling through the cracks, I mean, having to leave school?

RUBEN CANEDO: Absolutely. We definitely have students that said, you know what, at this moment, I can’t do this. And they left.

And it wasn’t because of their academic challenges. It was because of the living cost of the area. They were saying, I can’t afford my rent and I can’t afford to eat. Therefore, I can’t stay here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Berkeley, sitting in the midst of the notoriously expensive San Francisco Bay area, is among the most costly college towns in the country. Financial aid can cover tuition and books, but, sometimes, it’s not enough for rent or food.

And for some students, there are barriers beyond money.

TEJAE DUNNIVANT, Student, University of California, Berkeley: When you get here, you’re also coming into a higher level of academia that especially sometimes more nontraditional students are not used to.

JEFFREY BROWN: TeJae Dunnivant is another first-generation student and a mother of five. After serving in the Army Reserve, she decided to earn a degree. But she’s struggled to catch up to her classmates.

TEJAE DUNNIVANT: You’re reading all new material that you’re not familiar at all with. And so it takes a lot to be able to, you know, get that in.

JEFFREY BROWN: Have you had times where you think you couldn’t get by, you might have to drop out of school?

TEJAE DUNNIVANT: Yes. When I don’t understand exactly where to go to get the help, there are times like that. But now that I’m in my third year, I know where to go to get the help.

JEFFREY BROWN: TeJae regularly meets advisers at Berkeley’s Educational Opportunities Program, a campus resource for disadvantaged students.

YUKI BURTON, UC Berkeley Educational Opportunities Program: What’s going on? How’s the beginning of the semester been so far?

TEJAE DUNNIVANT: It hasn’t been bad. I feel like I’m doing better at keeping up

JEFFREY BROWN: Yuki Burton is another Berkeley graduate who now works to help those who followed.

YUKI BURTON: I have students who are living day by day, again, in that surviving model and thinking about, how do I meet tomorrow’s need and tomorrow’s, and not thinking about my long-term wellness.

Actually, just earlier this morning, a student who told me they are skipping meals, and they didn’t realize that they’d been skipping meals until they verbalized it with me in a session.

JEFFREY BROWN: Having talked to so many students and worked with them, what separates those who make it from those who don’t?

YUKI BURTON: Community and support. I think, to some folks, that sounds very trivial, right, like it’s not a concrete resource. But it’s really having a group of peers, of staff, of faculty who understand my story and who get it, that they don’t have to overexplain themselves.

TAYLOR HARVEY, Student, University of California, Berkeley: The person that’s experiencing these things might be sitting next to you in class, and you might not even realize.

JEFFREY BROWN: In her art class recently, Taylor Harvey told fellow students about her own plight. Taylor has worked since age 13 and spent parts of her youth in homeless shelters. She’s experienced tough times in college as well.

TAYLOR HARVEY: I would stay in a homeless shelter, but it’s pretty unsafe for a young woman to stay in a homeless shelter. There are a number of students who sleep in their cars, because it’s cheaper, or sleep in university buildings, libraries, places that close at night, because it’s safer that way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Taylor shares an apartment, for now, until school closes for holiday breaks or her financial aid is spent. And she’s now trying to raise awareness on campus of the homeless problem.

TAYLOR HARVEY: We admit that we don’t know what the solution will be. But we know what our endgame is, and that’s to eliminate student homelessness, and to help first-generation college students stay in college and graduate.

JEFFREY BROWN: This summer, the University of California system approved a new $3.3 million fund to help students access food on and off campus.

The difficult situations many students find themselves in have forced Berkeley and other institutions to re-ask some basic questions.

FABRIZIO MEJIA, UC Berkeley Student Equity and Success: If we are a public institution, what does it mean to educate the public? What does it mean to educate Californians? And what does it mean that education is an engine for social change?

JEFFREY BROWN: Fabrizio Mejia is the assistant vice chancellor for student equity and success at Berkeley.

FABRIZIO MEJIA: What it means for our institution, in particular, and the U.C. system is that we have to invest in the programs that are going to welcome the students in, that are going to get them through, that are going to get them to succeed at the level that we say is required for everybody across the board.

JEFFREY BROWN: As more first-generation students pursue degrees, colleges and universities will have to address the challenges these students bring with them.

From Berkeley, California, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”