Christina Broussard was trapped in her grandmother’s living room for three days during Hurricane Harvey. Rain poured through the ceiling in the bathrooms and bedrooms.
Broussard’s a student at Houston Community College. Her grandmother is 74 and uses a wheelchair.
“We had peanut butter, tuna, crackers, we had plenty of water,” she remembers. “We were hungry, but we managed. We tried to make light jokes about it — we said we were on a fast.” And to pass the time? “We prayed.”
It’s estimated that nearly a third of all Texas college students, or half a million, were affected in some way by Harvey. Houston Community College alone has about 70,000 students.
Some of those students are especially vulnerable. Even before the disaster, they were struggling to afford the basics: housing, food, childcare and transportation.
A national survey released last year showed that one-third of community college students sometimes go hungry and 14 percent are homeless. Frances Villagran-Glover, an associate vice chancellor at Houston Community College, says their numbers are similar.
“And then you have the housing insecure,” she adds, such as those doubled up with friends and family. “Which is even more of a staggering number.”
For these students, even a small setback, like a car repair, can cause them to drop out. Never mind the disruption of a major disaster which destroyed tens of thousands of homes and cars and laid waste to daily routines. But colleges are learning that they can play a stronger role in removing these kinds of obstacles from students’ paths to graduation. And Harvey has been a catalyst to increase these efforts at area colleges like HCC.
Christina Broussard just turned 33. Three years ago, around the time she first went back to school, she lost custody of her two daughters, because, she says, she couldn’t provide a “stable living environment.” While attending classes, she slept in bus shelters, or “nasty hotel rooms, when I could get $20 or $30.” She’s stayed with friends, her mother and her grandmother.
Now, she says, her grandmother’s house has been declared uninhabitable and it’s unclear whether insurance will pay for any of it. They are staying temporarily at a hotel.
But, Broussard refuses to see herself as a statistic or a charity case. She would rather talk about the performing arts degree she’s working on. Or the videos she posts on social media to, she says, “spread empowerment to women.”
Even after Harvey, she says, “We’ve lost some things, but this is not my first rodeo. I’ve learned to let go of things. I still have a positive outlook.”
Monday, Sept. 11, was the first day of class at HCC.
Jimmieka Mills, the editor-in-chief of the school paper, was 10 minutes late. She had been on the phone with FEMA for over an hour, and when they finally picked up, she says, it was only to tell her that she was denied aid for the water damage in her rental home.
Mills, 29, also has homelessness as part of her life story — in her case, as a child and teen. She’s now one class away from graduation and plans to transfer to Texas Southern University to finish her bachelor’s, before pursuing a career working in nonprofits.
Harvey’s floodwaters took out her hot water heater, but she sees herself as one of the lucky ones. “I’m definitely not one of the worst cases at all.”
‘Logistics, not academics’
The determined optimism of Mills and Broussard is shared by Mark Milliron. He’s co-founder and chief learning officer of Civitas Learning, a company based in Austin. Their data and analytics help colleges around the country get more students to graduation.
One of the surprises in their research, he says, is that across the country, most students who drop out have a C average or above. That tells Milliron that the idea of “flunking” out of college is a misnomer.
“The No. 1 reason students are leaving higher ed is logistics, not academics,” he explains. “And Harvey is one hell of a logistic.”
How can this understanding be an occasion for hope? Because a growing body of evidence shows that when colleges create emergency funds to help students with small cash grants, as little as $250, they really do help students persist and graduate. A car repair. A bursar’s bill. Backup childcare. And for Jimmieka Mills, just maybe, a new hot water heater.
In the last two weeks, Civitas has joined with a group of higher education associations, institutions, foundations and businesses to launch the Harvey HELP fund, a new crowd-sourced relief fund. The money will go to colleges to give out small cash grants to students with as little red tape as possible. A nonprofit will help vet applications.
Some colleges will be setting up this kind of fund for the first time. That could be a “teachable moment,” says Milliron. Civitas will be tracking the impact of this money. “If you can find any kind of serendipity in this crazy storm,” he says, “it’s that we can show the importance of this kind of aid for first-generation and low-income students.”
HCC has had emergency student funds before, but not on this scale, says the vice chancellor, Villagran-Glover. The college’s fund, called Swoop to the Rescue, is designed to meet immediate needs with small sums — say Uber gift cards for a student whose car was flooded. Money comes from donations to the college’s own foundation, as well as other community college systems in other states that want to help.
HCC emailed and passed out forms that students needed to have signed by instructors to get early disbursement of their financial aid, to assist in Harvey recovery. But not everyone was informed about this. Some didn’t have access to the Internet to check their email, or to printers to download the form.
Students aren’t necessarily waiting for help before they start helping others.
In the days after the storm, Mills set up an ad hoc meal and donation center in front of her local grocery store. She and her neighbors brought old clothes and meat to throw on the barbecue.
On the first day of class, she organized a meeting to share information with students affected by both Harvey and in some cases, also by the cancellation of DACA. “I tried to help forward them to an organization that can help or give them information,” she says. “But mostly it’s a space for them to feel safe and talk.”
Villagran-Glover says this kind of spirit rising across the college is another potential “silver lining” to the storm, “as horrible as it was.”
HCC has started “Eagles Helping Eagles,” a kind of mutual-aid community effort. On every campus there are drop off centers for donations. Faculty, staff, and soon students are volunteering to connect people with information, and to help other members of the community with things like cleaning up their homes.
“We’re all here to support each other, we all go through bad times,” she says. And Harvey “is putting those conversations up front to be more inclusive to everyone.”