Valkyrie Speaker was one of several who shed tears while sharing experiences of financial struggle before and during college Wednesday afternoon.
“When I applied to Pitt, I was homeless,” Speaker said. “I’m lucky to be here on academic scholarship, but it still feels like I don’t have a home to go home to.”
Speaker, a junior studying English writing and film, was one of 50 first-generation students, alumni and faculty who shared stories about homelessness and the struggle to afford college in a fishbowl-style talk Wednesday in the Amy Knapp Room of the Hillman Library Wednesday. The Open Door Project, a new Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences diversity and inclusion initiative, hosted the community conversation event, titled Strengthening Our Safety Net for Students. Attendees gathered to discuss the challenges they faced at Pitt and how their socioeconomic status limited their academic experiences.
The first part of the event was a “fishbowl” discussion, in which a small group of speakers talked about a topic while a larger group encircles them and listens in. At this event, though, when someone from outside the circle had an idea they wanted to share, they would tap on a speaker’s shoulder and replace them in the “fishbowl.” The second part consisted of people breaking off into smaller groups to discuss different topics and write their ideas for change on large whiteboards.
Michele Lagnese, the director of Student Support Services — an organization funded by the U.S. Department of Education that awards funds to assist college students in meeting basic college requirements — helped organize the event. She said the reason for having a fishbowl conversation was to engage the audience in a different way.
“We wanted to give [the audience] a chance to listen to student concerns, student stories and take in the information,” Langese said. “We wanted to have a moving conversation, especially for the sake of the students.”
The speakers first discussed some of the obstacles they faced that people who don’t have financial struggles are oblivious to. Brandi Cox, a graduate student in the higher education management program, said affording meals was a major struggle for her.
“Food was one of the challenges I faced,” Cox said. “I didn’t say much about it. My mom didn’t know. A lot of my friends and professors didn’t know. Paying for a meal plan was also a challenge.”
Like Cox, Randall Halle, the German department chair, said he also struggled with affording meals. He often skipped out on going out for food — unless it was cheap — and said there was a great deal of shame that went along with that.
“I was mystified by things other people could do,” Halle said. “There was a Chinese restaurant I would go to where you could pay 50 cents for toppings, but I wouldn’t tell people that’s why I wanted to go there. It was an embarrassment in some ways.”
Many speakers also brought up the issue of struggling to afford textbooks and the unwillingness of professors to understand that many students are merely getting by. Sheba Gittens, a Pitt alum and an academic advisor for SSS, said she felt embarrassed not being able to buy books and meet her basic needs.
“[I would] sit in the library trying to get a copy [of a book], but someone else was borrowing it,” Gittens said. “My professors were aloof to the fact that I didn’t have a scholarship.”
When she was a student, Gittens said she didn’t have a cell phone or computer, which made turning in assignments after a long day of work extremely difficult.
“We have computer labs, but when you go back to your dorm late at night, there’s a lack of time and access,” Gittens said.
Speakers also said struggling family members back home often asked them for help financially, which limited the speakers’ own mobility. Steven Orris, a Pitt neuroscience major, said he struggled with balancing his own financial demands with that of his family’s.
“My parents would text me, ‘We’re barely making rent this month, can you help us out?’” Orris said. “Students are often given an ultimatum. It was either take out these loans or lose your education. I’m now faced with $70,000 in debt.”
The conversation then shifted to talking about ways students can connect with different services and communities in order to seek help and avoid feeling isolated or ashamed. Ashley Whited, a senior majoring in neuroscience and psychology, said utilizing certain resources was very beneficial.
“I took advantage of the counseling center and SSS,” Whited said. “Being able to connect with people to share my story with made it more comfortable to share my story. My roommate [got] a $200 allowance a month. It was hard to relate my story to hers, so the SSS [allowed] me to find other students.”
Cox said she finds local groups, such as Just Harvest, to be beneficial because they address hunger in Allegheny County by focusing on its root cause — economic injustice. She also expressed appreciation for national initiatives like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which offers nutrition assistance to low-income people. With the help of the University Library System, SSS has also created a page on the library’s website with several links to services that are readily available to students.
While this event was an opportunity for students, staff and faculty to share their struggles, it also gave them a chance to discuss how others can help.
“I know what it feels like to not have a home to go home to,” Gittens said. “I’m asking people to be empathetic [toward] other people’s lives.”