In this Higher Ed Careers interview, Kelly Cherwin of HigherEdJobs speaks with the director of the UC Berkeley Basic Needs Center about the structural and systemic drivers behind many students’ basic needs insecurity and offers insight into programming that can help students with basic needs and, ultimately, persistence and graduation.
Kelly Cherwin, HigherEdJobs: What are some of the reasons that students run into housing and food insecurity?
Kiyoko Thomas, University of California, Berkeley: It is important to reframe the narrative of the “starving college student” and to center the conversation on the systemic influences on basic needs insecurity for college students. Individual students are often blamed for their circumstances or for making poor choices. However, there are structural and systemic drivers that inform their realities. Insufficient financial aid resources, barriers to job access, increasing income inequality, and increasing costs of food and housing are just a few of the economic challenges that impact college students. Our students are often faced with competing priorities, taking on multiple jobs to pay for food and rent, which competes with their academic priorities and focus. It’s not uncommon for students to forgo medical expenses or treatment and skip meals in order to ensure they have enough money to pay for rent. Beyond our direct student support services to act as a safety net, our interventions also have to be systemic in nature — while we provide services to individual students, we have to be strategic in our policy & advocacy efforts to center basic needs for college students.
Cherwin: “Justice and belonging” are key values of your basic needs program. Can you talk about these values and how they fit into your framework for approaching basic needs insecurity?
Thomas: Our basic needs center is situated in our campus division of equity and inclusion, and centering equity in our work is foundational in our pursuit of justice as our north star. For our low-income and first-generation college students in particular, it is important that there are sufficient resources and support to ensure their success and that the existing inequities are addressed in a thoughtful and strategic way. It is our goal that our students experience a healthy and caring campus culture and sense of belonging, as well as persist and ultimately graduate from UC Berkeley. For this to happen, it is important to reduce barriers in having their basic needs met.
There is a direct correlation between students’ basic needs and their performance, graduation, wellbeing, and overall sense of belonging. Students experiencing food and housing insecurity are more likely to report depression and anxiety than students experiencing food and housing security. Food insecurity is linked to lower academic performance among students. Students who experience basic needs insecurities have lower GPAs, lower graduation rates, and poorer student experience outcomes compared to students who have their basic needs met. For these reasons, it is important for leaders on college campuses to include basic needs considerations in conversations about student success, wellbeing, and academic success.
Cherwin: Can you share context about the basic needs landscape on your campus, as well as your center’s efforts that are a part of the “robust model of prevention, intervention, and emergency relief efforts” mentioned on your website?
Thomas: The most recent student survey for our campus found that 9% of undergraduate and 3% of graduate students reported experiencing housing insecurity. 42% of undergraduate and 16% of graduate students reported experiencing low and very low food security. Low-income, LGBTQ, disabled and students of color experience disproportionate rates of food and housing insecurity, with particular communities having higher rates than the campus averages.
Our basic needs center provides direct support for students in need of food, housing, and financial stability. Support includes assessment of individualized student needs, navigation of and connection to basic needs resources, and planning and support to address students’ immediate and long-term care in collaboration with on and off-campus partners and services.
The basic needs center’s food security programs are focused on providing emergency relief support through our campus food pantry, addressing the long-term food security needs of our student community through application support and case management for SNAP benefits, as well as prevention efforts, including nourishment and skill-building. Our housing security programs are focused on providing safety net emergency relief support through short-term interventions such as emergency housing and emergency rental assistance, and direct case management support for students with emergency housing needs. Our financial stability programs are focused on providing safety net emergency relief support through emergency financial awards, financial aid basic needs counseling support from our partners in our financial aid office, as well as prevention & educational skill building.
Cherwin: What are you doing that can be replicated on other campuses? If a college doesn’t have a basic needs center, how can faculty and staff still support students who are struggling with food or housing insecurity? How can they recognize issues and offer support if students aren’t directly disclosing their struggles?
Thomas: A successful model in addressing the food security needs of students is to develop partnerships with off-campus providers such as local food banks and SNAP outreach providers. Collaborating with local food banks has been instrumental in sourcing additional inventory for our pantry beyond what we purchase, and it allows us to offer a wide variety of items to our students. Secondly, connecting with local or county SNAP outreach organizations has been instrumental in addressing students’ long-term food security needs through application assistance. When our campus had 1.5 staff working on basic needs, I leveraged our relationship with our community food bank team to provide on-site SNAP application assistance to students.
Even if campuses don’t have basic needs centers or programs, there are still tangible ways for staff to support students. Consider integrating a quick check-in about basic needs into normal student meetings as food and housing insecurity may not come up if students feel that these topics are not relevant. For example, academic advisors can say: “This is something I ask every student I meet with, would you like me to share resources related to food, housing, or financial support?” This helps to avoid attaching stigma to experiences with basic needs insecurity and normalizes: “I’m seeing many students who are having a hard time meeting their basic needs.” Having an updated resource list of on and off-campus resources is key.
Cherwin: Tell us about your current position in higher ed, the path that led you there, and what keeps you engaged.
Thomas: My journey towards working in higher education and my role as the basic needs center director at UC Berkeley is somewhat serendipitous. Prior to working at UC Berkeley, I had worked in the mental health field for over 12 years and oversaw community-based and crisis mental health programs serving adolescents and young adults. The roles that I have gravitated towards have always been aligned with my values as a social work professional, and ones that have been rooted in social justice. A significant takeaway that I learned from my previous work is that individuals and communities can’t address their mental health needs and overall areas of holistic wellbeing if their basic needs aren’t being met. These experiences led me to explore roles that would allow me to use my knowledge and experience in the mental health field and address some of the root causes of social and economic inequities. The role of the basic needs center director has allowed me to tap into the collective wisdom of student leaders and community at UC Berkeley and co-create a vision for programs and services. Beyond the direct services to students, my role focuses on collaboration and organizing to advocate for improvements to students’ basic needs.