‘One-Stop Shop’: Low-income first-generation students champion basic needs Center on campus

Amisha Chowdhury ’23 and Delilah Hernandez ’22 are no strangers to the difficulties faced by low-income first-generation students attending Cornell. The two, who both transferred to the University in 2020, struggled to navigate resources and support on campus.

Now Chowdhury and Hernandez, alongside a student group called the Basic Needs Coalition, are focused on opening a Basic Needs Center to help students facing similar challenges.

Identification of the need

Last year, when Hernandez was a student advocate and Chowdhury was the finance manager, they began to educate students through workshops at the Office of the Student Advocate on obtaining aid packages. public, including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid benefits, how to file taxes, and Title IX protections.

In their six workshops, reaching 313 students, who were mostly undergraduates, the duo noticed how many students were unaware of the benefits and protections available to them. So the pair turned to a larger goal of opening a basic needs center.

“A lot of students just didn’t know much about [the benefits they can get]. Coming in, I didn’t know it either, but it was all a process and luckily it worked,” Hernandez said. “But, I think that personal experience, from all of us, made us want to continue this work.”

Basic needs survey results

To drive home the importance of having a basic needs center to the university administration, the duo needed to show student needs through data, so earlier this summer they conducted a survey that collected more than 550 responses in a short time.

The survey found that the majority of respondents had difficulty navigating Cornell resources and many were unaware of the resources available on campus. It also revealed a significant gap in the sense of belonging based on how well the University meets basic needs between low-income first-generation students and their peers.

A large majority of survey respondents said that their most helpful advice on essential resources came from their peers, rather than from the University administration.

According to survey data the group provided to The Sun, 56.32% of respondents said they were unaware they could opt for Student Health Plan Plus if they were eligible for New York State Medicaid, saving them money on college-required health insurance. .

In an interview with The Sun, Shahad Salman ’24, who joined the couple in the coalition in the spring of 2022, shared his difficult experience in finding resources to finance his health costs. These experiences inspired her to join Hernandez and Chowdhury in their work on basic needs.

“For me, accessing basic needs at Cornell was a really isolating experience,” Salman said. “I remember in the first semester of my freshman year, I was trying to figure out if there was an alternative to paying that $3,000 [health insurance] costs. I’m a low income student my expected family contribution is zero so I can’t just pull this money out of nowhere but a common response I got was “there’s nothing but you can do”.

54.89% of respondents also said they had never visited the campus pantry. Of those respondents, about 61% said they didn’t go because they didn’t know where the pantry was.

Students also shared testimonials in the survey about their experience with basic needs at Cornell.

“I had a hard time finding affordable housing at Cornell. The housing office is not helpful at all provided[ing] students with resources to find housing,” one student shared anonymously. “I nearly became homeless because of this and would have benefited from a space that connected me with the proper resources and tools to find better housing.”

In these testimonials, students shared stories of escaping medical debt through Medicaid and averting starvation through SNAP benefits, expressing the importance of all students having easy access to these resources.

“My experience has been that resources/help are available, but I had to go through layers of bureaucracy and dig for information[rmation] just to get them,” another student shared anonymously. “It’s disheartening to have to do this just to get help.”

Bringing the “one-stop-shop” model to Cornell

Although a basic needs center is a novel idea for Cornell, it is based on a model seen at many universities across the country, including the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California at Davis, the Stanford University, Oregon State University and City University of New York Lehman. Middle School.

At these universities and many others across the country, students can access an array of resources related to food security, stable housing, healthcare, and financial sustainability.

These centers hope to solve national problems faced by many low-income first-generation students. According to a study conducted by the University Professional and Continuing Education Association, one of the main reasons students drop out of college is financial pressure.

UC Berkeley opened the first “one-stop shop” of its kind in 2019 to address these same issues. This center was unique because it offers a variety of resources in one place, and this is the vision the Basic Needs Coalition is taking for its own Basic Needs Center at Cornell.

Basic Needs Coalition students hope to build a centrally located physical space to meet student needs for food, housing, health insurance, employment, and financial literacy. The center would also offer peer-to-peer support run by student leaders and pay those students through federal work studies.

Hernandez, Chowdhury, and Salman emphasized the importance of having a physical space specifically to bring visibility to the common problems of low-income first-generation students, so that students no longer need to seek solutions on their own. same.

“A physical space could foster and cultivate a sense of community on campus,” Hernandez said.

The students involved in the coalition are currently discussing with the administration the realization of this idea and hope to develop this effort under the aegis of the Office of the Dean of Students.

Chowdhury explained how one of the coalition’s goals is to get the University thinking about how to better support the low-income, first-generation students it admits. 19.9% ​​of the admitted class of 2026 were first-generation students.

“More of us have this amazing opportunity to be at Cornell, but once we’re admitted, our financial struggles don’t go away,” Chowdhury said. “I think that oftentimes this is not taken into account when structuring how best to support students.”