Poverty on Campus

by Alex Downing

The U.S. economic climate in 2018 is harsh and unforgiving. Minimum wages now barely cover the ever-rising costs of living. Fruitful careers require expensive degrees that take years to earn. Neighborhoods that once housed the working class are being gentrified, leading to the displacement of many families. Gone are the days of the “American Dream.” A country built on the notion that hard work would ensure equal opportunity has abandoned its roots. Nowadays, climbing the ladder of success is an arduous task. One that requires both sacrifice and struggle.

Maine is not immune to the financial crisis plaguing our country. According to the most recent statistics, 12.5 percent of residents fall beneath the poverty line, one in seven people deal regularly with food insecurity, and at least 6,300 individuals statewide are currently unhoused. And their distress is evident. The streets of Portland paint a somber picture. It is a picture of destitution and drug-abuse, of mental illness and malnutrition, of anguish and adversity. All of which stand in stark contrast against a backdrop of trendy restaurants and esteemed learning institutions.

So where does Southern Maine Community College fit into all of this? To assume that the SMCC student population is unaffected by these statistics would be obtuse. The bitter reality is that many students attend class with metaphorical weights on their shoulders, weights comprised of hardship and uncertainty. These burdens can make it exponentially more difficult to flourish academically.

In order to nurture the success of students, schools must be sympathetic to their plight.  I spoke with Tiffanie Bentley, the dean of students here at SMCC, to learn more about the impact of poverty on students and the efforts being made to accommodate their needs. While no definitive information regarding the number of students affected by financial crisis exists, Dean Bentley assured me that there are many students struggling to make ends meet. We then discussed the different avenues they may venture down to ease their woes.

“Students are first encouraged to visit the financial aid office to make sure they’ve exhausted all federal aid that is available for them,” she informed me; “Scholarships and Presidents Funds are also offered through the SMCC foundation.” Another valuable resource offered to students is the Captain’s Cupboard.  It is a student-run food pantry located on campus to help those struggling with food security. Tiffanie explained that it actually began as a student project several years ago, and that “students helping students is the way things most-often happen [here].”

At this point, the conversation took an engaging turn. We began to delve into the issue of addiction, which, in some instances, can be a contributing factor or side-effect of poverty. In particular, we touched upon the opioid epidemic that has been devastating the area in recent years. “A number of students come here from recovery,” Tiffanie noted. “Students have family members affected by the crisis. Students have been caught using on campus.” She then expressed interest in a student-led support group aimed at providing guidance and solace to those struggling with substance abuse.

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