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Grant helps WSU system meet students’ fundamental needs

Closeup of a packed shelf at a food pantry.
A student selects items from the Cougar Food Pantry on the Pullman campus (photo by Ben Schuh).

A new state grant is helping Washington State University support the fundamental needs of students systemwide.

The Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC) grant is funding a variety of initiatives, including a new position that will work with WSU’s diverse student population to address food and housing insecurity. 

According to a 2019 Real College Survey, about 37.5% of students at four-year universities around the country experienced food insecurity between 2015-2019, and about 41.5% experienced housing insecurity. The COVID-19 pandemic increased these insecurities for many students and highlighted the ongoing need for fundamental needs assistance.

“We’re here to support student success, and you can’t be a strong student if you’re hungry or you don’t know where you’re going to sleep,” said Ellen Taylor, vice president/vice chancellor for Student Affairs at WSU Pullman. “We can’t fulfill our mission if we aren’t ensuring those fundamental needs are met.”

A systemwide effort

WSU received the WSAC grant in fall 2021 following an application process led by WSU Vancouver. Although staff there initially thought the grant might just be used to address fundamental needs in Vancouver, they quickly realized that all WSU students could benefit from the funding.

“The intent with the grant is to figure out how we address fundamental needs as a system and pursue efforts to support all of our students,” said Domanic Thomas, vice chancellor for Student Affairs and Enrollment at WSU Vancouver. 

Students enter the Cougar Food Pantry on the Pullman campus (photo by Theodore Mordi).

What those efforts will look like is still evolving, which gives WSU room to learn and innovate in addressing these needs, said Thomas and Jill Creighton, associate vice president of Student Affairs and dean of students. One key piece is the fundamental needs manager position, which coordinates system-wide efforts to address fundamental needs. The role, recently filled by Heidi Hughes, will take a “broad-based perspective on where we are as an institution and where we need to go,” Creighton said. 

“I’m so excited for Heidi’s leadership because she comes with a lot of expertise in the area of food security outside of university spaces,” Creighton said. “I’m looking forward to visioning with Heidi on what this might look like for the WSU system. Addressing fundamental needs is everyone’s work, and Heidi will be crucial in shepherding these initiatives forward.”

Hughes, who has worked in the anti-hunger space for over four years and is currently pursuing her master of public administration at University of Illinois Springfield, started in her new position April 1 and has already begun assessing the needs of students at each WSU location.

“Student needs vary pretty drastically from campus to campus,” she said. “We’re having a big discussion around how we work with a commuter campus versus a more traditional campus like Pullman, for example, or what it means to be on a coastal campus versus inland, and what all that means for student needs.”

Leveraging local resources

One result of that assessment is the creation of student navigator positions. Funded by the WSAC grant, the student navigators will help their peers explore local and national resources students don’t typically access such as SNAP, public housing, and transportation assistance.

“This peer model is designed to reduce barriers to entry that students might experience in seeking these resources,” Thomas said. 

The student navigators are just one component of what will be a multi-faceted, coalition-based approach to addressing fundamental needs at WSU. Future programs will focus on leveraging and connecting resources in each community, Hughes said, which includes earmarking grant funds for each campus that provide local support for students’ specific needs. For example, Pullman grant funds may be used to help students pay for housing during academic breaks, while Vancouver funds may help students pay the security deposit on an apartment.

Volunteers fill  boxes with meal kits for winter break on the Tri-Cities campus. 

De-stigmatizing support

The grant and new support services go hand-in-hand with a major institutional push around fundamental needs education and de-stigmatization. Many students are hesitant to seek assistance, Hughes said, because they are embarrassed to need support.

“The stigma is so pervasive,” she said. “Students may know their friends should be using these resources, but they don’t internalize that they deserve those resources and can use them, too.”

Taylor said she thinks that mindset may be shifting at WSU, as students in recent years have been more open about their needs.

“The pandemic normalized the struggle many people experienced around some of our most basic needs,” she said. “Our current students have embraced the mindset that there’s no shame in needing help, whether it’s with academics or mental health or fundamental needs. We’re working on continuing those de-stigmatizing efforts.”

This push toward supporting students’ fundamental needs not only helps students thrive academically and personally — it also helps WSU fulfill its land-grant mission by providing access to education. 

“We care about our students as human beings – that they have enough to eat and have a safe place to sleep and study,” Creighton said. “Those things are critical to being a human, and they’re also critical to student success and wellbeing. Addressing these fundamental needs helps us fulfill our mission to continually provide access to education, and that means making sure students have what they need to get their degree.”

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