- Our City/Our Campus
Even before the pandemic upended work and personal lives, staff members in Pitt’s Division of Student Affairs were concerned about students whose basic needs were not being met. “Basic needs” are defined as access to affordable and safe housing, water, food, childcare, medical care, mental health resources and technological resources.
“A student who does not have their basic needs met may struggle more academically and their holistic well-being is adversely impacted,” said Chaz Kellem, director of the Office of PittServes, which provides programming and resources to help students in their personal growth. “We know that vulnerable student populations exist on campus among undergraduate, graduate and professional students, and we wanted to know more about what, exactly, their needs are and how we can best support them as an institution.”
Looking for help?Pitt has compiled a resource list for students seeking housing, health or food assistance.
To better understand how Pitt can serve these students, Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner formed the Campus Basic Needs Committee, a cross-departmental team with faculty, student and staff representatives.
“I charged the committee with three major tasks: educating staff and faculty about basic needs resources available at Pitt and in the Pittsburgh community, identifying gaps and barriers between areas of need and current resource availability and opportunities to address these gaps, and providing recommendations to me for addressing the holistic well-being of the student population,” said Bonner.
One of the first action steps the committee took was to partner with the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University to administer the #RealCollege Survey in the fall 2020 term. Created in 2015 and now the nation’s largest annual assessment of students’ basic needs, the #RealCollege Survey seeks to reveal the lived experiences of today’s students outside the classroom. More than 200,000 students nationwide at 130 community colleges and 72 four-year colleges and universities completed the survey in 2020.
Invitations to complete the questionnaire were sent by email to 28,960 students on the Pittsburgh campus, and 4,824 students responded.
Desmond Stuart, the basic needs coordinator in PittServes, organized Pitt’s participation in the survey.
“The survey asked questions about employment, finances, food insecurity, housing insecurity, homelessness, transportation affordability, childcare affordability, utilization of public benefits, utilization of campus programs [and] demographics and included a special section on COVID response,” he said.
Ciara Stehley, chair of the committee and coordinator for the Pitt Pantry, said, “We learned from the survey that 43% of our students experienced at least one form of basic needs insecurity in the past year. We also learned that while 7% of students who experienced basic needs insecurity used emergency aid, another 47% of students had not even heard of the emergency aid programs available at Pitt. Part of our job as a committee is going to be getting that message out to students more broadly.”
In addition to the Pitt Pantry, other resources for students include the Student Emergency Assistance Fund and the Meal Assistance Program, a new initiative designed to offer short-term food assistance by providing 15 dining hall meal passes to students experiencing emergency or unexpected food insecurity.
Stehley added, “This survey provides a baseline for our understanding of students’ basic needs. Our long-term strategy as a committee is to study this data in more depth and to provide Dean Bonner and University senior leadership with recommendations for future improvements to our support of students.”
The full report can be viewed on the Student Affairs website, and all Pitt community members — faculty, students, staff, alumni and community partners — are welcome to provide suggestions or feedback. More initiatives to address the survey’s results are in development and will be shared with students as the fall term approaches.
Ultimately, said Stehley, “This is an equity issue. All students deserve the right kind of support throughout their college career so they can thrive and achieve their goals.”