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Last January, a gold SUV drove through the front of a Houston grocery store, injuring eight people. In a fortunate coincidence, I happened to be in the building next door. Bystanders noticed I was wearing scrubs and alerted me to a woman in need. Kneeling in a pool of blood and glass, I kept her calm and applied pressure to her wounds until paramedics arrived.

That I was next door — and had the medical training to help — was more of a miracle than anyone at the scene of the accident could likely imagine.

Just 10 months earlier, I had moved to Texas to live with relatives while I pursued an education and career in health care. Unfortunately, my living arrangement quickly became abusive, and I was forced to leave.

The writer at her graduation. Her school provided support services, and she turned that into an opportunity to save lives.

My mother lived two states away in Kansas and did not have the financial resources to help.

I could have easily returned home. Instead, I became evidence of what is possible when an institution goes the extra mile to support its students — like arranging supports outside of school and connecting students to outreach programs and community resources.

My mother couldn’t help me financially, but she had given me her car. It became my home address for much of the next few months as I moved between temporary shelters, hotel rooms and my backseat.

Despite this hardship, I stayed enrolled at The College of Health Care Professions, (CHCP). I eventually felt comfortable enough to tell my instructors I was struggling. I asked for help, and they were patient and accommodating, providing me with support to stay on track for graduation. The college helped me pay for hotel rooms and Airbnb reservations, as well as food.

They eschewed red tape in favor of more immediate and direct action. If you need help, they find you that help — from groceries to providing gift cards for gas.

I made honor roll, graduated on time and completed 180 hours of externships.

That’s why I was in the right place at the right time when the SUV barreled into the busy supermarket. I was finishing my externship and about to start work as a medical assistant at UT Health, making $24 dollars an hour.

All of this would have been improbable without the help of the instructors and staff at my college.

I could have easily never graduated and returned home. Instead, I am evidence of what is possible when an institution goes the extra mile to support their students.

Challenges that students like me face have only grown during the last year and a half. One recent survey found that 28 percent  of students reported that they’d lost their job during the pandemic, and 22 percent reported receiving unemployment benefits.

Like me, more and more students are struggling to pay rent. Nationwide nearly 50 percent of students are experiencing some form of housing insecurity. The number is even more alarming at two-year institutions.

About 70 percent of students now say they are concerned about how they will pay for non-education-related bills, according to a recent poll; 38 percent of students say they are concerned they do not have enough money to make it through the semester. Students are also frequently going hungry, with nearly 40 percent reporting food insecurity in the previous month.

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College enrollment has dropped dramatically across the country, especially among community college students, first-generation students and students from low-income backgrounds. This is unsurprising. It’s hard to focus on academics when you’re worried about when your next meal will be or if you are going to be evicted.

The pandemic and its impact on students have begun to raise greater awareness around these challenges. Colleges have doubled down on food pantries and other resources and emergency financial aid has gone mainstream. But institutions must not become complacent.

They must work to build environments where students always feel comfortable letting faculty and staff know when they are struggling. And they must do whatever they can to ensure that students have easy access to the resources they need.

Now I have reached the light at the end of this dark tunnel. I graduated in February 2021 and have a nationally recognized credential. I have a professional career. I am excited for the future.

Other students like me deserve to feel that same sense of hope. They, too, may find themselves in the right place at the right time.

Mika Thibeaux is a recent graduate of the College of Health Care Professions; LaNetia Edwards is the executive director of CHCP’s Houston Med Center campus.

This story about college student support was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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