When college students are struggling to find housing, food or childcare – it’s nearly impossible for them to focus on their education.
Recognizing this, a trio of Grand Rapids Community College administrators have spent the last six years pushing to find a way to speed up the process of getting students the help they need.
On Oct. 1, GRCC will become the first college in the state to have a Family Independence Specialist on campus who will be able to connect students with state and local resources for housing, food, childcare and more.
Director of Student Life and Conduct Lina Blair, Assistant to Dean of Student Success Sandy Gregory, and Biology Learning Center Coordinator Holly Christopher co-championed this project. View their project proposal here. These three, with a team of around 25 people across multiple campus departments, worked to get this off the ground.
“We’re the only college or university in Michigan to have someone like this on campus,” Blair said. “Students will get faster service, and this will eliminate those barriers faster.”
Blair highlighted that 35% of GRCC students struggle with food insecurity and 45% of GRCC students struggle with housing insecurity. “Many of our students struggle with childcare, transportation, and utility bills,” Blair said. “We were charged with creating a single stop office/team to help students address basic needs. GetHelp is part of that work. This new position is a part of that work.”
The Family Independence Specialist will manage around 200 students at a time. Gregory explained that once the specialist’s caseload is full, some GRCC staff are trained to help students access the funds or programs they need.
The specialist will be a full-time staff member who will be on campus Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the third floor of the Student Center. More specific info will be available on the GetHelp page once the employee starts on Oct. 1.
The goal of having a specialist on campus is to link students with state and local resources that are not available on campus. This person will also help students apply for food access, and help students navigate those systems of support.
“This specialist will help connect them to community resources, and other financial assistance beyond what we can offer here,” Gregory said.
She explained that part of the specialist role will be training and informing GRCC staff so at the end of the two-year partnership, if the funding is not extended, then the college will still be connected to those resources.
“When a staff or faculty member submits a referral for a student who may be facing some basic needs insecurities, I look through those (referrals) and try to connect students to resources within the college,” Gregory said. “Right now, we’re somewhat limited on what we can do. I think (the specialist) is going to enhance the support we’re able to offer students. Any supports the state of Michigan has, this specialist can help connect students to those.”
After submitting the budget request to the Board of Trustees more than once, in June 2022 the board approved around $170,000 in funding for the position. Blair specified that the project wasn’t far enough along for the budget request to be approved the first time around.
Blair, Gregory, Christopher, and their team worked with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) for the funding. The MDHHS is responsible for hiring the position, and GRCC’s Student Life is sitting in on the process. The donated funds will go toward the specialist’s salary, benefits, and administrative costs.
The MDHHS is funding half the service by donating approximately $85,000 and GRCC is providing the other estimated $85,000. The specialist won’t officially begin work on campus until Oct. 1 because the MDHHS fiscal budget doesn’t start until Oct. 1.
Gregory explained that the candidate has been selected from the eight who were interviewed, and that the next steps are working through the MDHHS Human Resources department and finalizing paperwork.
“We want students to know that they’ll be supported no matter what department they walk into,” Gregory said.
“Since this project started…every department and office on campus has been so supportive,” Blair said. “This has truly been a team effort from the beginning. This was the last piece to fall into place. It feels really great that students are going to get the help they need.”