Monday, February 29, 2016

Viking Voices - Podcast: Student Advocacy - Chris Sullivan, director

This edition of our Viking Voices conversations features an audio podcast interview with Chris Sullivan, director, student advocacy. According to the Salem State University website, "The student advocacy office is committed to providing information, support and advocacy to empower students to resolve concerns that may act as a barrier to retention, progression and graduation. In addition, the office, when needed, acts as a liaison between students and university personnel in a fair and impartial manner regarding students rights and university policies/regulations."

I first met Chris one Saturday afternoon during the intermission of a basketball game.  She was at the O'Keefe Center, on her own time, catching up with a number of the students who have used student advocacy services. Chris is also always on the lookout for people who may need services of her office, but who for many reasons may hesitate  to seek help. 

For this conversation, Chris and I sat down in her austere office at the Ellison Campus Center that also serves as a food pantry. I hope that you will take a few minutes to listen to this compelling interview.  

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SYNOPSIS:

Guy:
I greeted Chris and asked her to describe the purpose of the Student Advocacy office.

Chris:
It became apparent through the dean of students and the president's office that we were seeing more students who were struggling and who needed more than just a moment of conversation. They needed to have someone that they could follow up with, that that person could follow up with them. Our students were dealing with some pretty significant issues that were impacting their ability to be successful at the institution. 

Guy:
I asked about who is served by the office.

Chris:

It's really a mix. It can be students entering school as a traditional aged freshman where perhaps something is happening in the family. Perhaps they are coming out of foster care. This is a big transition when you don't have someone in your life you can count on. 

We are also 50 percent transfer and we have number of students perhaps who were at a community college and now they at a four year school, a bigger school. We have non-traditional students who are older and coming back to school after having been out in the workforce. There's a wide range of challenges.

Our students are really remarkable. They are a very diverse group with all kinds of life experiences. Unfortunately, for some there is a challenge that can perhaps get in their way of moving forward.  

Guy:
I asked Chris to describe some of the resources that are available.

Chris:
The office ranges from perhaps a student who doesn't know where to go to solve a problem, or perhaps they have tried to solve a problem on their own. On the far end, we have students who are struggling with homelessness, they may not be quite sure where they will be sleeping that night.  

There are students who are hungry and making choices between food, lodging and books. It's a real mix. 

It could be a life experience that happens in the family. Perhaps for the student there is a major accident or illness. 

I work with students to see, can this situation be salvageable or do we need to think about a leave? What are the students options and help them so that they can make an informed decision. 


Guy:
I know that our alumni community has helped.

Chris:

 A year after staring this positon it became apparent to me that students were hungry. That wasn't why they came to the office initially, but it came up in the conversation. As a result I started a food pantry. It's all donation based and alumni have been incredibly generous both with food raising and this past holiday season there was an initiative related to gift cards. 

It was so wonderful to be able to have a student come to the pantry and get something that was non-perishable and to get a gift card that they could use to buy something that they wanted. 

Perhaps it was a treat during a time when they might be feeling a little down. Perhaps they didn't have a home to go to or things were really tight. It was greatly appreciated by the students who I was able to distribute those to. 

Guy:
For so many of us who have been through our schooling and moved on to our careers, to think that there are people coming to Salem State today that can't afford food, who don't have a place to stay, it's shocking. It's so wonderful that you are here to help. 

Chris:

This is just an amazing community, alumni, faculty, staff students themselves. When students became aware that there are their peers, folks sitting in classes with them who are struggling with hunger, everybody has really stepped up.

There is no budget for the pantry, yet it thrives. All I have to do is periodically put out the word that we need these things and all of the sudden they are here. It really echoes for me: what this campus is all about.

This is a special place that has always cared about its students and still continues. I know it is a surprise to folks to lean about the need.

In my era, I could go to school, work, and I could pay my own way. I'm one of six kids, I did pay my own way. That's really not feasible now. 

Unfortunately the University doesn't receive as much support from the state as we used to.  Salem is a great bargain when you look at the costs of other alternatives, but the reality is for many students, it is still quite a reach. 

Guy:
It's so difficult for students today.

Chris:

It's absolutely true. All it takes is one event. It could be an illness, someone looses a job, there could be a divorce or something that is unexpected that completely changes the financial situation for a family or an individual. 

There are many families that despite wanting to support a student coming to school, they are having a tough time themselves. 

Guy:
You've said how much the campus responds, we want peole to know though that the need never goes way.

Chris:

That's absolutely true. Whether related to the pantry and the food. 

We are also in the process of starting an emergency fund. My hope with that is that for students who run into a situation we can help. For example, we had a freshman who two weeks before school started had a fire in their home. They had bought their linens, they were set to move in, they had bought some of their books. It was all lost. 

With an emergency fund we could help. If a student, for whatever reason, all of the sudden finds themselves without a home, an emergency fund might buy a couple of nights lodging while they sort things out. 

We've had situations where a student has had a death in the family and didn't have the money to get home. Perhaps we could buy them a bus or train ticket.

I have found that young alums, in addition to the older who typically give, can really identify with this. They themselves or someone they know may have been in such a situation not so long ago.

Those folks are giving, even in small amounts, and it is making a huge difference.  

Guy:
 If there are people listening to this podcast who'd like to help, how can they get in touch?

Chris:

I ask that they contact institutional advancement [details below]. Tell them that you'd like to give to the Student Advocacy Fund. 

Guy:
Chris, all that you do is phenomenal. You also work with outside agencies. Please tell us a little about that.

Chris:

I'm a one person office. It's not possible for me to fix all of these different situations. One of the things I do is to research, what are the resources on this campus and off.

We work closely with different agencies in the North Shore area to connect students with appropriate resources. If a student has work study or a job and they work at least 20 hours a week, they may be eligible for food assistance. 

Perhaps you live in an off campus apartment and are having difficulty paying for heat. There are resources that may help. We look at what we can do well on campus, what are things done well off of campus and help to make those connections. It is an important part of what I do. 

Sometimes there are just smaller bumps in the road. I often refer students to on campus counseling services or the health services office. I work with the navigation center, which is a new service on campus that is kind of a one-stop shop for folks dealing with financial aid, the registrar, or accounts.   

Guy:
This has been very educational for me and a pleasure. Chris, on behalf of the alumni association I thank you for the great job you do.

Chris:

 Thank you. Thank you to the many people who have already helped out. 
____ 

Resources:

Thanks for checking out this week's Viking Voices. I hope you'll listen to the full audio podcast

I am looking forward to our next conversation.You can join in the conversation by following this blog and checking out the many social media outlets available to our Salem State community. A short list of some of these venues are below.

Go Vikings!


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