Area colleges work to help students who are hungry and broke

A.J. was trying to be a successful student at Tarrant County College, but as his finances dried up he found himself out on the streets.

Sometimes he would get lucky and sleep on a friend's couch, but for the most part he lived out of his car and struggled daily to get by, let alone do well in school.

"I didn't tell too many people to avoid that pity level," said A.J., 22, who asked that his last name not be used. "I had a lot of pride, so I didn't tell anybody about my situation."

A.J.'s story is not unique to college campuses, where poverty proves to be a roadblock for genuinely poor students -- not those who have run through their allowances from Mom and Dad.

"It is one of those things I never thought I would deal with," said Maureen McGuinness, dean of students at the University of North Texas. "They are not eating or don't have a place to live."

To help ease the crisis, campuses are responding with programs aimed at helping students get on their feet. Some institutions have started food pantries, including Tarrant County College and Texas Woman's University in Denton.

TCC also has a clothing closet for students who need business attire for job interviews.

TCC Chancellor Erma Johnson Hadley said people with resources sometimes can't grasp that college students don't have enough money for books, state-mandated shots or food.

At TCC, 41 percent of 50,000 students in 2011 qualified for financial aid.

"A lot of students don't have an extra $25," Hadley said.

Tuition comes first

Struggling students sleep in their cars because they don't have money to pay rent, McGuinness said. Some pay tuition first and then worry about where to live. At UNT, one student showered at the campus recreational center because he didn't have a place to live.

"There have been times I have taken $10 out of my wallet and said, 'Go eat,'" McGuinness said.

Many students saw their college savings dwindle during the recent recession, McGuinness said, because as parents lost their jobs, they dipped into college accounts to make house payments or pay bills.

Some students teeter on the edge of poverty from semester to semester, McGuinness said.

McGuinness has an open-door policy for students needing help. Sometimes, aid is as simple as finding a low-cost or housing payment plan tailored to the student's needs. Sometimes, officials are able to find students work.

"A lot of times they don't understand all the resources available to them," she said.

Higher-education experts also see many first-generation students, often from working-class families, struggling. As the first members in their families to attend college, many continue to work to help pay household bills.

The American dream

Jeremy Castro, a UNT senior and student assistant in McGuinness' office, is often the first point of contact for these students. He said they are often on the verge of tears because landlords are getting ready to kick them out.

Castro said many have qualified for financial aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Through that application, students get help paying for college, but too often the money doesn't get released until after about the first month of school. Students still have to pay for books, room and board and other expenses, he said.

"You have to figure out how to do this until your money comes in," Castro said. "It's like everybody's hands are in your pocket."

Pride often keeps students from telling friends they need money, said Castro, adding that it is common for students to sell their plasma to pay for food.

"You sacrifice today for a better tomorrow," Castro said. "You can see what the rational is. It's like the American dream: 'If I can get an education today, I can make a better life for my family.'"

Food pantries help

Students who are balancing jobs and families also face financial hardships.

Officials at Texas Woman's University in Denton recognized the need for these students and started a food pantry about 10 years ago. Texas Woman's has a history of attracting older students who have children.

Pantry workers said their project is about students helping students. The project is organized through the university's Department of Sociology and Social Work. Typically, it serves about 25 to 30 students per month.

Demand at the pantry has been going up, said Abigail Tilton, the school's social work program director.

"I think it's just the economy," Tilton said. "It's very difficult for them to make ends meet."

At TCC's downtown Fort Worth campus, employees Lori Fowler and Ruth Coleman heard a distressing account about a nursing student who went hungry to pay for school supplies. When they started asking questions around campus, they learned that the nursing student was not alone. They were moved to act and started a food pantry on the TCC Trinity River Campus in downtown Fort Worth.

"We are here to ensure they can focus on their studies and satisfy their basic needs," said Fowler, a professor of sociology.

Since opening the pantry in April, more than 100 students have used it.

"They can come as many times as they need," Fowler said.

TCC also offers business clothing through the "Career Closet" to students who are venturing out on job interviews, said Kristin Vinson Wright, coordinator of career and employment services at the Trinity River Campus.

"I can't not do something," she said.

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675

Twitter: @dianeasmith1