By Sidney A. McPhee
All of the usual sights and sounds of the season signal the Thanksgiving weekend. Autumn’s palette cast a warm glow across campus. As we at MTSU winded down for the holiday, students were excitedly preparing for a long weekend home, as faculty and staff discussed time-honored recipes that were going to grace the family table.
This year, however, the family hugs and homebound journeys that represent the essence of the holiday stirred mixed feelings for our campus community.
Don’t get me wrong. We are thankful, deeply thankful. Indeed, the measure of our gratitude has grown and deepened in direct proportion to the hardships experienced and witnessed as a result of Hurricane Dorian’s early September landfall on The Bahamas. The devastating impact of 185 mph winds shifted our understanding of how the concept of home can change in an instant.
In its aftermath, some 70,000 people were left homeless from the destructive storm that devastated the island nation. With MTSU’s 51 currently enrolled students from the Bahamas, seven of whom with families living in the most affected areas of Grand Bahama and Abaco islands, this natural disaster hit particularly close to the hearts of our university family. For me, Hurricane Dorian also hit close to home. As a proud Bahamian-American, it is the place of my birth, and it remains the home for many in my large, extended family.
Our students, faculty, staff, alumni and supporters responded to this humanitarian crisis with an outpouring of assistance through the Raider Relief giving campaign, resulting in the delivery of tens of thousands of pounds of disaster relief supplies. MTSU’s Trustees Vice Chair Darrell Freeman and R.J. Young Co. CEO Chip Crunk also generously donated the use of their private planes, as well as their valuable time, to pilot the aircraft and personally deliver supplies to affected families.
The caring and kindness that has fueled Raider Relief has been nothing short of inspiring. Stories of our students’ families who have lost belongings, homes, and jobs have opened our eyes to how fate and circumstances beyond one’s control can upend all sense of normalcy in the blink of an eye.
Closer to home, the hardships associated with homelessness are no less important, but the weight of this burden on students is not always clearly visible. Shame and embarrassment cloak the issue, making it less transparent and certainly not easy for students to voice.
Typically, homelessness manifests itself as a result of numerous sets of circumstances. A parent or student being laid off from a job, a serious illness, injury, or any number of life’s unpredictable challenges can contribute to a student facing circumstances in which they find themselves without a roof over their head or a place to call their own.
Indeed, the reasons why students experience homelessness or housing insecurity are as varied as the lives of students themselves and oftentimes are of no fault of their own.
Likewise, our understanding of the factors contributing to homelessness can be unclear and our perceptions ambiguous.
At MTSU, we strive to make the subject approachable and resources readily available.
Two such efforts were recently on clear display. A fall dance concert featured a performance by Chicago-based guest choreographer William Gill titled “This Too Shall Pass,” which opened by exposing the harsh realities of living on the streets, and concluded by celebrating the panacea of community, family, and support. Promotions leading up to the concert encouraged attendees to bring donations of blankets, sleeping bags, and tents for the nonprofit Murfreesboro Cold Patrol.
While tailgating festivities the next day bolstered the efforts of “Warm Bodies and Full Bellies: Helping the Homeless One Giving Act at a Time,” a project spearheaded by marketing students with the goal of collecting nonperishable food and warm clothing in partnership with Greenhouse Ministries.
Six years ago, Virginia Hemby, a professor of business education in our Jones College of Business, established Raiders’ Closet, a service to provide students in need professional clothing for job interviews and networking opportunities.
Through partnerships with businesses like AstraZenca and Dillard’s department stores, Raiders’ Closet collects and distributes new and gently used clothing and provides guidance and advice on professional wardrobe choices. In collaboration with MTSU’s Career Development Center, these services help students prepare for interviews and land a good-paying job, gaining a sense of independence and security that comes with steady employment and income.
Jones College professor Philip Seagraves, who runs our real estate studies program, noted that dramatic events experienced during adolescence can have a strong effect on life choices and perceptions about matters regarding investment, career, and family decisions, which carry into adulthood. If a students’ formative years were marked by economic turmoil, foreclosure, and being evicted from their home, this could naturally lead them to second guess the American dream of homeownership. Professor Seagraves said he also knows from experience that these doubts can be overcome.
He proudly recalled the story of a former student who was homeless, but persevered to graduate, became gainfully employed at a local mortgage company, and is currently doing very well. “Getting some stability in his home situation made a difference — along with others taking an interest and giving a helping hand,” concluded Seagraves.
Student organizations have also taken an active role in providing support. MTSU’s Student Food Pantry is sustained by food drives that collect nonperishable items, which are available for students in need at no charge. Our fraternities and sororities engage in friendly competitions and student organizations host events with the goal of raising funds to purchase food or to accept food donations for the pantry.
Earlier this year, when state Rep. Carson W. Beck and state Sen. Jeff Yarbro sponsored a bill in the Tennessee General Assembly in an endeavor to aid this underserved student population, they turned to MTSU and asked us to present our program focused on helping homeless students as a model to other colleges and universities across the state.
Their bill was enacted into law and, as of July 1, each post-secondary educational institution funded by the state is required to designate a liaison to homeless students and develop a program to give them access to housing.
In recognition of MTSU’s decade-long reputation as a leader in addressing the issue of homelessness, Becca Seul, associate director of MTSU’s MT One Stop, and Danielle Rochelle, coordinator of outreach and support programs, were selected to testify in support of the bill. Seul and Rochelle’s contributions as consultants for the statewide mandate include the creation of a manual detailing how other schools can start a homeless student program and how to obtain community resources to fund operations.
Unless you’ve been through such a predicament or personally know someone who has, it’s hard to fathom the strength and resolve required to attend college while navigating the uncertainty of being without a home. The unknown can be frightening, not only to the person experiencing it directly but also to those observing from the outside and trying to make sense of the situation.
While it may be tempting to speculate on the circumstances that led to the homelessness or even judge, I think we can all agree, if a student holds the insight that pursuing a college degree can lead to a brighter future, and they possess the determination to persevere, they deserve our support to help them achieve this goal.
When new students join the MTSU community, they join in a noble tradition of reciting our True Blue Pledge, which includes a commitment to being an engaged member of our community, and serving as a giver when the need arises.
In this season of Thanksgiving, let’s give thanks for the abundance of blessings that we enjoy, and pledge to seek solutions to help those experiencing homelessness to stay steadfast in their path toward a better life and toward a place that they can call their own.
Dr. Sidney A. McPhee is president of Middle Tennessee State University.