The Columbia students with nowhere to sleep, and fellow students who help

With tuition, fees, room and board at university in New York costing over US$60,000 a year, some students struggle with food bills and have nowhere to stay in summer. Others are looking out for them and highlighting their plight

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 May, 2016, 10:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 May, 2016, 10:00pm

Toni Airaksinen tries to keep an eye out for troubles students might face at Columbia University, including hunger and even homelessness.

“The first time a Columbia student asked me, ‘What’s the best library to sleep in?’ I thought they were being facetious,” Airaksinen wrote last month in the New York university’s newspaper, the Columbia Daily Spectator. “When I realised the student’s question was serious, I felt my face flush and was overcome with emotion. I did not have an answer.”

The 19-year-old from the American city of Cleveland is just finishing her second year as an urban studies major at Barnard College. The liberal arts college for women, affiliated with Columbia, is located across Broadway from the main university campus.

Airaksinen said she tunes into stories of privation because she knows what it’s like. She grew up in a family that relied on government food stamps.

In New York, she keeps careful track of her expenses to be sure that she doesn’t incur debt. She said she has been “super-super blessed” with scholarship assistance to help her attend a college where tuition, fees, room and board top US$60,000 a year.

It’s almost graduation and all I can think of is the fact that the money I paid for my cap and gown should have gone towards groceries or my debt or my family’s expenses
Entry on Class Confessions page

“Five dollars was a lot of money to me,” she said of her childhood. “So there’s no way I’m going to take out loans.”

Airaksinen, whose parents did not graduate from high school or go to college, has been active in a community of first-generation and low-income students and launched a Facebook page last year called Class Confessions. It chronicled some of the financial difficulties Columbia students have faced as well as their emotions about going to university on a campus where there are jarring contrasts between rich and poor. The page, offering an anonymous forum for commentary, drew significant media attention after it appeared.

Sample entry on May 3: “It’s almost graduation and all I can think of is the fact that the money I paid for my cap and gown should have gone towards groceries or my debt or my family’s expenses.”

In an interview, Airaksinen said food questions often loom large.

“For a lot of people I know, paying for food is extremely stressful,” she said. “For most students it constitutes their biggest monthly expense.”

Second-, third- and fourth-year students at Columbia and Barnard can choose from various meal plans. Sometimes they go for cheaper ones to save money. Airaksinen, a vegetarian, said she cooks her own meals, with lots of beans, lentils and vegetables. “I eat very simply,” she said. Doing it all herself saves her about US$1,000 a semester.

Student activism has yielded results in the past two academic years, she said, including emergency meal funds for needy students and a programme that facilitates sharing of meal “swipes”, or entries into dining halls. Columbia also announced that it would waive course fees in the coming academic year for students on financial aid. The university has undertaken several other recent initiatives to help students with high financial need.

“If even a single student is having a problem at Columbia, then we feel bad about that,” said James Valentini, dean of Columbia College and vice-president for undergraduate education. “We try to address it.”

Some of the greatest need on campus is felt by older, non-traditional students enrolled in Columbia’s school of general studies who do not receive the same type of financial aid packages that are available to full-time undergraduates in Columbia College and the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science.

But students at Barnard and at Columbia’s selective college and engineering school can also face significant financial pressures, leading to food issues during the academic year or housing issues during summer and academic breaks. “I know lots of people who don’t have homes to go back to,” Airaksinen said.

Airaksinen’s summer plan? She will work as an intern in New York for an organisation called Hunger Free America.

The Washington Post