Helping low-income students during COVID-19

Brittany is a single mom who grew up in poverty and always wanted more for her family. She worked two part time jobs, and she remembers the feeling of standing in the homeless shelter line with her own mom. Brittany decided she wanted a better life for her and her child – so she was determined to gain her college degree.

Brittany had signed up for community college in the past but it seemed like every time she found a good rhythm, something would derail her. Maybe her child became ill causing her to miss work and to divert money from tuition to rent and medical bills. Or her car needed repairs, which meant no money for the next semester. It seemed like, no matter what she did, she couldn’t catch a break. The constant financial strain stirred emotions and hurt her relationship with her child, just as Brittany had experienced with her mom.

Through a referral, Brittany entered the Stay the Course® (STC) program at Catholic Social Services of Columbus (CSS) and began meeting with her case manager, Joe.

STC is year-round and serves low-income, working-poor students who are attending Columbus State Community College. The goal is to persist at community college until completion and ultimately break the cycle of poverty in the student’s life.

STC includes a combination of individual personal support (mentoring, coaching, referrals, etc.) and strategic (non- academic) emergency financial assistance from a CSS case manager.

Students work with their case manager to identify individualized Specific Measurable Attainable Relevant Time-Based (SMART) goals as well as recognize detrimental behaviors and learn how to balance money, work, parenting, classes, lack of childcare, and so on. Students also learn how to utilize opportunities and plan things in ways that allow them to succeed. The work helps leverage the student’s strengths to overcome barriers and challenges and builds up their confidence along the way.

With Joe’s help, Brittany began to notice both external and internal factors that contributed to her financial problems. For instance, growing up in poverty she never learned how to plan a weekly grocery list and instead ate all her meals out. When she learned to make a budget, she saw how much she saved by planning meals, shopping, and cooking. She also learned that when she became stressed, her anxiety caused her to make poor decisions and allocate time improperly for different tasks. This led to a list of things not getting done, including her homework, and just created a deeper feeling of hopelessness.

Brittany told CSS that what keeps her going is the desire that her daughter never experience the feeling of homelessness. “When I met with Joe, he told me I could do this,” she said. “But now I am starting to believe him.”

As she spent more time with Joe, she learned how to better recognize triggers and how to deal with them when they arose.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Brittany did lose two part time jobs, but she continues to safely meet with her case manager and together they are figuring out this new normal.

Brittany had already reached a milestone goal before the pandemic – she purchased her own washer and dryer! Something she never had growing up. But the accomplishment that she is most proud of is seeing an improved relationship with her child.

To break free from poverty, you need to address it at the root cause. CSS meets clients where they are, working with them on a plan to obtain their goals and showing them the tools and resources they need to reach their inherent potential. The result is they are able to take another step towards sustainability and strengthening the community.