Redesigning College Education: Dismantling Trauma During Covid

By: Roshelle Czar (she/her/hers), Sacramento State University

“How is it possible that though I have received multiple scholarships, the Cal and Pell grant maxed out on all my loans, and it is still not enough to cover my cost of rent for my housing at Sacramento State? My very existence has become a burden,” I replied, trying to calm the pain and anger in my voice.

I tried to hold back my tears as they flowed from my eyes. My advisor gave me a sympathetic look and suggested that I continue my job search. I walked out of the career and advising center feeling vulnerable and helpless. I could not understand why the system had left me in such a conflicting dichotomy. The college experience was supposed to liberate me and begin my path to being an educated and enlightened woman. College education also promised to give me socioeconomic security. However, I felt that I was experiencing a false reality, marketed with complicated dual layers that often dismiss what it means to be a #RealCollege student.

I grew up with an innate passion for school and had always been an honor roll student. Going to school was the one place I felt safe, accepted, and seen. The education system needs to recognize that having a strong and supportive family system is a privilege not given to everyone in their homes. For some of us, coming to campus can be the one experience that governs our sense of self, belonging and peace. In fact, safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments are not only a psychological need, but a fundamental biological requirement. However, when barriers are created in higher education with outdated policies and structures, we merely advocate reforming an unjust system that does not provide the pinnacle of equality. If financial aid fails to provide students with enough funds for a safe space to live, transportation, healthy meals, how can campuses expect them to do well in their courses? ­­­Due to these inequities in the United States, the overall dropout rate for undergraduate college students is 40% because the ecosystem of basic needs is failing miserably.

Trauma is the term which policymakers, stakeholders, administrators, and professors should reevaluate in the educational sector. The origin of trauma does not have to be violent or abusive because trauma is centered on an individual experience and can manifest in various ways. Two students may be exposed to the same events but experience those events in vastly different ways, where one student’s reality is traumatic while the other’s is not. When I decided to transfer from California State University, Bakersfield, to Sacramento State, I was conscious that this shift would come with a price. But, as someone who had served the role of President, Senator, and Director of Undergraduates, I felt prepared to handle any adversity that came my way. However, my mother, who moved to the United States as an immigrant, made it clear that she would not provide me any help. She had to take out loans to study pharmacy and knew the burden of returning them all too well. But I was excited to take on a challenge on my own. I had immense faith in my capabilities. In that fleeting moment, I would have never guessed that my decision would lead me to sleepless nights, anxiety, and ultimately, depression.

COVID-19 hit in March of 2020; many were left to combat the trauma of losing their jobs and homes and surviving a disease leading to death. My campus reached out to me, inquiring if I needed any help. I let them know that I was struggling with finding a safe place to quarantine. I explained to them that I had to depend on couch surfacing with friends because my roommates were having parties while we were supposed to be in a state of lockdown. When I reached out to my apartment manager, his only response was that he “cannot control what goes on inside your apartment.” I was left stuck having to pay rent for an apartment I was not even residing in from February until August, which totaled almost $6,000. I felt heartbroken because that money could have been invested in a semester worth of tuition. Unfortunately, businesses don’t care about the financial or emotional well-being of students. But, for the first time, I felt my institution finally cared about me. They were able to provide me with a hotel to stay in for two weeks, as well as a gift card to help me cover necessities such as groceries.

However, it should not take a worldwide pandemic for campuses to provide students with the urgent care they need. Trauma can be healed and addressed the moment it occurs if campuses are willing to acknowledge that opportunity and achievement gaps are causing the normalization of failure. If we can predict students’ success based on race and place, those left marginalized, such as immigrant and low-income students, deserve an on-campus program to address their inequalities. It’s essential to include rural areas into the rescue plan and have robust programs in place that provide mentors. When students arrive at a four-year institution, a system should already be in place to categorize who needs the most help and assistance. I called this proposal “Resilience to Brilliance,” a program that would provide students with emergency housing, carpool service for job interviews, clothing, food, purchasing textbooks, or any other financial relief related to collegiate expenses. By categorizing students in violent or destructive homes or unsafe environments, college campuses can discern which group of students need the most help. The result would be instrumental, as it would eradicate the hardships of attaining a college degree for students who have already had their fair share of prior trauma. The simple truth is this: college campuses around the United States need to be redesigned around two essential components; trauma-informed care and unmet basic needs. Ultimately, these elements are imperative not only towards the mental and emotional wellbeing of students but also vital to the success of the institutions that exist. These changes are essential so that we as a nation do not continue to fail the very students we aimed to empower with an education.

Roshelle Czar: After facing her own trials and challenges during her undergraduate journey, Roshelle felt it was vital to create a pathway of equality for students who didn’t stem from a place of systematic privilege. In the last four years, she has partnered up with multiple organizations such as Education Insights Center, Swipe Out Hunger, u-Aspire, TICAS, and Campaign for College, which led her to work on higher education bills AB705 and AB928 to simplify the path to college. In the summer of 2021, she was fortunate enough to work with the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice–led by Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab–as a higher education research intern. The experience allowed to her to shed light on growing inequities based on issues affecting non-traditional, first-generation, low-income, and undocumented students.

#RealCollege students, presidents, educators, and more will lend their voices here with support from The Hope Center and Believe in Students.