Clare Cady, Oregon State University
2015 Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Keynote Speaker
Clare Cady directs the Human Services Resource Center at Oregon State University, a nationally-recognized program focused on serving students experiencing poverty, hunger, homelessness and food insecurity. Her work on student economic crisis and food insecurity has been published in the NASPA Journal of College and Character, as well as highlighted on NPR, USA Today, Yahoo! Business, MSNBC, and the Huffington Post. Clare co-founded the College and University Food Bank Alliance, and NASPA Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education Knowledge Community, and has supported over 60 campuses in starting programs to support students in need.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your involvement at Oregon State and the student food bank?
For my educational background, my undergraduate degree is from Clark University in Massachusetts, where I studied international development and social change. Also, I have a master’s degree in educational leadership from Washington State University. I’ve worked teaching in higher education as well as with troubled teenagers and in the nonprofit sector. I think professionally and personally I’ve been really connecting to the cause of ending poverty. I grew up on a college campus, my parents both worked in a college setting, so I recognized how important education is for people improving their lives. So that’s really been a significant driving factor in the decision I made about my education and my work. And so when I took the position at Oregon State, I had actually been unemployed for a significant amount of time because the work I had been doing. The company I had been working for did not have work for me. I was really struggling financially. I had been living in my car, so job searching from my car and staying on friends couches, and recognizing again, how even with a masters degree, how challenging things were, and this is at the height of the recession, so there were definitely a lot of people in this type of situation. When my friend sent me the job description at Oregon State, and he told me “this job was made for you,” I said “yeah, okay… I’ll check it out.” It really kind of did feel like it had been, because they were looking for somebody who had a higher education background, who had experience working in crisis situations with people experiencing different types of economic crisis and they wanted non-profit experience, and so it really was kind of made for my resume and when I interviewed and shared that I had lived in a car and all of the other pieces – and you don’t think that that’s going to be a selling point on a resume, but people really connected to that, like “wow, she’s going to get people.” So the work that I do now is essentially around a small human services office on Oregon State’s campus. We offer a little set of services and then we also connect students to local services and the food bank is one of those services that we offer. So I oversee the staff that runs the campus food bank and I also worked with some folks in Michigan to co-found the College and University Food Bank Alliance, which now has over 100 member schools.
To think about social justice, economic justice, and equity in our country, I think about how hard it was for me as a person who grew up on a college campus, with college educated parents, who ended up in a tough situation with a master’s degree on my resume, and the ability to write cover letters, and present myself in a professional manner, and how hard it was for me to get ahead in that tough situation. You know, I’m basically the luckiest homeless person on the planet. It was really hard. When I think about the people I serve, I think about low income students and I think about people from working backgrounds and that wasn’t my experience. So the cards were stacked in my favor and it was hard. What would it be like if they weren’t?
At Oregon State University, we offer a food subsidy, which is called Mealbux. This is essentially an on-campus version of food stamps where students receive money on their ID cards and they can use it anywhere on campus. We offer a health insurance subsidy for our students with health insurance and provide assistance to grad students who can’t afford to go to conferences, but need to for advancement. We have an emergency housing program for students experiencing homelessness and we also do case management research and referrals to local and federal agencies to help student access the benefits available to them.
What we provide is one of a kind, or at least it was when I started. There are a number of schools now that are working to emulate the work that we are doing, and there is a non-profit in New York that sets up services such as these on community college campuses, called Single Stop USA. They have a great website up. But at four-year institutions, this is really unheard of. When I tell people what I do they are really surprised. We are talking about this concept of ethics and values on college campuses and talking to our represented populations, and there are so many ways that we work to serve the different types of student populations and this is one more way to do it.
Will you discuss the College and University Food Bank Alliance and how Oregon State University and Michigan State University began this alliance?
Because the work I do is unique and there are very few people who do it – and I used to work in college housing – having colleagues who understood the work that I did, doesn’t happen much in this work. I was really hoping to just find other people. Nobody on my campus was doing this type of work, so there must have been others on other campuses doing the work. I knew there were other campus food pantries, so I began calling folks and collecting information. I came across another person who was doing the exact same thing at Michigan State University, Nate. Him and I started chatting. He had some funding and I had person power. So we put those together and started the Alliance. It’s currently a digital community that is focused on connecting folks across the country on campuses. In 2012, we launched at the national conference in Orlando, and we have been slowly building. Right now, a lot of it is just folks being able to call Nate and I, and us being able to connect people. We are about to open a new section of the website for people to talk directly to each other and we are hoping to continue from there with other things such as social development, maybe. Around 100 institutions are now a part of the College and University Food Bank Alliance.
What role do you think higher education plays in combating poverty and hunger?
If you have a college degree, you will earn 33% more throughout the time that you are present in the work force. So we know that getting a degree is going to be very important to people’s economic advancement. So creating and developing access is going to be very important for campuses. When we think about who in our country is most likely to be experiencing poverty, we are talking about people of color, queer folk, people with disabilities, just groups of people who are already disenfranchised in society. So it is very important that we think about socioeconomics as well as social support for people who are seeking a degree. We need to think about ways we can help people transition to our campuses and ways that we can make the campus climate comfortable. In addition, when people experience emergencies, not receiving a cold shoulder. I think that is what a lot of students experience. Sometimes, students don’t take anything from us. They just need someone to say, “I see your pain, and I’m here for you.” There is a retention issue, which deals with retaining students coming from low-income backgrounds or those who hit economic crisis for whatever reason.
What is the most rewarding experience when working with students experiencing poverty, homelessness, and food insecurity?
One of the students who worked in my office for three years, from a generational poverty background, took 8 years to complete a four-year degree because she regularly needed to take time off to make money. Her goal was to be a pharmacist. As she was working to serve students, she was one of those students at the same time. When she graduated, it was into a pharmacy school, which she deferred for a year so that she could save money. She said to me “I don’t think I would have stayed in school if it hadn’t been working with you.” Those are the moments where you realize the work you do on a day-to-day basis is worthy.
Bipolar Video Blog talks your own experiences with Bipolar disorder. It discusses issues surrounding mental health disorders and how it relates to higher education, but also social justice and intersectionality. What inspired you to begin the Bipolar Video Blog? Can you speak about this Vlogging experience?
I think as a person wanting to live my life as authentically as possible, having challenges but being extremely fortunate, putting myself out there started from being actively engaged in the online student affairs community primarily, and the Student Affairs Collaborative, which is an open source journal magazine where we discuss topics and trends in higher education student affairs. They did a discussion of mental illness among student affairs professionals. I was asked to consider, because I had been pushing very hard for these conversations. I wrote a piece and received a lot of amazing feedback on what I wrote and felt like I had more to say. I had never done any video blogging before, so I thought that might be a fun way to go about sharing my thoughts because it really puts a face and personality to something, in a way that writing does not necessarily do. I also did it for my family. For them to see me talk about my life every day for 100 days was very powerful for them. Since I completed it, a number of friends of mine who are therapists have been showing it to kids that they work with. For me it was about being authentic and sharing, and also getting that connection piece. When we do things in isolation it can be really hard, but if we connect with other people who have similar experiences, everything feels a lot easier. It really has been easier for me.
What were some challenges associated with the experience and what were some take aways?
Well, it was terrifying. I can put on a brave face and talk about it, but some of the things I shared were really personal. It was also hard to share in real time, and my supervisor can see my blog. So if I take a day off of work, my supervisor now knows why! There were really awesome parts of that, but it could also be pretty challenging. So that was tough. People in my immediate life that I see on a daily basis were following the blog. Sometimes they communicated differently and acted differently with me because of what I was sharing. Most of the time those people wouldn’t know if I was experiencing anger, depression, or whatever, unless I am telling you. People would be watching and I’m talking about a mania phase and when they see me, they now know that. There’s still a lot of silence over it. Most people that I meet or talk to who have seen it won’t bring it up, but I think of it as a body of work that I did that is sitting out there for people to find and sometimes that makes me nervous. I would like to move on in my career one day, but the silence is broken. It’s out there on the internet for everyone to see and share. If I am having a bad day, it’s all out there and I might as well just say something. It is kind of liberating, but at the same time it does hang over me.
What issues do you find problematic in higher education in regards to mental health and mental health disorders and how would you address these problems?
I think the biggest issue is silence and the biggest challenge is breaking the silence and being able to have conversations that feel safe enough so that people can disclose in a way that they can get the help that they need. I think there are a lot of issues people may face and they have a fear of disclosure and the idea of separation of public and private. To be a professional struggling with mental illness, it is something that I should struggle with at home and not bring into public spaces or professional spaces. I think that issue of silence is a big one. I think that there is a shift in conversation. I think we talk a lot about mental illness, because there’s talk of mental health, wellness, and being. So when I look at campus counseling, the organizations that are out there doing outreach and engaging with students around how to be healthy rather than just the reactive, crisis-based approach. It is really hard to assess how mental illness prevention is impacting students. If a student never ends up in our counseling we may never know that they may have been interested, but I do think it is important to talk about how to create wellness and how to flourish and how to engage in continued crisis aversion and crisis management. This includes recognizing the threats to our student population, particularly things like financial stress which increases the risk of depression, anxiety, etc… We do outreach to all of the students who use my services to screen them. We also reach out to LGBTQ community, which is another high-risk population, in addition to international students. We are hoping to move toward universal screenings in our students, because we want to be proactive, rather than reactive.
What advice would you give to higher education students with mental health disorders, as well as advice for higher education professionals to support students with these disorders?
Find someone you trust to talk to. If you cannot, go to your counseling center, and talk to someone because if nothing else, they are bound by law not to say anything. Find a place to speak the words to ask for help. I think that for professionals supporting students, when we talk about issues openly and generally, we create safer spaces. If I am working with my student and bring up the issue of mental illness and how important it is or bring up example of those, I have helped. Also, someone in the audience may think, “She’s someone I can talk to.” It is tough for professionals. The word professional is in our identity. If you draw the professional box, what is in the box and what isn’t? What we do is relational and the relationships are all professional.