Rooting Emergency Aid in Dignity and Institutional Mission; an interview with Kathryn Hutchinson, Ph.D., vice president for Student Affairs at St. John’s University

Rooting Emergency Aid in Dignity and Institutional Mission; an interview with Kathryn Hutchinson, Ph.D., vice president for Student Affairs at St. John’s University

Student ARC Interview / December 27, 2017
kathryn hutchinson

Part of it is really who we are as an institution. St. John's University in New York is a Vincentian institution and part of our mission is to educate those who would not otherwise have an opportunity to attend a private and Vincentian institution. About 40% of our incoming class every year fall into the very high need category, which is something we choose as an institution to make happen. That means many students who are a wonderful part of our community often have some additional challenges. My team and I have spent time thinking about how we can assist the entire student who is bringing with them some of the other challenges that come with having financial need, and who are often first generation, trying to figure out the landscape of the university. What starting driving it forward for us were the amazing young leaders who were part of the programs we were excited about and they were doing a fantastic job, and then the next semester, they wouldn't be there. As a team, we talked about how frustrating and, at some level, sad it was that these students we knew who had so much potential hadn't come to us to talk about why it is that they would not be returning.

We made an extra effort to start asking the students to make sure they would come to us and share their concerns if they thought they may not continue the next semester. Often we found it was financially related and in many cases, the financial barriers that seemed insurmountable to them were barriers we were quite sure we could work rather quickly with the university to resolve. It became a real shift in thinking — and not just for the Senior Leadership Team at Student Affairs. We spent time and energy sending that message to everyone within the team because the newest professionals have a lot of face time with students and if they're not thinking about how to ask the right questions, they're not getting the right information.

Part of what we spent time thinking about was how do you answer the question the student probably should have asked you, rather than only the questions they did ask you, because there are certain things that should clue you in that there are other struggles going on. We talk all the time about the dignity of the human person. How can we make sure that in those conversations students don't feel like they are 'less than' or 'incapable of' because they have some other challenges which are usually beyond their control?

The one folks always think about is they hear that students are hungry. There's a lot of discussion about food insecurity, but the average person across campus doesn't really know what food insecurity means. How do you define that? What are you going to do about that? Typically what you'll find is that students are good-hearted and so they'll use their meal plan to help out their friend, and we had a number of cases where we would hear about students creating their own network using their meal plans to swipe in friends day to day, making sure that the student was covered for a couple of weeks. The concerns for me were what are the other issues? What are the long-term plans for that student in terms of trying to manage some of their needs?

We trained  RAs, orientation leaders and student leaders to bring those students to us, so we could help figure out a more stable way to assist them. We worked through a process of identifying how we were at least going to provide meals when they were on campus over any given period of time depending on need.

There was a strong sense of support, teaching a student how to advocate for themselves and how to take referrals, and follow through with them, because that's when you see the stick happening. That's when you see the progress moving forward. It moves them out of crisis stage into 'I've got a plan. It's not going to happen overnight, and I've got to stick with it.' But we start to see more complete relief over time.

The person we selected, our Associate Dean, had certainly helped many students in the past, but it wasn't advertised across the university that if someone's having a challenge, this is where we want them to go. We also have a lot of folks in campus ministry that are extremely helpful to students who are struggling with these kinds of needs. Having a partnership so there's consistency in how we assist students was really important to us. And being able to go out to the rest of the community and to the faculty and ask that if someone brings a situation like this to us, rather than referring them to local resources or giving personal funds to assist, they should send them to this person and the system will activate. It's been a work in progress over the last five or six years, but now we're at a comfort place.

It comes from different places. Some comes from the fundraising that our own students have done; they do a really good job of raising funds for all kinds of important issues and causes. We've also had some donors who have recognized this need, either through reading about it in the newspaper or because they themselves struggled as a student and think back on that and how it would have been helpful.

Sometimes it is through partnerships, and we've created some really good partnerships which have assisted greatly in this process. Every campus will do that differently, but I know that there has been support on our campus from our auxiliary services team and our CFO to do this and also some of it has come from connecting students to services and teaching those key touchpoint folks what those services are.