At Ivy Tech Community College, An Online Tool Helps Students Address Life Challenges

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Samantha Owen quit her job to finish college, and her husband works full time on the night shift, so they switch off caring for their two toddlers. “My kids know I go to school, and they know that when mommy’s not here, that’s where she is, you know? And I want them to see how important it is for them to have an education and stability before they make a family,” Owen said. All photos by Kelly West / AUNT BERTHA

By Jodi Gonzalez, Contributor to Aunt Bertha
Working toward a degree can be an exciting time in a student’s life. It is a solid step toward a rewarding future and a dream fulfilled. However, for some students, it can also be a stressful time with outside factors such as food insecurity, medical or mental health issues, or the threat of homelessness making it tough to focus on learning.

At Ivy Tech Community College, a network of more than 40 campuses in Indiana, a pillar of their strategic plan is to ensure the basic needs of students are met

Ivy Tech’s graduation rate for students starting school for the first time in Fall 2015 was 21.5 percent, on par with national numbers for community colleges. That rate included students who took up to three years to graduate, or 150 percent of the time it would normally take on a two-year .

“We are aware of the many challenges that our students face, not just academic,” says Jodie Beatty, Vice Chancellor for Student Success at the Sellersburg campus. “Food insecurity, housing insecurity, health challenges, child-care issues, transportation. All of these can distract students from academic success. We knew we needed a solution, and we also knew it needed to be on a large scale.”

For Ivy Tech, that solution was Aunt Bertha.

Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana offers a variety of wraparound services, designed to help students dealing with everything in their lives outside of academics. The college decided to partner with Aunt Bertha to give their students better access to social services in their area.

Aunt Bertha, which started in 2010, is a web-based platform that makes it easier for anyone to find the social services they need. Instead of having to click through a multitude of tabs from government and other sites to find an organization that might be able to help their situation, users simply type in their ZIP code. The service, based in Austin, Texas, is free for all searchers and can be used 24 hours a day, eliminating the need to wait in lines or fit requests for help into set business hours.

With so many challenges facing Ivy Tech’s student body of almost 80,000, Beatty says they did their research and settled on a partnership with Aunt Bertha.

“A single unfortunate life event can quickly derail someone from their education. Food and housing insecurity, unreliable transportation, and ever-climbing living expenses are all real scenarios that modern students face that can lead to increased dropout rates and long-term life impact,” says Christen Geiger, Senior Customer Success Manager for Aunt Bertha. “Ivy Tech Community College partnered with Aunt Bertha to create Ivy Assist to help ensure students’ basic needs are met so they don’t have to choose between tuition or dinner.”

“We landed on Aunt Bertha because it is so easy to use and can be done on a large scale. And students didn’t necessarily need help to use it, Beatty says. The project was initially tested at three campuses  ̶  Sellersburg, Columbus and Lafayette  ̶  in March 2019 and to all Ivy Tech campuses in June 2019. “This fall is our first big semester,” Beatty says.

DeShawn Burrell, director of The Student Resource Center at Ivy Tech’s Sellersburg campus, conducts regular presentations for students about campus and community services that are available.

“Now, Ivy Assist is an extension of our office,” Burrell says.

Burrell says students who come directly to her office for help with food, housing, and other issues are pointed to the service. “We have very little time to discuss the intricacies of the program. Students like having that option to look through programs themselves. If I am unavailable or they need help during off hours, I advise them to go online and search Ivy Assist,” she says.

This flexibility has been eye-opening for Ivy Tech staff.

“I don’t know that anybody else had that ability to give us that level of information and that level of support to our students,” says Kat Stremiecki, Executive Director Student Life.

From Ivy Assist’s launch date of March 18, 2019, through the end of October 2019, a total of 12,316 distinct users had logged in, with a combined 26,561 searches on the Ivy Assist platform. In October, an average of 83 users logged in each day.

Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana offers a variety of wraparound services, designed to help students dealing with everything in their lives outside of academics. The college decided to partner with Aunt Bertha to give their students better access to social services in their area.

According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 50 percent of all community college students face food insecurity and 25 percent had experienced very low food security, which generally means they have access to some food but still qualify as hungry. And of the community college students who fall into these categories, about 75 percent also say they had housing insecurity, up to and including intermittent homelessness.

Ivy Assist’s most common search terms since the launch of the site are “food pantry,” “help pay for gas,” and “help pay for internet or phone” with the top three search categories being “housing,” “food,” and “health.”

College student Natasha Dennison picks out food items from the Bear Necessities food pantry at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana in Indianapolis. Ivy Tech offers the food pantry on campus as part of the college’s wraparound services, which seeks to address students’ non academic needs.

Many community college students juggle busy everyday lives in addition to their studies. Samantha Owen is a perfect example.

Owen’s typical day goes something like this: “My husband and I wake up and get our two kids ready for their day. My husband, who works overnights as a manager at a local factory, takes our oldest child to school and then comes home to take care of our youngest while I go to class at my campus, about an hour away in Sellersburg. After class, I often come home, change and go to work. I get home just in time to take over child care so my husband can leave for his shift. And then we do it all over again.” Owen also cares for her mother, who has multiple sclerosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and often visits and cares for her grandmother, who was recently diagnosed with dementia.

While trying to balance home, work, and school, Owen found herself needing help paying for tuition and supplies. She sought out Burrell and learned about Ivy Assist.

“Ivy Assist is so simple to navigate, and I had no idea about the thousands of resources all within my reach,” Owen says. “I will graduate in fall 2020 with an associate’s degree in Respiratory Therapy. I cannot ever find the words for how grateful I am that I get to finish this degree with so many people that believe in me.”

Owen is so impressed with the range of offerings and ease of use with Ivy Tech that she says she recommends the service to friends and classmates who are needing a little help.

“My best advice would be to not be so prideful,” she said. “That sometimes you have to reach out and let others know what you’re going through.”

Ivy Assist helps students find even the most basic items that most college students – and the rest of us – often take for granted.

Destiny Clark volunteers as a coach for the Brandeis Elementary Bears cheerleading team every week, in between working, going to college, and raising her 4-year-old son, Tevin. “I’m going to school and I’m being a mom and I’m giving back to our community, I’m giving my time to my community and I’m working as much as I can. And so I feel like it should be a little bit easier for me,” Clark said.

Destiny Clark, who will graduate in 2020 and go on to pursue a medical degree, didn’t know where to turn when she needed to wash clothes.

“We didn’t have any washing powder, and I was broke,” said Clark, a single mom to a 4-year-old son. “I was only working weekends because I am in school full time. I don’t really have time to go to work all the time and raise him and pay for childcare and stuff. So, I was desperate. I needed something to wash out clothes. Sometimes it’s like the smallest things that can trigger you, you know?”

A friend pushed her to speak to Burrell, who helped Clark find what she needed through Ivy Assist.

Currently, about 25 percent of students who visit Burrell have heard of Ivy Assist, she said. And word-of-mouth is spreading.

Burrell gives regular presentations about the service and after each one, she hands out bookmarks or marketing materials with more information on Ivy Assist. “I follow up with emails to see if they found Ivy Assist helpful or if I should follow up with them later,” she says.

So far, Burrell sees the type of requests she most expects, such as housing and childcare.

“They may have been in dependent relationships and are trying to get out on their own or came from another situation. They just don’t have housing security,” she says. “Also, we get many requests with utilities; I am sure we will be getting more of those with it getting cold.”

Samantha Owen serves lunch to her mother, Amanda Stancil, who she visits every day at her home in Madison, Indiana. Part of Owen’s motivation for going back to college to study respiratory therapy came from her experience helping care for Stancil, who has MS and COPD.

“Our students are here in the first place because a lot of them are trying to break out of that cycle of poverty, and they know that education is the way to get out,” Stremiecki says. “If we as an institution can help them get through that time by having a food pantry on campus or providing free bus service or having mental health counselors or even just emergency funds available for when students come up short at the end of the month and before they get paid the next time, we’re excited to be able to do that for our students.”

Kirin King, a 2017 Ivy Tech graduate who has returned to do an internship as she pursues her bachelor’s degree, uses the platform to help current students every day.

King’s internship is through disability support services, specifically an area called Pod 7, a wraparound service that helps students connect with services that can be found through Ivy Assist.

“I introduce Ivy Assist to every student who comes in. I have them go online, pull up Ivy Assist and pull down the list of local food pantries and make their own folder they could save so they can use those pantries if they aren’t at school and really need food,” she says. “Someone came in and needed a place to live, so we looked up housing options. Another student’s father has dementia and she won’t be able to care for him much longer, so we looked up care options and facilities for the elderly.”

King’s experience navigating Ivy Assist with students helped her when she fell on hard times herself. “My husband recently lost his job and I was looking for options for food, bill pay, job options just for ourselves.

“The folders have been a really big star point. It’s a good bonus because it keeps things on track, so a lot of the students really like the folders,” she says. “So far, I have used Ivy Assist with almost every student who comes in.”

One of Ivy Assist’s most useful features for help students is the ability to add services as new needs arise. “I have seen an increase in students asking for legal aid, so I was able to add that to the app,” she says.

Other campuses using the service report growing success as well. Kassie Ziegler is working toward her associate’s degree in general studies at the Columbus campus while also interning in human resources as a liaison between the community and students.

“At Ivy Tech, faculty and students have close relationships. I remember that on my first day, I had four faculty members stop me and ask if I needed anything,” Ziegler says. Students who need assistance generally reach out to an instructor or adviser, she says, and as new resources are discovered, the Ivy Tech faculty and advisers can update the Ivy Assist list and email students who have reached out to them for a specific kind of help. “Faculty members will come to us and let us know a student got the help they needed. Ivy Assist is a very good program.”

Samantha Owen is attending college full time at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana – Sellersburg in order to complete her respiratory therapy degree. Owen is also a mother of two toddlers, and found herself struggling to pay her tuition and textbook fees once she stopped working full time to go to school.

Owen says Ivy Assist was there for her when she really needed it. “At the time that I needed the assistance, it was paycheck to paycheck. And then all of a sudden, I had this huge bill for school, not including supplies, uniforms, background testing, shot records. And it kind of just hit me like a train.

“I didn’t know what to do it and know who to go to. But finally, I got my answers. I think once I got over the hump of telling people that I need help, it became a lot easier to explain to them what was going on,” Owen says.

She says that in her view, Ivy Assist is the best choice for students in need. “Ivy Assist is better than just searching it on Google because it’s specific to your area. You can search on there and … pull up something close to you, something tangible within your reach that you can go to or people you can talk to.”

This post was written by Jodi Gonzalez

Jodi N. Gonzalez is a veteran writer and editor. In her 25+-year career, she has managed copy desks and written content for the Austin American-Statesman and the Los Angeles Times’ online content group.