Skip to main content

Homelessness Closer to Home: Nurturing Student Success

Jeannine Huenemann


View as a pdf

The STARS! GEAR UP program at Utah State University serves schools with low-income populations
The STARS! GEAR UP program at Utah State University works with schools in Utah and Nevada to help low-income students stay in school and see college as an option

The typical high school student faces many stresses and challenges as they work toward high school graduation. Grades, test scores, and after-school activities are all pieces of the puzzle that help students start to see college as an option. We tend to be less aware of the challenges that schools see holding their students back, such as access to food and shelter.

Often, homelessness seems like a problem found elsewhere. Since the STARS! GEAR UP program at Utah State University targets schools with larger low-income populations that are at-risk, it seems fitting to share a story about homelessness closer to home. One of our site coordinators told us about a student in their program that we feel should be shared with our community of partners. We have changed elements of the story to protect the student’s privacy.

During the first quarter of this year, James (not his real name) was failing many of his classes. It appeared that he didn't care about school or grades. He didn't talk much to anyone or take part in class, and it seemed like he just lost interest. In November, the school discovered that the student and his dad had been evicted from their home. With nowhere to go, they lived in a borrowed space, lacking basic comforts.

The staff at school was beginning to understand why the student had shut down. Lacking his home and other basic necessities, James was embarrassed by his situation and wouldn’t ride the bus to school. Instead, he walked over two miles to school each day. Most days he arrived late.

Knowing that connecting with at-risk students can have a big impact on their future, the school’s USU STARS! staff and a local family took a special interest in James. The staff checked in with him when he arrived at school, making sure he had a ride. They offered one-on-one tutoring, to help him improve his grades. The family helped him with homework in the afternoon and other basic needs. Within a month's time, James went from being a student who was failing classes and wouldn't talk to anyone to a student with As and Bs who wanted to talk with everyone.

The site coordinator shared this additional information, that James was also motivated by extracurricular activities. His school had an after-school club, supported by the GEAR UP program that he really loved attending. But, in order to attend, students must have passing grades. Now that James improved his grades, he hasn't missed the club at all this year. In fact, now that he is caught up, he has become a peer-mentor and helps other students with their homework during GEAR UP’s after-school tutoring program.

“GEAR UP can't take complete responsibility for his success,” said the site coordinator. “The family that helped him has been key. However, all students need a support system at home and at school. We loved being part of this process. He talks regularly about where he is going to college now, and I can't wait to see what is in store for him.”

Funding for GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) comes from the Department of Education, and is awarded to programs like the USU STARS! GEAR UP program as part of a national effort to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in higher education.