When Palo Alto College received its charter in 1983, the founders knew exactly what their mission would entail. After a decade of fighting for a community college on the Southside or Westside, they knew that the community would need more than open doors. To really create opportunity for this historically underserved area, they would need to tailor campus life and services to the realities of their target demographic.
A college on the Southside, where Palo Alto ended up, would need to be ready for students who are juggling financial and social responsibility and burdens as they forged the tough road out of poverty and toward a prosperous future.
The founders saw the college as a resource for the community, not just for those enrolled in classes, but also for those whose neighborhood now included an institution of higher learning, and a pathway to the middle class.
The Palo Alto College S.H.A.R.E. (Student Health, Advocacy, Resource, and Engagement) Center opened in December. Its intent is to benefit both students and community members by bringing counseling, wellness, food security, and career training – also known as wraparound services – into one building.
Many educators can tell you that trying to learn while you are hungry, hurting, or anxious can be an exercise in futility. Community schools and other models are taking on this challenge in the K-12 sector. Palo Alto, because of its mission, would face the same issues. Not only its students, but also the families and neighbors they care for, would need more than brain food on their journey.
“Everyone has competing demands,” Palo Alto College President Michael Flores said. “We want to be able to address those personal needs so they can solely focus on their academic interests.”
Behind the frosted glass of the S.H.A.R.E. Center, students and community members enter a safe place to take a load off. That load might be an abusive relationship they are afraid to leave. Can they leave if they don’t have a job? Can they get a job if they aren’t equipped with a résumé, professional attire, and interview skills?
Perhaps it is a mother who wants to go to school in order to provide for her kids. But the children are hungry now, and if she takes time off to go to school, there will be less money for groceries.
The S.H.A.R.E. Center addresses issues tangled up in the heavy burdens shouldered by those in need of help. Their situation rarely hinges on one simple thing, Carlos Cruz, Palo Alto’s director of student life said.
“Usually if someone comes in for one of (the short-term assistance) services, there are other issues,” Cruz explained.
The first thing visitors see when they enter the S.H.A.R.E. Center is a smile, like the one on Jenna Bonilla’s face.
Bonilla’s official role is with Bae-B-Safe, a sexual health resource funded by Healthy Futures of Texas. She’s there to discuss safe sex, birth control, and other sex-related topics in the interest of keeping young women healthy, empowered, and in school.
She also acts as triage for the center. She can point them to the food pantry, stocked by the San Antonio Food Bank, or the clothes closet, stocked by Goodwill. With their immediate needs met, some people are more amenable to consider counseling or a financial literacy consultation.
“I think it’s going to make a big impact,” Bonilla said.
In the food pantry, Cruz ushers “shoppers” toward the fresh fruit before they move through to the canned goods, breads, and other options. They are given one shopping bag to fill with general food stuffs, and another bag for only fresh fruit, all at no cost.
The services provided by the S.H.A.R.E. Center are a response to student needs.
In 2015, a group of campus stakeholders, including students and faculty, convened to discuss holistic service possibilities that would benefit the student body and community alike, in keeping with the original mission of the school.
The Palo Alto administration conducted a needs survey among 2,300 of the school’s 8,600 students. Students could indicate more than one need.
Fifty percent of respondents answered that they needed help entering the job market. Internships, mock interviews, résumé prep, and other services would help them get in the door to use the skills they gained in college.
Around 40-50% answered that they needed financial services. They wanted to create short-term budgets and long-term planning goals, but needed guidance. Some qualified for short-term assistance, but needed to know where to look.
Finally, 30% answered that they needed access to health care, counseling, and a food pantry or similar service.
“We have a large population of food insecure students,” Flores said. “There really is evidence of the need to provide students with these resources.”
With the need clearly in front of them, the administration applied for a Title V grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Palo Alto was awarded $2.62 million.
The school then partnered with the Daughters of Charity to access nonprofit services. The University Health System’s mobile health unit came out for the center’s soft opening, and will continue to help Palo Alto expand the center’s services.
The center feels natural on campus, as the school has always had a caring family atmosphere, Cruz said. If features an onsite daycare, and the “Palomino Tree” where staff, students, and community who need some Christmas help can hang their children’s names and Christmas wishes on the tree for friends to fulfill.
“It’s just so much more than classes,” Cruz said.
The S.H.A.R.E. Center is also a learning opportunity, functioning like a lab for the Community Service Learning module at Palo Alto.
All of this happened between the spring of 2015 and December 2016. The turnaround on this kind of vision could have easily been mired in red tape and bureaucracy. Flores credits the Baldrige Framework for the efficiency, and the college’s mission for the passion to see it through. Not merely an add-on or an auxiliary service, the S.H.A.R.E. Center is a natural extension of the core values of Palo Alto.