Amisha Chowdhury ’23 and Delilah Hernandez ’22 are no strangers to the struggles faced by first-generation, low-income students that attend Cornell. The two, who both transferred to the University in 2020, have experienced difficulty navigating resources and support on campus.
Now Chowdhury and Hernandez, alongside a group of students called the Basic Needs Coalition, are focused on opening a Basic Needs Center to aid students who face similar struggles.
Identifying the Need
Last year, while Hernandez was student advocate and Chowdhury was the director of finance, they began conducting outreach to students through workshops in the Office of the Student Advocate on obtaining public assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid Benefits, how to file taxes and Title IX protections.
In their six workshops, reaching 313 students, who were mostly undergraduates, the pair noticed how many students were not aware of the benefits and protections they had access to. So, the pair turned to a larger goal of opening a Basic Needs Center.
“A lot of students just didn’t know a lot about [the benefits they can get]. Coming in, I didn’t know either, but it was all a process and thankfully it worked out,” Hernandez said. “But, I think that personal experience, from all of us, made us want to continue this work.”
Findings From Survey on Basic Needs
To convey the importance of having a Basic Needs Center to the University administration, the pair needed to show students needs through data, so earlier this summer they conducted a survey which amassed over 550 responses in a short amount of time.
The survey revealed that a majority of the respondents faced challenges navigating resources at Cornell and many did not know about the resources available on campus. It also revealed a large discrepancy in a sense of belonging based on how the University addresses essential needs between first-generation, low-income students and their counterparts.
A vast majority of survey respondents said their most helpful guidance on essential resources has come from their peers, rather than the University administration.
According to the survey data the group provided to The Sun, 56.32 percent of the respondents said they did not know that they could opt into Student Health Plan Plus if they qualified for New York State Medicaid, allowing them to save money on University required health insurance.
In an interview with The Sun, Shahad Salman ’24, who joined the pair in the coalition in Spring 2022, shared her difficult experience finding resources for financing her healthcare costs. These experiences are what inspired her to join Hernandez and Chowdhury in their basic needs work.
“For me, accessing basic needs at Cornell has felt like a really isolating experience,” Salman said. “I remember in the first semester of my freshman year I was trying to find out if there was an alternative to paying this $3,000 [health insurance] fee. I’m a low income student, my expected family contribution is zero, so I can’t just pull out this money from nowhere, but a common response I was met with was ‘there’s nothing else you can do.’”
54.89 percent of respondents also said they had never visited the on campus food pantry. Of those respondents, about 61 percent said they had not visited because they did not know where the pantry was located.
Students also shared testimonials in the survey on their experience with basic needs at Cornell.
“I have had an extremely difficult time finding affordable housing at Cornell. The housing office is not helpful at all in provid[ing] students with resources for finding housing,” one student shared anonymously. “I almost became homeless due to this and would have benefitted from a space that would have connected me with the proper resources and tools to find better housing.”
In these testimonials, students shared stories of escaping medical debt through Medicaid and avoiding starvation through SNAP benefits, voicing the importance of all students having easy access to these resources.
“My experience has been that resources/help are available but I’ve had to go through layers of bureaucracy and digging for info[rmation] just to get them,” another student anonymously shared. “It is discouraging to have to do this just to get help.”
Bringing the “One-Stop Shop” Model to Cornell
While a Basic Needs Center is a novel idea for Cornell, it is based on a model seen at numerous universities across the country, including University of California Berkeley, University of California Davis, Stanford University, Oregon State University and City University of New York Lehman College.
At these universities and many others across the country, students can access an array of resources relating to food security, stable housing, healthcare and financial sustainability.
These centers hope to address the national issues many first-generation, low-income students face. A leading reason students drop out of college is financial pressure, according to a study conducted by the University Professional and Continuing Education Association.
U.C. Berkeley opened the first-of-its-kind “one-stop shop” in 2019 to address these same problems. This center was unique as it offers a variety of resources in one location, and this is the vision the Basic Needs Coalition is adopting for their own Basic Needs Center at Cornell.
The students in the Basic Needs Coalition are hoping to build a centrally located, physical space to address the food, housing, health insurance, job employment and financial literacy needs of students. The center would also offer peer-to-peer support run by student leaders and pay those students through federal work study.
Hernandez, Chowdhury and Salman stated the importance of having a physical space specifically to bring visibility to the common issues of first-generation, low-income students, so students will no longer need to grapple with finding solutions on their own.
“A physical space could foster and cultivate a sense of community on campus,” Hernandez said.
The students involved in the coalition are currently in the process of talking with the administration about making this idea a reality, and are hoping to grow this effort under the Office of the Dean of Students.
Chowdhury explained how one of the goals of the coalition is to get the University thinking about how to better support the first-generation, low-income students they admit. 19.9 percent of the admitted class of 2026 was composed of first-generation students.
“There’s more of us who are getting this incredible opportunity to be at Cornell but once we’re admitted, our financial hardship doesn’t go away,” Chowdhury said. “I think oftentimes that is not taken into account when structuring how to best support students.”