The Dignity of All
Siena Heights Is a Safe Haven for Many Students . . . Including the Homeless
By Doug Goodnough
Editor’s Note: Because of the sensitivity of the issue and privacy concerns, the names of the students who were interviewed for this feature have been changed.
Siena Heights University ends its mission statement with the phrase, “. . . respects the dignity of all.” That’s a bold statement to make. But Siena Heights has a history of educating students of all backgrounds, traditional and non-traditional alike.
However, there is another, almost invisible, group that also must be educated. It’s those students without a place to call home. Maybe they are victims of circumstances, a bad family experience, or just abject poverty. Society often shows little mercy on these students, leaving them to fend for themselves, bouncing from house to house, place to place, with little or no hope of escaping their fate. And the cruel irony is they don’t want to be seen, don’t want to be heard. In fact, many are embarrassed to even ask for help, often victims of their own fierce pride.
Enter the safe haven of Siena Heights. We sometimes serve as the Ellis Island of higher education for these students. If the United States of America is the Land of Opportunity, Siena Heights is the University of Opportunity. These students come to our doorstep, sometimes unwittingly, looking for a break. A chance. And through some creative financial aid, compassionate faculty and staff and leaning on the words of the mission, Siena Heights casts its safety net to these homeless students, reeling them into the safe, nurturing environment that only a small, personalized community can provide.
These students all have their own stories to tell. Reflections interviewed some of them to provide a cross-section of what these student experience on campus. And we also highlight what Siena Heights does—many times behind the scenes— to help these students, both on and off campus.
Siena Heights University is truly “Opportunity U.”
A One-Way Ticket to Siena Heights
A college education was something not only discouraged in Andrea’s family, it was not permitted. So when Andrea graduated from high school, her father gave her an ultimatum—if you go to college, don’t bother coming home.
“They thought it was stupid,” Andrea said of her father’s and stepmother’s opinion of a college education. “They said it was pointless.”
However, Andrea, who moved in with some friends after graduating, felt the call to do something better with her life, and she believed college was the right path.
College was always talked of highly in high school,” she said. “I always saw the signs on (students’) lockers saying what college they were going to. … I was directionless, but I knew I wanted to do something college-wise.”
It was very difficult to deal with. But for some reason, being at school was a huge comfort. Siena Heights gave me a good feeling as soon as I came in the doors. — Andrea
One day the friends she was staying with visited Siena Heights, and Andrea decided to tag along.
“We went into admissions, and they asked me, ‘Are you interested in going (to Siena Heights)?’” Andrea said. “I said, ‘I don’t have any money and my parents don’t want me to.’ … They started talking about ways I could come to Siena.”
That “way” was financial aid, and Andrea needed a lot of it. Without her parents to rely on, Andrea said, admissions, financial aid and some caring faculty helped her not only get to Siena Heights, but stay here.
Andrea paid another, steeper price for attending Siena Heights. She was, in essence, homeless, because of her decision. In fact, until this spring, she has not had any direct contact with her parents for nearly five years, meaning her ticket to Siena Heights was one way.
“I knew that I couldn’t go back,” Andrea said. “It was very difficult to deal with. But for some reason, being at school was a huge comfort. Siena Heights gave me a good feeling as soon as I came in the doors.”
She embraced her new adopted Siena “family,” getting involved in campus life as much as possible. Holidays and breaks were difficult, hanging out in the residence halls and working at a local retail store to pass the time.
“I stayed in the dorms and went to work and back,” Andrea said. “I wouldn’t tell the whole world I didn’t have anywhere to go.”
During those breaks, Andrea discovered there were several students in similar situations. In fact, she said they called themselves “lobby rats,” hanging out in the sitting rooms outside the residence halls. Sometimes they would play games like hide-and-go-seek around campus, other times they would spend hours in heart- to-heart conversations about life.
“We share a common bond,” she said of her fellow “lobby rats.” “When you can relate to someone a little bit like that about who you are, it goes a little deeper. … Everyone has their own story, and everyone brings something different to the table.”
She said at times some SHU faculty and staff members became parental figures, especially when she needed it the most.
“I feel like the teachers here definitely want to connect with you,” Andrea said. “I didn’t tell my story many times to people, but for some reason, (faculty and staff) treated me with much more compassion.”
Now, she is ready to “pay it forward.” Andrea will graduate in May, and although she isn’t quite yet sure what career path she will take, she knows it will involve helping others.
“I love people, just the interaction with them,” she said. “I want to affect one million people in a positive way. … I plan on giving back. I do plan on making a fund or doing something for students who are in a situation like me.
“Ideally, I want to end up in an orphanage. I feel like the orphans are at a critical age. … If I’m around kids that age, I can help them become better adults.”
Andrea said Siena Heights did that for her, helping her become more sociable, more compassionate, and, most importantly, a better person. In fact, she has recently reconciled with her father and stepmother, as well as with her estranged birth mother. She now has a place to go during breaks and holidays, although she said she still considers Siena Heights her home.
“I’ve thought about everything that has happened at Siena Heights University, which I would say is my life,” Andrea said. “I do feel like I’m home.”
An Angel in Disguise
Getting hit by a car turned out to be one of the best things that could have happened to Norman.
Mostly due to financial difficulties, Norman’s family moved out of state before he started his freshman year at Siena Heights, leaving him to fend for himself. Norman stayed with friends near the Adrian campus, and his bicycle was his only means of transportation. While riding in town one day, he emerged from the sidewalk behind some bushes and never saw the car that intersected the path of his bike. He suffered some bumps and bruises, but his bike did not survive the accident.
“Pretty much my transportation was shot,” said Norman, who now had no way to get to either school or work, except on foot. “I had to start walking back and forth. I had to spend my day here on campus and wait it out before I could actually go and get anything to eat.”
At the time it happened, it was a seemingly devastating blow. But the accident drew the attention of the right person, who quickly came to his aid.
“Trudy (McSorley) found out about this and was very concerned,” Norman said of SHU’s then Dean for Students. “She started talking about getting me here on campus. She said, ‘We can’t have you living in a situation like that.’”
Norman soon moved into the residence halls—even though he did not have the money to pay for on-campus housing.
“(Trudy) was there, and she just took me under her wing right away,” he said. “She knew I was in trouble and was having difficulties. … She was an angel in disguise.”
With his family living too far away to visit on holidays, Norman stays on campus during breaks. He said campus life has enriched his college experience.
“I always thought I was going to miss out on the living-on-campus experience,” he said. “One of the things college is about is getting out on your own and living among other people.”
Trudy was there, and she took me under her wing right away. She knew I was in trouble and having difficulties . . . She was an angel in disguise. – Norman
Now a junior, Norman is involved in the theater program, both in acting and as a playwright. He said the people at Siena Heights who know about his situation treat him with compassion, not pity, which he appreciates. And Norman has found other students on campus who do not have a place to call home.
“I feel like we found each other,” he said. “There’s people around campus who know what the difficulties are like. They don’t have to put a façade around each other. … A lot doesn’t need to be said.”
Norman said he isn’t sure he would have stayed at Siena Heights if he didn’t move on campus. He is appreciative of the opportunity he was given, and knows it was a financial sacrifice for Siena Heights.
“It’s special because I think they would give me the help even when they are not able to do it,” Norman said. “Someone could say it would be smart to just let this one go. … People were just so willing to help.”
Norman said his experiences have given him a determination to make the most of his education.
“It would be terrible to waste,” he said. “Wherever I go (after graduation), there’s always going to be a piece of me that knows I can come back here, and there’s going to be people here who are excited to hear what I’ve done. And I’m going to be excited to tell them. Wherever I go, I’m going to be taking Siena with me.”
Is this Heaven? No, it’s Siena Heights
Most people don’t know what it’s like to sleep on the steps of an office building.
Growing up in a city, Derek was estranged from his parents during most of his high school years. He bounced around from house to house, friend to friend, just to have a warm place to lay his head. And sometimes he was homeless.
After graduating from a performing arts high school, Derek had few options. So he worked several low-paying jobs, just enough to afford a low-income apartment, but not much else.
Siena helped me out with things I couldn’t afford . . . Books, calculators. They just did whatever they possibly could to make sure I was OK. — Derek
“I worked to save money, but the best job I could get was minimum wage,” Derek said. “I needed to do something with my life. I needed to find some other way to get into college.”
This went on for three years, until a friend told Derek about the small, private school he was attending. That school was Siena Heights.
“He said, ‘You need to go to Siena. They might be able to help you. Why don’t you just show up?’”
Derek did, and Siena did the rest.
“They guided me through everything I needed to do,” he said. “Scholarships. Grants. Eventually I got here.”
Getting to Siena was one thing, staying was another. Several years out of high school, Derek had to re-acclimate himself to the learn-ing environment. He eventually did, and now is studying to become an actor.
“I ended up falling in love with (acting),” he said. “The people from the (theater) program took me in and guided me through. That’s what I plan on doing for the rest of my life.”
However, living on campus was an easier transition.
“It was heaven. It was great,” he said. “It was definitely security. I feel like I kind of accomplished something. It is my home now. I now have hope.”
He said his age difference can be isolating at times, but he said he combats loneliness with reading and other activities. And he is focused on the task at hand.
“I want to get my education. I want a bachelor’s degree,” Derek said. “I’m really passionate about it. I’m a survivor, and I try to get where I can.”
He said the environment at Siena Heights has allowed him to thrive. And when he needed help, it was there.
“(Siena) helped me out with things I couldn’t afford,” Derek said. “Books, calculators. They just did whatever they possibly could to make sure I was OK.”
Derek said he now has a future, something he wasn’t so sure about a couple of years ago.
“I felt like I was off the radar,” he said. “Nobody knew anything about me until I got to Siena. … Once I graduate I’ll know I’ll have that bachelor’s degree in my hand and I’ll be above the minimum wage.”
The Safety Net of Siena
When Trudy McSorley started teaching at Siena Heights in 1973, there was no such thing as a homeless student.
“It was $225 to live in the residence halls and $750 per semester to go to school here,” McSorley said. “It didn’t break anybody’s back.”
But things have changed. As a faculty member in the theater department, McSorley started to become aware of students who did not have a place to go during holidays and other breaks.
Somehow we catch them in this wonderful safety net of love and bring them in so at least here, they’re safe. It’s what we are as an institution. — Trudy
“When I said goodbye to our students, I began to be aware of the fact that they all didn’t have a nurturing home to go to.”
To help these students, Siena hired them to work in public safety or maintenance, allowing them to stay on campus. McSorley said Director of Public Safety Cindy Birdwell even brought a holiday feast to campus for these students to give them a taste of home.
When she was promoted to Dean for Stu- dents in 2003, she realized there were not only homeless students on campus, but the problem was more widespread than she thought. There were students who were not necessarily homeless, but because of family conflict and strife, they didn’t want to—or couldn’t—go home.
“What I wanted to do was to feed them all,” McSorley said. “It was my Polish nature.”
She certainly tried. A kitchen was installed in the residence halls to allow students to prepare their own meals. And McSorley often negotiated with the university’s food service to scrounge whatever food she could get.
When Sister Peg Albert was named SHU President in 2006, McSorley soon found another ally. In fact, McSorley quickly wore a path to the president’s office when she found a student in need. And the answer, not surprisingly, was always “yes.”
“You network with faculty, you network with students. You find out that way and you try to provide for what their need is,” she said. “We need to be there for them so we know what they are going through and they are going to be supported and sustained. If we aren‘t doing what we say that we do, that building of community, that‘s how you find out.”
McSorley said the Siena Heights “safety net” is cast beyond just the faculty and staff. She has seen alumni and board members step up to help homeless students in need, paying for things such as tuition, room and board—even eyeglasses.
“This is what we do,” McSorley said. “(Students) probably get lots more than they would have gotten elsewhere because someone went to bat for them.”
McSorley, who retired as dean last year but is still serving the university as a special assistant to the president for Mission Education an Iden- tity, said she is still plugged into the needs of students. In fact, she has even more time to concentrate on those who need a little extra help.
“Their pride is what sustains them,” said McSorley of the common thread these students possess. “They’re survivors. They’re real resilient and real determined to make it. I think they’ve found here the encouragement to be strong.
“One of the values about Siena Heights is that we’re small and we catch them in this net. There’s all these nets. Somehow we catch them in this wonderful safety net of love and bring them in so at least here, they’re safe. It’s what we are as an institution.”
Siena Heights is also actively involved in homeless issues in the community. Here are a couple of examples of its involvement:
• Share the Warmth is the name of an ecumenical homeless shelter that is open nightly in Adrian during the winter months. The building belongs to the Salvation Army, but the shelter stays open with help of volunteers, including Siena Heights faculty, staff and students. Guests are men and women over the age of 18 looking for a safe, warm place to stay for a night. The shelter opens daily at 7 p.m. Sunday to Saturday, and averages approximately 12 guests per night. Siena Heights staffed the shelter for two weeks in 2012. Each day is split into two shifts. The first shift runs from 6:45 to 11 p.m. The second shift ruins from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. The first way to volunteer is to take a shift. Volunteers provide supper or supply food, snacks, or soups for the guests. Share the Warmth also helps pro- vide paper products like towels, toilet paper and cleaning supplies. The coordinators of Siena Heights’ volunteer efforts are Sister Pat Schnapp and Tom Puszczewicz.
• Each November during Homeless Awareness Month, Siena Heights University hosts the Lenawee County Homeless Education Conference in Dominican Hall. This half-day conference is for educators, students, homeless education liaisons, grant writers, service providers and others who work for or are interested in the issue of student homelessness. This is the eighth year this conference has been conducted, and the SHU social work program is involved in the planning of this event, along with the Lenawee Intermediate School District. At the conference, the Sister Norma Dell Courage to Care Award is presented to a group or individual who made significant improvements in creating and coordinating homeless prevention services, advocating for the homeless or providing homelessness prevention services in Lenawee County. Sister Dell, OP, is a 1957 Siena Heights graduate who was the first director of the Lenawee Emergency and Affordable Housing Corp.