Obstacles such as food and housing insecurity can affect how a student does in class. A new partnership between Grand Rapids Community College and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services can connect students with outside resources to help them be successful.
This fall, GRCC became the only Michigan college to have a DHHS staff member assigned to it. Marjri Weller – a former GRCC student -- is on campus and working directly with students to connect them to state and local resources for housing, food, child care and more.
While Weller’s position is unique, she works to address student needs that are common, explains Sandy Gregory, of the office of the Dean of Student Success.
“This is a vital service for our students,” Gregory says. “GRCC has a strong interest in helping our students meet their basic needs so that they can be successful in their academic work. Our supports sometimes have limitations. Marjri, on the other hand, will be able to set students up with sustained support that they qualify for.”
Giving back at her former school
Weller will work closely with GRCC’s Student Success team, providing information regarding MDHHS programs and community resources, and serving as a referral source for students.
“What caught my eye about this new partnership is being able to help students in whatever they need, because I was once a student here at GRCC,” Weller says. “I have always wanted to give back, and this is the best way that I can.”
A Creston High School graduate, Weller earned her associate degree at GRCC and went on to Aquinas College, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in business, and Grand Valley State University, for a master’s degree in communication.
She returned to GRCC after four years as a family independent specialist/P2P success coach for MDHHS at César E. Chávez Elementary School in Grand Rapids.
She is on the third floor of GRCC’s Student Center on the main campus in downtown Grand Rapids, working a combination of in-person and remote hours. She expects to have a caseload of 150 to 200 cases.
Students have widespread needs
A 2020 Hope Center survey of about 1,000 GRCC students found that 48% experienced at least one form of basic-needs insecurity, including 29% who faced food insecurity in the prior 30 days, 40% who experienced housing insecurity in the prior year, and 11% who experienced homelessness in the prior year.
An August article in The Collegiate, GRCC’s student newspaper, noted that “35% of GRCC students struggle with food insecurity and 45% of GRCC students struggle with housing insecurity.”
Weller’s work joins that of many others on campus intended to change those startling statistics. And she’s already having an impact on GRCC’s students.
“I recently shared the first of what I hope will be many success stories,” she says. “A fulltime GRCC student came to me and said her biggest barrier was transportation. We worked together, and we were able to find her employment on campus, and then we also solved her transportation challenge (using a state program).”
Weller says this is just one example of how her work with MDHHS can help, including assistance with food and medical needs, child development and care, state emergency relief, and even cash assistance. Eligibility criteria must be met to get assistance, and helping students navigate the various systems will be a big part of her work.
“I am finding that students are coming to me for assistance, but I am also getting a lot of referrals from staff, and I am thankful for that,” Weller says. “What I would like to say to the students who don’t know about me and the services is that even if they do or don’t think they qualify for assistance, please apply at michigan.gov/mibridges
and let’s find out.”
Finding help from outside the college
Gregory notes that while GRCC has many in-house systems to support students, those systems sometimes have restrictions.
“For example, a student can only receive financial support from the Emergency Grant once in a 12-month period,” Gregory says. “Also, while students can visit the Student Food Pantry once a week, we are often limited on the items that we have available, based on the stock on hand at Feeding America. With Marjri on campus, we can offer students so much more.”
Gregory says the agreement with the state that brought Weller to GRCC is in place for two years.
“In partnership with GRCC staff, she will be an integral part of making sure we are able to connect students to all applicable supports so that they can ultimately meet their educational goals,” Gregory says.
Tracey Fountain, director of the MDHHS Kent County office, says it quickly was apparent in the early discussions between the state and the college that a partnership could benefit both.
“GRCC students benefit from having an assigned Family Independence specialist from MDHHS stationed on-site at the GRCC main campus to assist with barrier removal and application support to access the assistance programs,” she says. “And this partnership also further supports the vision of MDHHS, which is to develop and encourage measurable health, safety and self-sufficiency outcomes that reduce and prevent risks, promote equity, foster health habits and transform the health and human services system to improve the lives of Michigan families.”
An added bonus, Fountain says, is “the opportunity to strengthen our recruitment of students and graduates who have an interest in serving in the human services field to further the mission of our agency.”