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Shoeless at Sierra: College faces up to student poverty

Sierra College Foundation leads effort to provide crisis cash
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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AUBURN CA - The term ?starving student? is no longer a jokey catch-phrase at Rocklin?s Sierra College. Instead, a major fund-raising drive led by the Sierra College Foundation is acknowledging homelessness and poverty among the student population. Andrew Nelson, Sierra College Student Senate president, said the reality of poverty on campus hit him hard when a friend came into his office in bare feet one day. ?My first reaction was that students have a lot of different philosophies and she was not wearing shoes because she was expressing a philosophy,? Nelson said. ?But then she told me that she only had one pair of shoes and that she had to use those for work.? A concerned Nelson offered to buy the student a new pair of shoes but she declined. ?I think it was pride,? he said. ?But students are struggling financially and even making it to class barefoot. And that?s exactly what the Sierra Emergency Fund is for, whether it?s buying a student a pair of glasses or providing money for a place to stay for a week.? Nelson said he?s also heard of students sleeping in their cars because they don?t have the money for a place to stay. ?I?m really behind the Sierra Emergency Fund,? he said. ?What I?ve seen is powerful and sticks in my mind. As tuition fees go up, as parking fees goes up and healthcare costs go up, a lot of these things can compound together.? More than 21,000 students attend Sierra College and information from the foundation states financial aid need has increased 40 percent over just the past two years as tuition and book costs have jumped. At the same time, the unemployment rate is up and students are having a hard time finding jobs. Sonbol Aliabadi, Sierra College Foundation executive director, said that the college board recognized the growing crisis for many students and decided to raise $250,000 for an endowment that would fund support for students in crisis. ?The college has had an emergency fund for the last three years and it has been able to give $150 here and $250 there,? Aliabadi said. ?Some students are homeless, others are in need of medical assistance because they have no insurance. Still others need to buy gas for cars. Times are tough and these students are really hurting.? The board decided that the problem is never going to go away and needs to be addressed in a permanent way, Aliabadi said. ?Sometimes, it comes down to a question of staying in school or leaving school,? she said. ?The board decided to focus on it once and for all to raise $250,000 and establish a fund.? With $50,000 already raised, most notably from the foundation-hosted Taste of Excellence event, the emergency fund still has about $200,000 to go, Aliabadi said. ?It?s going to take an entire community to raise funds,? Aliabadi said. ?We?re going to ask college supporters and alumni, but this will also be a grass-roots effort appealing to students.? Nelson, who was to graduate this past Friday, said that he?s seen his friend since that meeting in his office. ?She definitely has shoes,? he said. ?She made it through that rough patch.?