Student Inspires Campus Change
To her peers, Linda Coleman is "Mama" Linda, an ever-listening ear attached to a big heart filled with wisdom. She's a 1 a.m. phone call—the one who answers—and a ride in the rain. And she's the student behind GSU4U, an initiative by the Office of the Dean of Students set to launch at Governors State University in the fall that "connects students to campus and community resources when they are facing personal difficulties, such as food and housing insecurity."
"We have a lot of resources already in place," Coleman said, "but students become intimidated. They become afraid. They don't want to have a conversation about what they're going through. It's coming from an underlying sense of pride, but at the same time it's a sense of shame and just wanting to be able to resolve the problem on your own without others knowing what you're going through."
Those resources include the Jaguar Pantry, an open food pantry that supplies nonperishable food, access to showers in the Athletics and Recreation Center, and counseling through the GSU Counseling Center.
Coleman, who is working on her Master's degree in Communication, first became aware of what she saw as "a gap" on campus when she began working with other students in a peer mentoring capacity through the Dual Degree Program (DDP) and Center for the Junior Year, as well as through her position on campus as a student senator.
"I'm a student senator and a DDP mentor, and so students would come to me—and not just because of academics. Everything ties in together," she said. "You know, once students realize that they can talk to you, that you will hold their information as dear to you as it is to them and that you'll hold it confidentially, then you find that students will open up. When they realize that you'll answer their call, that it doesn't matter what you're doing, that you'll answer—" Coleman paused, words temporarily replaced by a lump in her throat. "They share, and with the sharing you find out so many things. So I started talking to people and finding resources."
Coleman said that she knew there were safety nets in place for students who struggled with basic needs, and she knew there were people on campus helping them, but none of them were communicating with each other. The goal of her LED Capstone project was to bring these disparate parts together at GSU and centralize support and assistance.
At GSU, a capstone experience is a project situated within your major or honors program, completed in close consultation with a faculty mentor. Some students opt to write a thesis, others create arts performances or exhibitions.Some, like Coleman, are drawn to projects that are interdisciplinary in nature and involve community partnerships.
Dr. Aurelio Valente, Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students as well as a driving force behind GSU4U, called Coleman's Student Leadership Capstone project an integral piece of "the perfect storm" that led to the program's development.
"Her project was on addressing student health disparities, so GSU4U is an effort to link campus to community agencies, because they can be really hard to navigate, particularly when you're in the moment and are in crisis," Valente said. "Absolutely we have students who are facing homelessness, but we have many more students facing housing insecurity, where their housing isn't stable. They're living in a hotel, living with friends—when they are in survival mode, facing the question of where they're going to sleep, students can't finish a semester."
The goal, he said, of GSU4U is to create an active referral network that helps students navigate the often daunting labyrinth of social services and community agencies. From acquiring government identification—especially for students with no permanent address—to providing access to a "career closet" for those who can't afford a work wardrobe, the initiative aims to elevate the whole student from "a surviving mentality to a thriving one," according to Valente.
As for Coleman, she will serve as the graduate assistant for the initiative while continuing to fulfill her many roles, on and off of campus: student, mother, grandmother, graduate assistant, member of the Student Senate, student trustee to the GSU Board of Trustees, president of both Tau Sigma and Upsilon Phi Delta National Honors Societies, Global Brigade president, and most of all—friend.
"They were coming to talk to me because I'm Linda. I just happened to be on Student Senate, and I just happened to be a mentor and a peer success coach in the Center for the Junior Year. I realized a long time ago that it's just the way I'm built. I do it because I enjoy doing it."