In order to affect change, universities must use a combination of reactionary and preventative measures. Listening to the student voice is of the utmost importance when taking meaningful action, as well as being able to adapt when new ideas are presented, in particular when dealing with students in crisis — like the hungry and homeless students, who are often unseen.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews sat down with Annie Ciaraldi, Associate Dean of Student Affairs for Compliance and Violence Prevention at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, to discuss the work she is passionate about.
I’m the Associate Dean of Student Affairs for Compliance and Violence Prevention at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
I’ve been at the university for thirty-two years! I started working in residence life, doing staff development and housing assignments. I’ve worked my way up the ranks, and this position is hopefully the final one because I'm going to retire in three to five years. I worked with an amazing dean, who helped me design it around my passions — things like the legal parts of Higher Education (HE), crisis management, and helping students.
I oversee a couple of departments; one of them is preventative education. Their goal is to prevent sexual violence, alcohol and drug overuse and abuse, and suicide. On top of that, I work very much in the homeless and hungry student realm, which is actually more reactionary than preventative, but there’s a lot of education that comes with it.
We do a lot of workshops on all of these — both for our faculty and staff, like how to recognize a student in crisis, and for our students too. We’re consistently trying to educate them on the signs and symptoms of mental health, alcohol and drug issues, as well as having healthy relationship talks and consent training.
All our workshops are basically small discussions. For example, we are a division one school for athletics, and we have a lot of athletes. We meet with each team, rather than with all athletes at once. We talk about the realities of consent, and how damaging sexual assault can be for the lives of everyone involved — both for the perpetrator and the victim.
We talk about the realities of consent, and how damaging sexual assault can be for the lives of everyone involved — both for the perpetrator and the victim.
My director of conduct was having one of these conversations with the men’s basketball team. One player said he gave a girl a couple of drinks, but she still consented — and then another basketball player stepped in to say ‘No, she can’t consent if you’ve gotten her drunk.’ So it began a great conversation between them where they started policing each other — the bystander effect.
When I first started this work in 2001, we were meeting with the Center for Hope and Healing, which is a rape crisis counselling center in the area. We were talking about the workshops that we do, which back then were big programs, speakers, et cetera. They said that it was not going to be effective at all. What we needed was to meet with small cohorts of people and have impactful discussions. So we stopped the big, flashy programmes, and have workshops with meaningful conversations instead.
The biggest passion of my life is working with hungry, homeless students. I’ve been in student affairs for thirty-eight years, and if thirty-eight years ago you told me that I would work with homeless students I would have said that it didn’t exist. Now, I’m sure it did, but you never saw it.
We started in 2012 with a student group on campus that was running its own food pantry out of the trunks of their cars. After about a year later they came to me because they were struggling, and we agreed we needed to do more.
There were a lot of students who didn’t have enough food, coming from foster care or as unaccompanied youth. I was shocked. At first, the only space we could get was two eight-foot-tall closets in our mail room. That’s when it struck me that we needed to educate people that this is real. After about a year and a half of that, I went to my dean and said we need a bigger space. It’s embarrassing for students who are already feeling stigmatized because they don’t have any food to have to go to a mail room, where their friends are picking up packages but they’re picking up food. So we opened the food pantry we have now.
The university community is incredibly generous. Each department donates on a monthly basis, alongside the food bank in town. At first, we were serving 50 or 60 students a week, but it just kept picking up, so pre-pandemic we were at about 150 students a week. Now we’re up to about 220 clients a week. We also have a Support Our Students meal swipe program (SOS), where students donate to other students, which went from 45 pre-pandemic to about 70 this semester. Likewise, our homeless numbers are much higher.
I know from talking to students that they feel like the university genuinely cares about them. They call me their fairy godmother, it’s so sweet. Students who come to use our services are definitely from lower income, no family contributions with nothing supporting them. Most of our clients are students of color too, and a lot of international students. Despite a lot of people thinking international students come here wealthy, a lot of them need assistance and because they don’t qualify for federal assistance, we’re their support net.
When I started this work, about five of us got together. Now, we’re a group of roughly fifty-six. We’re known as single points of contact, so although some students won’t know of our services, if they are referred or see our marketing and messaging they will discover we all have established food pantries and different levels of support.
Anyone who wants to get into HE needs to know that although this is like any job you take on, you need to have a passion for what you’re doing. Depending on what area you’re in, the work can be very stressful. If I didn’t love what I’m doing it would be impossible to do this work.
Also, when you’re young in this field, try to change what you do every three or four years. Find your passion and discover all the different flavours of HE.
My favorite person in HE is Jamie Washington. He’s amazing. He’s both in HE and a preacher, which you’ll know if you hear him talk. The very first time I saw him in action was at a social justice training institute where he was one of the leaders. It was awesome to hear him and talk with him. I have had him come to our campus talk to students and staff; he’s just wonderful.
The Privileged Poor by Anthony Abraham Jack. I had him come as a speaker for a conference we had called The Voices of Hunger. He’s now an Assistant Professor at Harvard University; he started there as a freshman when he was homeless. He talks about how you can go to Harvard as a poor person, but — at least when he was there — in summer and winter breaks, he had to leave. He had no place to go, but Harvard wasn’t letting him stay. He’s done a lot of work on how colleges fail their students like that, and I believe has been one of the catalysts for change.