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There's No Place Like A Dorm Room For The Holidays

LA Johnson/NPR

It's final exam week for lots of college students. No doubt they're stressed right now, but once they hand in that last paper or take that last test, they're done for the semester. Pack up the suitcase and head home for the holidays.

But for some college students — many of whom are former foster youth — that's not quite what happens.

"I have no for-certain home, that's the thing," says Trudy Greer, a 22-year-old sophomore at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich. She says she's had a lot of folks at EMU ask her where she lives, curious to know where her home is.

"I just say, 'This is my home.' Like, wherever I am, that is where my home is," Greer says. "Home is where the heart is, and right now my heart is at EMU."

Greer hasn't lived with her parents in years; she's been in and out of foster care. She says she always feels like she has to hustle for everything — clothes, food, money — and the holidays are a stark reminder of just how alone she often feels.

"Last break, like last year, I was at my old foster home, and I stayed there and it's always welcoming, but it's never like 'my home,' " Greer says.

Holiday break is something students look forward to, a time to enjoy the holidays and be joyful ... right?

"Yeah, it's supposed to be," Greer says, "but I haven't had a joyful Christmas in years."

Greer will probably spend a few days over the holiday at her old foster home, a few days with her godmother, whom she still keeps in touch with, and a few days alone in her dorm room.

Believe it or not, she is one of the lucky ones.

Eastern Michigan University keeps a few residence halls open over break for students who have no place else to go. But not all schools do that.

Students can stay in the dorms for free, but there is a catch: None of the cafeterias are open, so students are on their own for food.

That's where Joi Rencher comes in.

"I've got ramen noodles, chips in here, a bunch of other junk," she says.

Rencher has a filing cabinet near her office on campus that she fills with snacks and food that can be cooked in the microwave. Students like Greer are encouraged to drop by and grab whatever they want. Rencher admits it's not the healthiest stuff, but it's something.

Rencher heads up an EMU program called MAGIC. It's for students on campus who've experienced homelessness or foster care or both. She has about 20 students on her roster, and it's her job to help them figure out where they're going to go and what they're going to eat when campus is closed for roughly two weeks during winter break.

"Honestly, you can see terror in their eyes when I bring it up," Rencher says. "I just ask: 'Have you thought about what you'll do for Christmas?' And they're like, 'Wait!' And you can just see the confusion in their face and they're like, 'No, I haven't.' "

Rencher will sometimes take her students grocery shopping before the break, and she also hooks them up with some bus tokens and things like shampoo and toothpaste.

A wide range of supports — like housing and mentorship — are essential for these students, says Barbara Duffield, who works for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

"It's not reasonable to expect students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds to get through college without that kind of support," Duffield says. "It really does need to be part of the support that's provided, because otherwise there's just a tremendous chance of dropping out."

And if they drop out and don't earn a college degree, their chances of getting off the streets and climbing out of poverty will be that much harder.

So for students like Greer, having a dedicated support person on campus and a free place to stay over the break can make a real difference.

Copyright 2014 Michigan Radio

Jennifer is a reporter for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and was one of the lead reporters on the award-winning education series Rebuilding Detroit Schools. Prior to working at Michigan Radio, Jennifer lived in New York where she was a producer at WFUV, an NPR station in the Bronx.
Jennifer Guerra
Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.