This story originally appeared in MinnPost.com’s Community Sketchbook on September 26, 2010.
By Cynthia Boyd
Minneapolis Community and Technical College is a public college with the mission of encouraging students of color and the economically disadvantaged into its downtown classrooms.
The two-year school proudly trumpets its diversity, with new 2010 data showing about 46 percent of the school’s 14,500 learners are nonwhite. Further, more than 48 percent are low income.
To open those doors wider, a special program called the Power of YOU was initiated a few years ago, offering free college tuition and student support services to qualified Minneapolis and St. Paul high school students.
All of which background spells out the need for Mary Ann Prado, a woman with a master’s degree in education who nonetheless — because it’s a short-hand way of describing her job — calls herself the “college social worker.”
Prado is director of resources and referral at MCTC, a woman charged with helping students handle some of the perhaps less typical challenges and crises students face, issues like homelessness and hunger. Such hurdles can force students to drop out of school.
Since spring of 2008, she’s been a one-woman force at MCTC and apparently the only person in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system doing exactly what she does.
Her clientele is diverse but “honestly, a high number of people of color,” she told me, with needs as varied as diapers and food, jobs, childcare and housing.
Since fall term started about a month ago she’s met with about 100 students. All last year it was 500, with about half of those dealing with housing-related issues, she said.
‘Literally out in the streets’
Students are facing eviction, are behind in rent, are couch-hopping or staying in emergency shelters with some “literally out in the streets,” Prado said, though getting an accurate count of the homeless at MCTC is tricky because numbers are always changing.
Still, MCTC Students Against Hunger and Homelessness, a group Prado advises, is conducting a survey on homelessness this fall. The project is not only designed to seek out those needing help but to open the eyes of students not homeless.
Housing is the starting point. “I don’t just stop at housing. I say, ‘When’s the last time you’ve eaten?’ I’m also the thrift store, the Salvation Army on campus. I have snacks, hygiene items.” I give them help and service right on the spot.”
She hands out snacks and fast-food lunch cards, even stockpiling a few pantry items: spaghetti sauce, tuna, peanut butter, some clothes, even toilet paper — all gratis.
One recent school day she met students with varied problems. One needed a bus card to get to school. Three had housing issues: with one couch-hopping, one staying at a Salvation Army shelter, and another expecting to be homeless as family was moving out of state. Two women had places to live but came looking for food for their families.
With a background in social service advocacy and work with homeless youths and adults, Prado knows where help is to be found, referring students to the county, emergency food shelves, housing services, and to other resources, and helping them through the process.
In addition to creating Prado’s position, the college has also:
- Set up a health clinic on campus for low-income students without health insurance, named Boynton Health Service for MCTC students.
- Received $85,000 from Scholarship America to aid students in financial crisis that would otherwise cause them to drop out of school.
- Plans an employee fundraiser in November to raise more emergency funds for students.
Still, the need can be “quite overwhelming,” Prado said.