Skylar Maldonado has a holiday wish. “I’m hoping to find some peace of mind,” he said.
So does his friend Patricia Curley. “I’m just hoping not to have a day filled with sadness,” she said.
Most college students are eager for winter break, happy to go home and celebrate the end of the year holidays with family and friends. Campuses become ghost towns as final exams wrap up. But for a few students — those who spent their childhood in foster care, or whose homes are unstable or dangerous, or who lived in shelters before enrolling in college — shuttered dorms present an urgent problem.
So at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, a dorm remains open for a small group of students such as Curley and Maldonado, who will spend their holidays at the most stable home they know.
Some colleges don’t allow exceptions to campus housing calendars, shutting dorms for maintenance or security reasons during breaks. Others allow for some discretion. “Special considerations are taken into account, and the university seeks to make accommodations for students experiencing hardship or homelessness,” Jessica Jennings, a University of Maryland spokeswoman, said.
“We would never leave somebody out in the cold,” said Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, and the school has allowed students in extreme circumstances to stay in conference housing over breaks.
But the goal is to help students become self-sufficient, she said. And most campuses “are pretty lonely, cold places on the break,” she said, with dining halls closed, the heat turned down. “No one’s around — it’s a little spooky, almost.” So administrators prefer to find a place where students can be safe and warm, she said, with some kind of community.
Some states are forming networks to ensure university officials are aware of ways to help, according to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. “For some colleges, it’s not on their radar,” said Marcy Stidum, who runs a program at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. “Unlike in K-12, there is no funding or mandate to provide these students any type of support.” And many people still think of all college students as privileged, she said.
But for some students, this is the most difficult time of year. One student at West Chester University can’t help but miss his parents, even though one of his most vivid Christmas memories is of his father beating his mother when she tried to prevent him from selling the toys under the tree.
And when others on campus realized the situation some students endured during the holidays, they gathered food, gifts and decorations, and surprised the students with a holiday party.
“This will give them a chance to open presents, bake cookies,” and enjoy the season, said Tori Nuccio, who created the school’s Promise Program to help them.
When Nuccio was in high school, she never wanted to mention the idea of college — her parents thought there was no way they could afford it. With scholarships, work-study jobs and other aid, she was able to show them she could.
After she began working in the financial aid office at West Chester, a large public university, Nuccio met a student living in a group home and wondered if there were others in similar situations. She persuaded administrators to let such students stay and eat on campus during breaks, free of charge, if they had nowhere else to go. The school created a pantry with food, clothing and other necessities.
A year ago, Bill Zwaan, West Chester’s head football coach, heard some students had no home to go to for the holidays. He was astonished — and he asked his 10 siblings to give those students presents, rather than exchange gifts with one another. This year, word spread. Soon, people all across campus, and in the community, were contributing. They raised about $10,000 for 30 students, and Nuccio planned a holiday party.
“It was amazing, the response we got,” Zwaan said. “Hardly anybody knew we had homeless kids on campus.” As soon as they knew, they wanted to help. Student groups gathered food. People bought West Chester sweatshirts, hampers, coloring books, scarves and earphones — the kinds of things most students take for granted — and gift cards at nearby stores.
“To have them feel like people care about them,” Zwaan said, “is probably just as important as any gift card or any present they get.”
Curley was adopted from an orphanage in Romania when she was small. And then she was put into foster care when she was 11, and spent the last decade moving from place to place.
The holidays, she said, are “always hard, there’s pain,” she said. “You have to sometimes smile, wear a mask — it helps to get your day going.”
That’s what Maldonado plans to do. “If you take away the social construct of what the holidays are supposed to be — surrounded by family and friends, a jubilee — and look at it as though it’s any other day, it’s a lot easier to deal with,” he said.
When he was in his last month of high school, he was told he would need to move to another foster home. He had already moved 31 times. He was planning to go to college in the fall. He was done — emotionally — with the foster system. And so he was incredibly grateful to learn that West Chester University would let him move into a dorm in June, immediately after high school graduation. Now, he is planning to go into social work to help make conditions better for children.
The university’s Promise Program doesn’t just ensure a place to stay and food to eat during breaks. “It means that someone’s going to be there for you,” Curley said. “That means a lot, especially during the holidays. I’m really grateful and thankful to have people I can go to and talk to.”
These are students with real struggles; if they have relatives, they can be engulfed in addiction, abusive relationships, prison. This fall, Maldonado said, a close relative had a stroke, became homeless, and was beaten and robbed. “I had to choose, ‘Do I go to Delaware and help . . .?’ ‘Or do I write this paper on this philosopher?’
“Do I turn my back on them? Trying to also get an education is really hard.”
On Thursday, people delivered food to students in the program. They decorated two Christmas trees in a dorm lounge. Volunteers packed gift bags and stuffed stockings. A restaurant cooked pot roast, gravy, mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables for them.
And there were presents. They were so excited about the hampers, Nuccio said. They tried on gloves and traded scarves to get the perfect color. When they found the gift cards in their stockings, she said, they were jumping up and down, screaming.
Curley said it breaks her heart that people care so much for her.
This year, her first at West Chester, has been different, she said. “Now, this is — my home.”