Food insecurity, student pay issues concern Senate committee


The University Senate’s Student Admissions, Aid and Affairs Committee had an abundance of information to digest at its meeting on Dec. 3, including a report from the Office of Veterans Services, an update on an engineering school National Science Foundation-funded diversity and inclusion program and questions on pay for student workers and accommodations for students with disabilities.

Veterans update

Edwin Hernandez, director of Pitt’s Office of Veterans Services, said his department is having a banner year, particularly in raising awareness across campus about veterans’ issues. Veterans Week’s highlight was a breakfast with 100 attendees, including two Medal of Honor recipients.

University-wide there are about 600 military-affiliated students, either veterans or dependents, who received nearly $10 million in Veterans Affairs-related benefits toward their education, Hernandez said.

He also reported that no Pitt students have reported major problems with the transition to the new Forever GI Bill, which was supposed to be implemented on Aug. 1 of this year but has been delayed until Dec. 1, 2019. News stories have reported that some student veterans have seen major delays in payments this fall, particularly for housing stipends.

Student insecurities

David Gau, a postdoctoral associate in the Bioengineering Department of the Swanson School of Engineering, serves as an advisor to the Pittsburgh Student Government Council, which includes undergraduate and graduate student government representatives from several colleges in the city. He said several issues have been raised at the council meetings that he felt Pitt needed to address, including food insecurity, student wages and help for recovering students.

  • Food insecurity is an issue Pitt and most other colleges have been dealing with for several years. The Pitt Food Pantry serves about one percent of Pitt’s student population, according to Kenyon Bonner, vice provost and dean of students. Bonner encouraged any staff or faculty member who is approached by a student concerned about paying for tuition, housing or food to refer that person to the Office of Student Affairs, where they will work with the financial aid office to help find a solution. Students also can contact Bonner directly through email.
  • Gau said student leaders discussed the minimum wage for student workers and whether each campus has done any analysis on the current wage situation for student workers, and especially how that ties in with food insecurity. “So students who are most at risk in terms of working, are they working more hours, are the wages good for those students, or is there something else that can be done?”

Bonner said the economics of raising pay to the $15 living wage standard are difficult. If he paid $15 an hour to student workers, he would probably be able to hire half as many. And Robin Kear, vice president of the University Senate, pointed out that some Pitt staff members do not make $15 an hour. Bonner did say that most student workers make more than Pennsylvania’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

  • Gau also questioned if Pitt has housing for students who are in recovery from addiction. Bonner said Pitt had hired a collegiate recovery program coordinator, Jenny Huff, just in the past two months. He said a task force formed by Chancellor Patrick Gallagher on opioid addiction on campus recommended recovery housing, and they are currently looking first for space for recovery programs to take place and then trying to find a location for housing. Bonner said the top concerns for substance abuse on campus are not opioids, but alcohol, marijuana and drugs like Adderall.

Accommodations for disabilities

Committee member Nancy Glynn, assistant professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health, said she’s heard complaints from people in the Type 1 diabetes community that Pitt does not do enough to make accommodations, such as not scheduling evening classes that conflict with meal time.

She said her daughter was offered a list of accommodations at the University of Virginia, including early scheduling to get a favorable schedule that doesn't compete with meals, living close to dining halls, taking tests at the disability’s office, so they can eat during testing, and peer notes.

“I saw it as a recruitment and retention issue. It’s not a trivial amount of people. I’m just using Type 1 diabetes as the tip of the iceberg. This is the example that I know,” Glynn said.

Bonner again said that if there are students having problems, refer them to his office. Disability Resources and Services is in the student affairs office, and he said they work with students, faculty and staff all the time to make accommodations. But, Bonner said, there are many reasons the accommodations aren’t met, including not having the appropriate documentation from a doctor.

Diversity in engineering

The meeting ended with a report from Sylvanus Wosu, Swanson School associate dean for diversity affairs, and Steven Abramowitch, associate professor of bioengineering, about the progress they’ve made since receiving a $1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to improve the success of underrepresented students in doctoral engineering programs through faculty-student interaction.

The study uses evidence-based strategies to change the culture in the engineering school. Some programs have included mentor-mentee retreats, social nights to bring together people from different races, genders and disciplines and the summer abroad program Engineering Design for Social Change in South Africa.

Wosu said the number of underrepresented minorities in the school has gone from 5 percent to 7 percent.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294.