My SF State Story

From Just Surviving to Totally Thriving

By Jewlee Gardner

Jewlee Gardner

If you catch me on campus, you’ll probably see me handing out free snacks to students, sharing information on basic needs resources or explaining how dealing with food and housing insecurity is a fundamental part of any university’s mission. As the assistant director of SF State’s Basic Needs Initiatives — an umbrella for programs that address student hunger and homelessness — this is my job. But if you take a second to ask me why I do this work, you’ll learn this is also my passion … for a very personal reason.

I transferred to SF State over a decade ago as a low-income college student from a small mountain town. Despite early struggles, I had big dreams and high hopes. I was going to be the first in my family to earn a college degree.

I worked hard, pulled my weight in group projects and learned how to navigate the college system. Oddly enough, school was the easy part. Finding economic stability — that was the challenge. Though I had financial aid and worked full time, I struggled to make ends meet. Sometimes I had housing but had to commute two to three hours a day for school or live in cramped spaces because that was what I could afford. I remember choosing between paying rent or buying groceries for the week. Sometimes I didn’t have housing. I slept on friends’ couches during finals, feeling exhausted. I struggled to balance work, school and other responsibilities. I found I could not fully engage. 

“Though I had financial aid and worked full time, I struggled to make ends meet. Sometimes I had housing but had to commute two to three hours a day.”

I came to class and I left. I didn’t connect with my peers and never went to office hours or asked for help. Despite these challenges, I graduated. 

Fast forward to graduate school. I returned to SF State and found myself thriving in all aspects of school life. I was a little older, a little wiser and more experienced. But the major difference was this: I wasn’t struggling to meet my basic needs. I graduated magna cum laude, was elected class speaker for my departmental graduation and even served as the president of a student organization. What a different student I was when I had food and stable housing. 

In 2018, I had an opportunity to apply for my current position at SF State. Though I’d never considered working on homelessness issues, I thought back to my experience. I remembered the people and programs that helped me along the way. I also thought about how today’s Gators are navigating a much more difficult economic and housing climate. I felt I could bring an important, personal perspective to this work, not only as a skilled public health practitioner but also as a former student who navigated basic needs crises and graduated. 

I’m proud to be part of a campus that has prioritized student basic needs. Through the Basic Needs Initiatives, I’ve worked collaboratively with amazing campus and community partners to create and expand meaningful resources for students. 

For me this work is just getting started. I’m still at SF State, still with big hopes and dreams — but this time to create an environment that elevates our resilient and amazing students. 

The Basic Needs Initiatives includes free food programs, crisis housing resources and other important supports for students in need. 

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