Surviving on dry cereal and ramen can be typical for a surprising number of college students, even at Baylor. This realization led School of Education doctoral candidate Cara Cliburn Allen to focus her research in Higher Education Studies on food insecurity — the inability to access three nutritious meals a day.
Her passion and interest in “at-risk” student populations led to a recent $15,000 scholarship award from the P.E.O. Scholar Awards program, a merit-based award for women conducting research in a doctoral program, that she will use to further her study on how food insecurity shapes students’ identity formation. P.E.O. (Philanthropic Educational Organization), founded in 1869, is a philanthropic organization with more than 6,000 chapters dedicated to supporting higher education for women; celebrating the advancement of women; educating women through scholarships, grants, awards, and loans; and motivating women to achieve their highest aspirations.
Originally from Ada, Oklahoma, Cliburn Allen graduated from Oklahoma Baptist University in 2013 with a degree in English literature and then earned her M.S.Ed. at Baylor in the SOE’s Higher Education Student Affairs (HESA) program in May 2015.
“I’m interested in how food is shaping the life experiences of college students,” Cliburn Allen said. “Students shouldn’t think that eating nearly nothing is OK. When I started learning about food insecurity, I realized that the same students exist in the K-12 system that cannot access nutritious meals, graduate, go to college, and then have even less support and resources during a time when they need it even more.”
Throughout her adolescence, Cliburn Allen watched her mother, a school principal, work closely with students in her school to ensure they had access to food on the weekends, helping her mom load backpacks full of food for them. Although Cliburn Allen did not experience food insecurity during college, she understood early that hunger could be painful and uninterrupted for some students.
“When I started this advocacy work and research, I was amazed and astonished by the bravery of our (Baylor) students, what they face, what they’re going through, and their commitment to their education,” she said. “It’s a reminder about what students are willing to sacrifice — things they should not have to sacrifice — to get the education they want. They shouldn’t be putting a pause on their health just because they’re in college.”
Three years ago, Cliburn Allen and Dr. Nathan Alleman, associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, came across a few budding articles about student food insecurity and heard new conversations at a conference of the National Association of Student Affairs Professionals (NASPA) about administrators trying to understand this from a student’s perspective.
Back at Baylor, Cliburn Allen and Alleman surveyed marginalized populations on campus and found that 32 percent of the students surveyed were struggling to eat regularly every day. So they collected a force of people who wanted to help, the Food Insecurity Working Group; they began to look for — and find — tangible solutions. In 2016, the Baylor Free Farmers Market began providing 50,000 pounds of food for students biannually. In fall 2017, a string of fully stocked “Fridges” were placed around campus, and an on-campus food pantry, “The Store,” opened up to provide free food.
With two years left of her doctoral program, Cliburn Allen will continue to share her research at conferences such as NASPA; the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE); the American Educational Research Association (AERA); and #RealCollege, a national convening on college food and housing insecurity.
“Saying that all we have to do is give students food is really true and simple, but it’s putting a Band-Aid on a soldier rather than questioning the war,” Alleman, Cliburn Allen’s dissertation advisor, said. “We need to do both. The great thing about working with Cara is that she wants to do both of those things. She thinks about the logistics but also in bigger, conceptual world problems. She works on this research from both ends.”
—By Cameron Bocanegra
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ABOUT BAYLOR SCHOOL OF EDUCATION
Founded in 1919, Baylor School of Education ranks among the nation’s top 20 education schools located at private universities. The School’s research portfolio complements its long-standing commitment to excellence in teaching and student mentoring. Baylor’s undergraduate program in teacher education has earned national distinction for innovative partnerships with local schools that provide future teachers deep clinical preparation, while graduate programs culminating in both the Ed.D. and Ph.D. prepare outstanding leaders, teachers and clinicians through an intentional blend of theory and practice.
ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 16,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.