Columbus State University Takes Next Step to Help Homeless Students

COLUMBUS, Ga. --- For many students, Columbus State University means studying, performing, researching and finding your way in the world. To others, such as Tearionia Miller, CSU means she finally has a home.

Miller, 20, enrolled at Columbus State University in 2015 as a first-year student, an aspiring artist, and a homeless youth. Before joining CSU, Miller and her mother were living in a homeless shelter. Before that, the pair resided in a friend’s two-bedroom trailer with six other occupants, mostly children; and, before that, they lived in a house without basic necessities.

“Where we lived, it had no lights, no water, no gas,” Miller explained. “It was just a shell.”

Then she came to CSU and met Lisa Shaw, director of CSU’s Academic Center for Excellence, students’ central resource for information on academic programs and student support services. With help from Shaw and a team of dedicated philanthropists from First Baptist Church Columbus, Miller found a place to live and work. She holds a steady work-study position in CSU’s Department of Art, and she is finishing her second year at CSU this month in pursuit of her Associates of Art.

Miller’s is not an isolated case. Homelessness impacts CSU and communities across the country. In Georgia, 37,791 homeless youth were enrolled in public schools in 2014-2015. Nationwide, the number of homeless students enrolled in public schools exceeded 1.2 million in 2014-2015. According to the Muscogee County School District’s website, 2.05% of enrolled students are homeless.

It was Miller’s story that spurred CSU to join Embark Georgia, a statewide network of postsecondary professionals and institutions that works to increase college access for fostered or homeless youth. Embark is a project based out of the JW Fanning Institute for Leadership Development at the University of Georgia.

To coincide with its new partnership, Columbus State University created a foundation account, aptly named “Embark,” to collect and distribute funds to current or aspiring CSU students living in transient situations. Funds will be used to purchase housing, food, clothing and other essential items so needy students may start or complete their degrees.

The account supports the network’s vision that: Any person who has experienced foster care and/or homelessness will have ample academic, financial, social, and emotional supports to access, navigate and complete a postsecondary education.

“These funds and donations not only help students finish their degrees, but they change lives, families’ lives, and potentially the lives of an entire community,” said Shaw, who has a background in social services.

Shaw was the first person Miller reached out to for help. Since the Embark account did not yet exist, Shaw worked with CSU’s Office of Financial Aid to secure more than $7,000 in scholarships, emergency funds and vouchers for Miller, which she used to purchase housing, a meal plan and textbooks.

CSU’s dedication to retention, progression and graduation has benefitted other students in need.

Delicia Wynn, a criminal justice major who graduated last December, was driving six hours daily from Valdosta to CSU and back to attend classes. CSU found $1,300 in emergency funds for temporary housing and a meal plan so Wynn could finish her last semester.

“All things are possible if you only believe,” said Wynn. “Ms. Lisa reached out to me after she heard the news, and she helped me in ways I couldn’t imagine. She was very encouraging and caring. As students, we all need that.”

“These students have the grit and the perseverance to finish their degrees,” said Shaw. “I’m cheering on the sidelines, giving them what they need to be successful.”

In addition to Embark, CSU has instituted the following programs or policies to help students in need complete their degrees:

-- Student housing remains open during holiday breaks.
-- CSU is one of three University System of Georgia partner institutions providing child care subsidies for undergraduates."
-- CSU has developed strong partnerships with community food and clothing banks so items are readily available for students.
-- CSU faculty and staff are taught how to recognize students in need and recommend appropriate resources.

“Our campus resources are phenomenal,” said Shaw. “Many are willing to provide support quickly and effectively.”

Despite these campus resources, students in transient living situations are still in need of help, and many are unwilling to seek it to avoid being labeled “homeless.”

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal law addressing the needs of homeless people, defines homeless children and youth as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”

For Valarie Thompson, a CSU graduate currently pursuing her second degree in CSU’s Master of Public Administration program, “homeless” meant surfing her friends’ couches. For others, it means sleeping in a car.

“Homelessness does not have that someone-sleeping-in-the-street look,” said Thompson.

Thompson recently shared her story on Facebook after months of keeping friends and family in the dark.

“I didn’t want people to think I was a bad person,” she explained. “I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I graduated in the top of my class in high school. I have a Bachelor of Arts in English, and I finished in four years - and, I am homeless.”

After years of struggling to find shelter for herself and her son, she is opening up to encourage other students to come forward and seek help.

“Don’t be ashamed,” she said. “You are not alone.”

Thompson plans to found a non-profit organization that provides financial and emotional support for children with craniofacial disorders when she graduates. She currently lives with her two-year-old son in an apartment that she rents from a CSU alumnus.

How to Donate

To donate to Embark, visit CSU’s online giving page. Under “Designate Your Gift,” use the drop-down menu to select “Embark Program.”

CSU employees may also give through one-time or recurring payroll deductions. For assistance, please contact Ashley Lee at 706 507 8945 or

If you are a homeless, transient or fostered student attending CSU or interested in attending CSU, please contact Lisa Shaw at 706-507-8787 or or visit for more information.