Buried under red tape, students struggle to utilize on-campus resources.

Illustrated by Stephanie Zhu

It took SESP third-year Eliza Gonring’s tears in the Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid to receive the mental health services she had been seeking for a year and a half.

She couldn’t find a therapist in the area who accepted her insurance. After going to multiple administrative offices in search of mental health resources, Gonring found a solution, only to be told that her household income was about a thousand dollars too high to qualify for the resource.

Gonring broke down, sobbing in the financial aid office and detailing her year-long struggle of  knocking on door after door in search of essential resources. That’s when the office gave in, and Gonring finally got the help she needed.

But Gonring’s story isn’t an isolated incident. From wisdom teeth removal to financial aid corrections, students  — particularly those who are first-generation and low-income (FGLI) — struggle to navigate administrative resources.

“I really don’t know how to navigate this space at all,” Gonring says. “Just the way it is intended to be navigated and the options they have for support, it’s obvious that their goal to bring in low-income students was decided on before they decided to actually make this place livable for us.”

Gonring says that this difficulty stems from Northwestern’s decentralization, which makes it challenging for students to communicate directly with administrators, hold offices accountable and point out room for improvement.

In the year and a half since Gonring first reached out to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), her mental health continued to deteriorate. She struggled to balance classes, extracurriculars and a job all while trying to find mental health resources.

Each time Gonring was redirected to another administrative office, she had to recount her mental health circumstances. Gonring says her current therapist believes this may have re-traumatized her. She struggled to deal with the root of her mental health issues until she found Meghan Finn, a CAPS case management specialist, who introduced her to the resources necessary to find a therapist and fund her services.

“She saved my life, which is ironic because CAPS was the one thing that started this and bounced me around all these places to get just a little bit of help,” Gonring says.

A centralizing office

Over the past academic year, an Ombuds Program Task Force studied the need for an Ombuds office: a place where students could receive help resolving conflicts and accessing administrative resources. On October 8, Provost Jonathan Holloway announced in an email that the task force will move forward with creating this office.

The task force determined the need for this office after finding a lack of a clear path to access resources and existing processes to resolve conflicts and meet student needs.

Over this academic school year, the task force, headed by the Associate Provost for Faculty Kathleen Hagerty, will recruit and hire an ombudsperson to lead the new office starting in the 2020-2021 academic year. Though this means another year without a resource that the task force has deemed necessary, Hagerty says it’s important that they take the time to carefully set up the office and systematically conduct the search process.

“If you don’t spend the time upfront, you pay later,” Hagerty says. “And I know that’s frustrating for people.”

Even though the task force is taking its time, it still has a deadline to meet. Holloway gave the task force until next fall to hire an ombudsperson to sit in the office.

The task force is currently defining the boundaries of the ombuds office and the services it will provide to make up for the gap in resources. It will spend this year looking at each office that students and staff interact with, distinguishing each one’s responsibilities and determining which responsibilities to relegate to the ombuds office. It will also reach out to student organizations and ask the administration to refer any students who might have valuable insight or experiences.

“We want to make it useful, but we don’t want to add just another person when people are looking around to get some help,” Hagerty says. “We don’t want to duplicate effort but figure out where the hole is that this person can fill.”

When Gonring heard about the task force’s work, she was hopeful but remains skeptical, fearing that it may just add to the decentralization.

Though the ombuds office will help students navigate resources by better laying out each office’s purpose, Hagerty emphasizes that the ombudsperson will help students strategize how to professionally interact with these offices — what she calls “soft skills.” For students, this includes learning how to talk to professors about their grades; for staff members, it may be learning to address issues with supervisors.

Isolation by design

Communication third-year Cas Pent needed their wisdom teeth removed, but they didn’t know how to navigate their insurance and procedures. Though they had the Northwestern University Student Health Insurance Plan (NU-SHIP), which covers wisdom teeth removal, they didn’t know where to start.

“I just remember being really frustrated because I spent a week trying to figure out what I am supposed to do. I feel that that’s something that should have just come with having student health insurance,” Pent says.

This wasn’t the first time that Pent experienced an issue like this. They often don’t know where to access resources when they need them.

“The biggest issue is that I just don’t know that the resources exist because they’re scattered all over the place,” Pent says.

When they had to get their wisdom teeth removed and struggled to access resources again, they had nowhere else to go but Student Enrichment Services (SES), a Northwestern organization that, according to its website, works with FGLI and undocumented/DACA students “to foster identity development, navigate campus resources and build community.”

From there, SES directed them to a patient advocate, whose job it is to help patients overcome any barriers in accessing medical resources. The advocate helped Pent through the process, and they were finally able to get their wisdom teeth removed.
Even though they were able to access the resources they needed in the end, Pent says Northwestern has a history of making it difficult for FGLI students to navigate resources.

“It doesn’t feel like the administration cares about me,” Pent says.

Since Pent spends a lot of their time trying to grapple with Northwestern’s resources, they interact with SES and the FGLI community at Northwestern more than any other community on campus. While they find support in these areas, they say their experiences at Northwestern have been limited due to their identity.

“We’re divided into what part of Northwestern we get to touch, and that, as a FGLI student, can be a second level of isolation from other students,” Pent says. “It feels like the only part of Northwestern that I get to touch is directly in correlation with the fact that I am first-generation and low-income.”

Pent attributes their struggles to two sources: a broad range of administrative departments with limited responsibilities and a lack of communication between these offices. They say the latter has made it especially difficult to direct students properly or expose them to the resources that best fit their needs.

Pent says that the announcement regarding the ombuds office made them happy to see that Northwestern was recognizing the difficulty for students to navigate resources, but they were hesitant about the University’s action to address the issue.

“There was a bit of frustration because this sounds like Student Enrichment Services but getting the resources that Student Enrichment Services was asking for this whole time,” Pent says. “I wonder if instead of generating a new department, they could maybe just expand upon or better support the ones that they already have.”

A bureaucratic web

Despite its limited size and funding, SES has helped Medill second-year Austin Benavides overcome economic and educational barriers associated with the FGLI community. Its services covered the cost for different events on campus and provided him with a coat to stay warm during the winter.

But some of the barriers he faces are out of SES’s control, especially with regards to financial aid. Within his first few weeks at Northwestern, Benavides already reached these limits when, in October, he discovered that his 9PAY pre-payment plan, which breaks up tuition, fees, and room and board into nine monthly installments, wasn’t on pace to pay the full cost.

“When that happened, I went into a panic mode,” Benavides says. “What do I do from here? How much money do I owe the University? What’s going to happen?”

On top of the initial first-year fears and worries, Benavides juggled stress and anxiety over his financial standing for two weeks. With reimbursements and scholarships unaccounted for and his general lack of understanding  of the terminology used in his tuition statements, he called the financial aid office to set up an appointment to figure everything out.

Despite explaining his circumstances and the purpose of the appointment over the phone, when he went to his appointment, the financial aid office redirected Benavides to Student Finance, an entity independent of the financial aid office that tracks and calculates student accounts.

Benavides went to Student Finance on three separate occasions to figure out what he owed so that he could fix his 9PAY installments and get back on track. However, when he ran through the numbers with an administrator, he received two different estimates, adding to his stress and anxiety.

Throughout the process, he alternated between the two offices multiple times based on the questions he had. With all the discrepancies, confusion and stress, Benavides broke down outside the Rebecca Crown Center, crying for help.

“I ended up being in a bureaucratic web of sorts that confused me, especially as someone who didn’t have the experience talking to people about financial aid,” Benavides says.

In addition to the account issues, he discovered that his family’s health insurance didn’t properly cover him in Evanston, so he needed to enroll in the NU-SHIP (even though it was past the enrollment deadline) and apply for a grant called the Student Emergency and Essential Needs Fund (SEEN) to cover those costs. Though he received insurance coverage within a month, the process took a toll on Benavides.

“That first quarter is a critical quarter for all Northwestern students, and no Northwestern student should come to campus and then get their head wrapped in all this terminology and aid that they don’t understand,” Benavides says. “They already have classes and social lives and are adjusting to a new environment.”

Benavides says that all of these issues would have been easier to deal with if they were handled under one office. For FGLI students specifically, Benavides says that they have to deal with a cultural barrier that the rest of the student body doesn’t have to worry about, making it difficult to navigate all of these different offices.

In Benavides’s experience, FGLI students don’t have the same knowledge and capital to demand the administration’s attention, so he says that the ombuds office was a good first step to help FGLI students hold people in power accountable. But he says they still have to prove themselves.

“There’s been a lot of talk about FGLI, but there needs to be more action to back that up,” Benavides says.