Ahn: On being a homeless student at a Top 10 university

Kaylyn Ahn, Op-Ed Contributor


Content warning: This article contains discussions of abuse, neglect and suicide.

After I returned home from my first quarter at Northwestern in the winter of 2021, my father’s abuse escalated. My mother took me to her room in secret. She sat me down and warned me to be careful, scared my father was going to hurt me. She didn’t want to have to call the police on him. Severely malnourished and exhausted from working 60 hours a week, I packed my life into a backpack and have been on the run ever since. 

That winter, I became a homeless and unaccompanied youth at NU. I quickly learned financial aid and housing campus policies do not account for students with unsafe home environments. In the past year and a half, NU’s policies have forced me to move six times and live in over 13 different places. During winter break, the dorms close and students must move out. On-campus housing for those three weeks costs $1,300. I was forced to couch surf with those willing to let me sleep in their living rooms during winter break. I lived in a moldy, hot closet for $250 a month during the summer of 2022, and became so sick I couldn’t eat for days. 

In the spring, earlier that year, I had first tried to appeal as a homeless youth to the Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid. I was forced to do so three times, presenting 90 pages of documentation of abuse and neglect each time. Over breaks, I was the student worker signing up for 10-hour shifts at the library and taking the 208 bus west to work back-to-back shifts at Walgreens.

There is a pipeline for queer, homeless youth like me to be incarcerated for survival crimes, fall victim to trafficking or end up in abusive relationships. The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ+ youth, notes that LGBTQ+ youth are four times more likely to die by suicide than straight youth. 

Not many people at NU share my experience. Not many people at NU have had to learn to navigate welfare on their own, pay their own hospital bills, or worry about tuition, rent, bills and food while balancing classes. But, NU must do better for the students who do understand. 

I have found little to no support at NU. University administration should create a financial fund for survivors’ therapy because the financial aid office determines who gets emergency aid on a case by case basis. The administration should also hold regular meetings with the Center for Awareness, Response and Education, which advocates for survivors of sexual violence, relationship violence and stalking. We also need more survivor representation in student government and at NU board meetings, as well as resources centering the experiences of queer students of color.

I am writing this as a testament to the pain I have experienced. I am writing this for the freshman who was kicked out of her home over break while others enjoy expensive vacations in Bali. I am writing this for the girl who spent winter break in a partial hospitalization program for PTSD recovery and had to file for emergency aid from Northwestern to cover the medical cost. I am writing this for the students who feel isolated in this community and in this institution, and feel like they can’t escape it.

I am also writing this now because this May marks the four-year anniversary of my friend, Hailey, losing their life to suicide. Hailey and I met in our freshman year of high school. We bonded over our shared experiences as queer youth who loved Dodie, debate and slam poetry. They were passionate about school reform and history; they were one of the most genuine and caring people you will ever meet. 

In their last letter to me, Hailey told me to keep a discussion going about the causes I was passionate about. I promised them from then on, I would keep fighting for what I believed in. So most importantly, I am writing this for Hailey. Because four years later, here I am, fighting all the while.

Kaylyn Ahn is a SESP sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.