GRCC is the only state college with an MDHHS specialist on campus, connecting students with resources to overcome obstacles

Obstacles such as food and housing insecurity can affect how a student does in class. A new partnership between Grand Rapids Community College and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services can help connect students with outside resources to help them be successful.

This fall, GRCC became the only Michigan college to have a DHHS staff member assigned to it. Marjri Weller – a former GRCC student — is on campus and working directly with students to connect them to both state and local resources for housing, food, child care and more.

While Weller’s position is unique, she works to address student needs that are common, said Sandy Gregory in the office of the Dean of Student Success.

“This is a vital service for our students,” she said. “GRCC has a strong interest in helping our students meet their basic needs so that they can be successful in their academic work. Our supports sometimes have limitations. Marjri, on the other hand, will be able to set students up with sustained support that they qualify for.”

Weller agreed.

“Working closely with the Student Success team, serving as the point of contact to provide information regarding MDHHS programs and community resources, serving as a referral source for students in need — these are all things that can remove barriers to success for students,” she said.

And, she added, she’s thrilled to be returning to her roots.

“What caught my eye about this new partnership is being able to help students in whatever they need because I was once a student here at GRCC,” she said with a smile. “I have always wanted to give back, and this is the best way that I can.”

A Creston High School graduate, Weller earned her associate degree at GRCC and then went on to Aquinas College, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in business, and Grand Valley State University for a master’s degree in communication.

She returned to GRCC after four years as a family independent specialist/P2P success coach for MDHHS at César E. Chávez Elementary School in Grand Rapids.

She is located on the third floor of GRCC’s Student Center, working a combination of in-person and remote hours, and she expects to have an ongoing caseload of approximately 150 to 200 cases.

A 2020 Hope Center survey of about 1,000 GRCC students found that 48 percent experienced at least one form of basic needs insecurity, including 29 percent who faced food insecurity in the prior 30 days, 40 percent who experienced housing insecurity in the prior year and 11 percent who experienced homelessness in the prior year.

An August article in The Collegiate, GRCC’s student newspaper, noted that “35% of GRCC students struggle with food insecurity and 45% of GRCC students struggle with housing insecurity.”

Weller’s work joins that of many others on campus intended to change those startling statistics. And she’s already having an impact on GRCC’s students.

“I recently shared the first of what I hope will be many success stories,” she said. “A fulltime GRCC student came to me and said her biggest barrier was transportation. We worked together, and we were able to find her employment on campus, and then we also solved her transportation challenge (using a state program).”

Weller said this is just one example of the variety of ways her work with MDHHS can help, including assistance with food and medical needs, child development and care, state emergency relief, and even cash assistance. Eligibility criteria need to be met to get assistance, and helping students navigate the various systems will be a big part of her work.  

“I am finding that students are coming to me for assistance, but I am also getting a lot of referrals from staff, and I am thankful for that,” she said. “What I would like to say to the students who don’t know about me and the services is that even if they do or don’t think they qualify for assistance, please apply at and let’s find out.”

Gregory noted that while GRCC has many in-house systems to support students, those systems sometimes have restrictions.

“For example, a student can only receive financial support from the Emergency Grant once in a 12-month period,” she said. “Also, while students can visit the Student Food Pantry once a week, we are often limited on the items that we have available, based on the stock on hand at Feeding America. With Marjri on campus, we can offer students so much more.”

Gregory said the current agreement with the state that brought Weller to GRCC is in place for two years, and she and others at the college entrusted with helping students succeed plan to make the most of the time together.

“In partnership with GRCC staff, she will be an integral part of making sure we are able to connect students to all applicable supports so that they can ultimately meet their educational goals,” Gregory said.

Tracey Fountain, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ Kent County office, is all in on the state helping GRCC students succeed. She said in the early discussions between the state and the college, it was quickly apparent that a partnership could benefit both.

“GRCC students benefit from having an assigned Family Independence specialist from MDHHS stationed on-site at the GRCC main campus to assist with barrier removal and application support to access the assistance programs,” she said. “And this partnership also further supports the vision of MDHHS, which is to develop and encourage measurable health, safety and self-sufficiency outcomes that reduce and prevent risks, promote equity, foster health habits and transform the health and human services system to improve the lives of Michigan families.”

An added bonus, Fountain said, is “the opportunity to strengthen our recruitment of students and graduates who have an interest in serving in the human services field to further the mission of our agency.”

This story was reported by Phil de Haan.

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