ACCESSING A DREAM
Student LaValla Wilson is developing a digital resource to help homeless youth stay in school and seek support.
LaValla Wilson knows what it looks like. Students scraping together pennies and still coming up short. Students who don’t have anywhere to go over the winter break. Students who won’t discuss exactly what the problem is.
“There’s a stigma,” Wilson says. “In higher education, homeless students don’t want to be identified.”
In Georgia, 960 homeless teenagers completed federal financial aid forms for their university education in 2017. And that doesn’t include students who end up couch-surfing or living in their cars during some part of their college years.
Wilson came to Georgia State to help them. After getting her Ph.D. in counseling and education, she worked at Howard University, where she spent years helping homeless students. She knew those students needed to go to college and graduate to get the kind of economic security that would keep a roof over their heads.
During that time, she realized something: Students who didn’t have homes did have phones, and that could be a way to reach them. Now, Wilson is working to introduce the Dream Machine, a mobile-first website serving homeless high school and at-risk youth. She is finishing up the site while completing a master’s degree in religious studies with a nonprofit management concentration.
“The interdisciplinary approach of religious studies was vital to birthing this project,” Wilson says.
That interdisciplinary approach included classes at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, where Wilson learned how to run a nonprofit. She also won a Student Innovation Fellowship, which connected her with a team of undergraduate programmers who have translated her vision into code.
The Dream Machine will help homeless students find the resources they need without any embarrassing confessions. It will also provide secure online file storage for birth certificates, vaccination records and the like, so students on the move can always access their important documents.
The Dream Machine will provide a space for homeless students to share their stories.
“They constantly have to work through what it means to be homeless,” Wilson said. “I want them to weaponize their stories to reduce that stigma. Working together, they can help each other find a more secure future.”