Helping vulnerable Los Angeles-area college students succeed
When Sam Prater was accepted to Central Michigan University, he promised the admissions counselor he wouldn't disappoint. Having failed his high school classes and earned his GED, Prater was determined to succeed and so he did.
His first semester, he earned all A's and one B. He became a student leader on campus and a resident assistant. Prater went on to graduate with a degree in communication, earned master's and doctoral degrees, then founded Los Angeles Room and Board, a nonprofit focused on ending homelessness and promoting college completion among LA-area community college students, in 2018.
"What I've accomplished is possible because CMU instilled in me a sense of hope, determination and purpose," Prater said. "The CMU community gave me a chance, and I want others to have that chance as well."
One in five Los Angeles-area college students face housing insecurity and homelessness, and two-thirds of those students also experience hunger. The cost of living, lack of affordable housing in the area and insufficient financial aid pushes these vulnerable students out of college, Prater explained.
"There are empty rooms on college campuses and in housing adjacent to universities," Prater said. "Instead of students sleeping in cars, on the street or couch surfing, we raise money to cover the cost of the vacant rooms and help these students succeed."
While working and studying for his doctoral degree in California, Prater realized he needed to shift his career. He wanted to get back to having a direct impact on student lives, much like he had as a resident assistant at CMU.
"There are students who take a semester off from college, and then we never see them again," Prater said. "The vast majority of the time, it's not just an academic issue — it's life's circumstances. Research has shown us that students are dropping out of school because their basic need, food and housing, aren't met."
Last September, Los Angeles Room and Board welcomed approximately 20 former foster youth who are now students at Los Angeles Trade-Tech; Santa Monica College; Pasadena City College; West Los Angeles College, and more to The Opportunity House, a fifty-bed former UCLA sorority house. The students are receiving free room and board for two years, then will have the opportunity to stay in the house while paying a reduced room and board rate.
Students in The Opportunity House also have access to academic tutors and mentors who help with financial literacy, mental health and wellness, and leadership development. As these students progress on their academic paths, they connect with local leaders who help them find internships and career development opportunities.
It's a model Prater is hoping to expand to his hometown. He recently purchased a house in the Detroit area and hopes to establish Detroit Room and Board this year.
"There are students in need everywhere," Prater said. "I want to continue building these communities and impacting the lives of these students so they can have an opportunity to succeed like I have."