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Student Support and Advocacy Center helps Patriots in need

July 30, 2020   /   by Elizabeth Gillooly

Photo by Getty Images

Supporting George Mason University students through challenging times has been the cornerstone of the Student Support and Advocacy Center (SSAC) since its inception in 2016.

Using an outreach and individualized assistance model combined with partnerships incorporating Mason programs and those in the wider community, the SSAC team was ready to help students navigate obstacles they encountered when the pandemic hit during the spring semester.

Although the SSAC office closed its physical doors on March 20, all services continued virtually.

“The coronavirus crisis has not interrupted our services,” said Maggie Olszewska, the center’s director.

Although the center discontinued all in-person activities, the team remains available to students—answering phones, responding to emails, meeting with students virtually and maintaining online programs.

Students can access SSAC services by phone at 703-993-3686 or email at ssac@gmu.edu, but the best way to initiate services is to submit an online referral form or visit the SSAC site at ssac.gmu.edu, Olszewska said.  

Once there, students should click on the “Make a Referral” tab. The completed form is sent to the most appropriate SSAC staff member with in-depth experience in the specific area. The center’s response time is usually within 24 hours. However, campus community members reporting a health or safety emergency should first call Mason Police at 703-993-2810 or 911.

“Our overall goal is to be a leader in cultivating a healthy and safe Mason community,” Olszewska said. “We offer a support system to students in need—to help our Mason Patriots through different obstacles life brings.”

The center offers a wide range of free programs for students in these areas:  

  • Financial Well-Being: Many Mason students receive some form of financial aid, such as grants, scholarships, work-study employment or loans. The center provides information about various on- and off-campus resources for students and educates them on financial literacy. The center also oversees the Stay Mason Student Support Fund, which since the pandemic has been converted to the Student Emergency Assistance Fund to help students with specific financial pressures including medical, housing, technology and child care costs.
  • Substance Use and Recovery: SSAC provides prevention and education opportunities for students to discuss substance use and to empower them to make healthy decisions. One-on-one consultations are also available. Patriots for Recovery, organized by SSAC, supports students who identify as being in recovery from a substance use disorder, eating disorder or other process addictions. Students interested in joining this group should e-mail recovery@gmu.edu. SSAC is currently navigating students in this program to an online platform for their fall meetings.
  • Food Insecurity: The Patriot Pantry provides students with limited financial means access to nonperishable food items and toiletries. Prior to the shutdown, the Patriot Pantry operated out of a physical space in SUB I; since March, the pantry supported students with gift cards to local stores. SSAC plans to reopen the pantry in the fall.  “It will be a no-contact space,” Olszewska said. “It will look more like a package pick up at a grocery store, but it will serve the same need. We are committed to continue supporting our students, even if our operation looks a bit different.” 
  • Sexual and Interpersonal Violence: SSAC provides confidential supportive services to student survivors of sexual and interpersonal violence, as well as connections to appropriate campus and community resources. In addition to meeting with students one-on-one, SSAC advocates provide a wide array of prevention and education on healthy relationships, affirmative consent, bystander intervention and other related topics. The center will connect students with the Title IX Office to report incidents and to seek formal accommodations. 
  • Students in Distress: Center staff intervenes with students who encounter obstacles to their academic or personal success and connects them with pertinent Mason and community resources. Students can refer themselves; however, everyone is encouraged to refer a student about whom they are concerned.

Many referrals come from faculty, staff and fellow students who have regular on-campus interactions with students who might be in distress. With everyone connecting virtually, it might not be as easy to pick up on those cues, she said.

“Now, more than ever before, we need to look out for each other, and we need to be there for others," Olszewska said. "Our center is always ready to support our students on their Mason journey.”