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Project Cahir Fights Student Poverty, Honors Memory of Fallen Marine

by on January 05, 2015 6:00 AM

Penn State student Natasha Bailey used to think that poverty didn’t exist on her college campus.

She’d heard the stereotypes about broke college students living on Ramen Noodles, but to her they were just jokes.

The deeper truths behind those jokes were obscured by the humor of what she thought were harmless stereotypes.

Then she got involved with Project Cahir – a student organization on campus dedicated to fighting poverty at Penn State.

“There’s a difference between being broke and being impoverished. There are students here who can’t afford textbooks or supplies for their classes.” Bailey says. “There are students who couch surf at friends’ apartments, or sleep in the HUB because they have no place to go. That’s what poverty looks like.”

Doctoral student Emil Cunningham, advisor to Project Cahir, says it’s hard to estimate how many impoverished students there are at Penn State because of poverty’s difficult and elusive nature. However, the Office of Student Aid estimates that ten percent of University Park’s roughly 40,000 students qualify for low-income status.

Cunningham says the impacts of poverty vary from student to student; some use food stamps to be able to eat; others rely on cheap and unhealthy fast food to survive; while others depend on food banks and churches to get by. Some are unable to afford basic school supplies and toiletries, while others take turns sleeping in friends’ dorms and apartments.

Cunningham is sure of one thing, though -- as Project Cahir helps more students, the need becomes more apparent.

“The more our name gets out there, the more students we have reaching out to us,” Cunninham says. “We want to help every student that comes to us, but the more people we help, the more we decrease the funds we have available to us to help students.”

Bailey says the project has a number of initiatives to help students in need. Their poverty resource center on campus provides free toiletries. They help students purchase textbooks and groceries. They have an ongoing effort to make sure course materials are available at the library, and they can help find lodging for students who can’t afford to go home over breaks. They’ve also held events like this semester’s “Poverty Fight Night,” when students slept in the Hub-Robseon Center to make more people aware of student poverty.

John Cahir and his family are among the biggest supporters of the initiative. Project Cahir is named for his son, Bill Cahir – a 1990 Penn State graduate and influential reporter who died in the line of duty in Iraq with the United States Marines.

“I think that when a lot of people hear that he was killed in action, they think he was some kind of ground pounder,” John Cahir says. “All Marines carry firearms and are prepared to go on patrol, but he wasn’t there to hurt anyone. That wasn’t his mission.”

Cahir says his son always had a strong moral compass, and joined a special branch of the Marines with a focus on service. Bill Cahir built schools and roads, dedicating the last months of his life to bettering the lives of others living in a war-torn country.

After Bill Cahir died, his brother worked with Penn State to create a memorial scholarship fund. John Cahir says this fund awards scholarships to a dozen students each year, who focus on trying to better the world in much the same way that Bill Cahir bettered the world around him. This is the scholarship fund’s third year in existence, and the students who receive the scholarships form the core of Project Cahir.

“I don’t know that I would have picked the issue that they’re working on, but student poverty is sort of invisible,” John Cahir says. “This project has been an eye opener for me. Poverty doesn’t mean that you’re dying of starvation. It means that your life and your options for having better health, or a better education, or a better job are limited by your finances.”

Cunningham says the future is bright for Project Cahir. They’ve begun handing out information during freshman orientation to bring greater awareness to the issue of student poverty. The group has also started working with resident assistants, department heads and deans of colleges to create a wider network of support.

“Penn State has really rallied behind us,” Bailey says.

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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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