Shining a Light on Student Homelessness at UCF

Photo by Nick Leyva ’15

Nikunj Patel ’17 ’19MSAE was in third grade the first time he heard the name Rakesh Sharma.

Sitting in an Ahmedabad, India classroom near the nation’s west coast, Patel listened as his teacher spoke about the first Indian to reach space.

“I was always crazy about space. The way we talked about him, and talked about space, I thought it was amazing. It was exactly what I wanted to do,” says Patel.

Just over a decade later Patel was on track to achieve his dreams. He emigrated to the United States alone and started studying aerospace engineering at Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University, a private institution in Daytona Beach, Florida that specializes in aviation and aerospace.

But then, disaster struck. Patel’s family reached an unexpected financial hurdle and left him with a choice: abandon his boyhood dream and return to India or find a way to become financially independent in Florida.

“My two jobs paid enough for me to go to school or enough to live. It was one or the other,” says Patel. “I didn’t want to give up on my dream, so I stuck around and decided to sleep in my car.”

Nikunji Patel

Photo courtesy of Nikunj Patel ’17 ’19MSAE

Patel slept in an Embry-Riddle parking lot for a week, eating peanut butter sandwiches and showering in the gym.

His story is all too common.

The Wisconsin HOPE Lab surveyed 33,000 community college students in 24 states for a 2017 study, finding that about half the students were housing insecure and 13 to 14 percent of the students were homeless.

At UCF, 59 students were approved for a homelessness waiver in 2019, a 103% increase from 2015, and Student Care Services received 400-plus referrals for financial concerns in the same year, the most it’s ever received.

“We have a homelessness problem in the whole United States to begin with. Now, we have a student homelessness problem, and we have to start opening people’s eyes,” says Loretta Corey H’17 who, along with her husband Michael H’17, is working to do just that.

That’s why they created The Corey Family Challenge for UCF Day of Giving (postponed; date to be determined), committing $50,000 to address student housing insecurity when 150 donors give to the Student Emergency Fund.

“I’m hoping that it will make people aware. People do not know that we have homeless students at UCF,” says Loretta Corey. “I’m hoping alumni will give to this fund, people on different boards will contribute. Once the word gets out, I’m hoping we can take care of this.”

Michael H’17 and Loretta Corey H’17

While Patel did not know about financial aid available at the time, opportunities provided at UCF with his financial struggles.

“It never clicked in my head that I was going through a huge financial problem. I thought it was a phase that I had to fight through,” says Patel. “I kept repeating in my head, ‘Don’t give up. You got this.'”

Patel sought out Daytona State College, where he learned about the DirectConnect to UCF program. With multiple loans and two jobs, Patel was able to earn his associate degree and make it to campus in Orlando.

From there, his path was written in the stars.

“UCF was an amazing place to go for aerospace engineering. I can’t stress it enough,” says Patel. “For me, UCF was a hidden gem. Where I was from, people didn’t talk about it as much as Embry-Riddle, MIT or Stanford, but it deserves that credit.”

But it never came easy. Patel continued to work two jobs and benefitted from the counseling services on campus. UCF also offers a host of other resources through Student Care Services and the Knights Helping Knights Pantry.

“Therapy was the one thing that really helped me throughout the whole process,” says Patel. “It was really helpful that UCF had free counseling so I didn’t have to pay to go to therapy.”

He took full advantage of student organizations, clubs and volunteer opportunities, building an impressive resume and thriving in his studies.

Now, he’s someone that little boy in India would be thrilled to meet: one of the flight directors for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover — better known as Curiosity.

Patel is paving the way for future space exploration and was recently honored as a UCF Alumni 30 Under 30 honoree.

But not every story comes full circle.

“When I went through this, I would really have loved to have the security to not worry about finding money for rent or paying for food,” says Patel. “I don’t want students to be in the middle of the semester trying to figure out how to pay for rent, thinking, What do I do? Do I quit? Do I go back to school?”

To help spread awareness and make a difference for UCF students with housing insecurity, consider making a gift to the Student Emergency Fund.

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