Just a week before the excitement of commencement at The University of New Mexico, graduating senior Cassandra Huneau stood in front of an audience at the College Basic Needs in New Mexico Data Sharing Symposium and related her encounters with hunger and housing insecurity. The audience included UNM President Garnett Stokes and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

“I grew up without much money and attended a high school in Detroit that didn’t even have textbooks,” she told the group.

At the age of 34, Huneau attended three different colleges, supporting herself the whole time.

“And it’s been scary,” she said. She moved to New Mexico two years ago.

Huneau told the symposium group of her struggle for food, as well as being homeless, then living in an apartment complex with unsafe conditions, and having her car stolen. Getting adequate food is a challenge, she told the crowd, and she and her friends suffer from hunger and fatigue, sometimes falling asleep as they study.

Huneau and other students struggle to make enough to pay for food, she went on to tell the symposium, but work-study doesn’t pay enough, and hours are too unpredictable to work around classes and studies. Off-campus jobs require too many hours, forcing students to choose between rent and food or school.

“It’s a struggle and yet despite the struggle of stress, housing and food insecurity, I’m graduating and heading to graduate school for a master’s degree in Geography at San Diego State University in California,” Huneau said, prompting great applause from the audience. She is graduating summa cum laude.

Huneau’s parents will be here from Detroit this weekend to cheer her on as she receives her diploma.

Then, with her belongings now in storage, Huneau heads next week to California to hunt for a place to stay and continue her education. She’s optimistic that more expenses there will be covered by a graduate assistant position and make going to classes and studying easier.

“I chose Geography because growing up near the Great Lakes and seeing how pollution impacted my community led to me getting involved in physical geography, mainly watershed science.”

After completing a master’s degree, Huneau plans to get a Ph.D. in Geography and work at an R1 university as a watershed scientist and pursue a professorship.

“My UNM experience has been great,” she said. “I worked as an undergraduate researcher in a lab at Geography and Environmental Studies where I conducted disaster risk reduction research and I was an Honors College member for two years, completing a certificate in Honors as well. I enjoyed my time at UNM quite a bit.”