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A Helping Hand in Need of a Helping Hand

University Seeks Support for Student Crisis Fund After Unprecedented Hit From COVID-19

By Chris Carroll

Columns in Hornbake Plaza

Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle

The Student Crisis Fund, which supports students who experience unexpected needs with financial awards, has received unprecedented requests for help since the COVID-19 pandemic began. A new campaign is seeking to refill the fund's coffers to help more students.

In a typical week at Maryland, the Division of Student Affairs fields two to five applications from students seeking emergency funds. Now imagine an average of 70 a day, with a record 231 desperate requests for help flooding into the office on March 20.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, students who’ve lost their jobs or had to leave residence halls and apartments as campus operations moved online to lower the risk of virus transmission have applied to the Student Crisis Fund in unprecedented numbers.

Now, the Student Crisis Fund is facing a crisis of its own. It launched a public campaign yesterday, asking alumni, faculty, staff and other supporters to help replenish the fund.

“It just weighs on you incredibly to read these heartfelt statements of need, and what students are going through,” said Sarah Williamson, coordinator in the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs. “It’s heartbreaking—you want to help everyone."

From March 11 to 24, the fund met about 670 requests, disbursing more than $240,000 and emptying the parent-funded Parent and Family Student Life Fund as well. It received 931 applications as of yesterday, but over 100 more students are on a waiting list for help. (Since yesterday, a new influx of donations to the fund has raised the total amount of distributions to $369,000.)

One of the awarded grants—in the typical amount of $500—went to a sociology major* who lost an off-campus job at a company seeking to trim its staff because of the pandemic, and who can’t work at his two other on-campus jobs.

“I’ve lost all my income,” he said. “This is the only money that I know is coming in to meet my basic expenses.”

The senior, who is not supported by a family and whose scholarship pays living expenses only during school terms, had one previous experience with the Student Crisis Fund as a freshman, when he had nowhere to stay during the summer.

“They offered to cover housing fees that summer,” he said. “I ended up getting a job at Conferences and Visitor Services and didn’t need the funds, but just the knowledge that support is there made everything easier."

Another award went to a sophomore chemical engineering student who had to move out of his residence hall and back to his home in Fort Washington, Md., with his mother, who was just laid off from her casino housekeeping job because of the virus, and siblings.

He said he worries about how to help meet living expenses—most likely by upping his hours doing ad hoc yardwork and landscaping—while keeping up with online classes starting next week, particularly in those with labs where students and faculty traditionally meet in person.

“This has all been eye-opening; you just don’t know how $20 for a student can really be the difference between being able to study and having to be out there trying to find odd jobs to take care of my family," he said.

Another student, a senior in the Robert H. Smith School of Business, moved back in with her parents after her workplace, the campus copy center, closed and she had to leave her campus apartment. The Student Crisis Fund money will help her family cover the unexpected expense of having her at home.  
“My job is not something I can do remotely,” she said. “That was paying for my rent, my personal expenses and groceries—all the things my family hadn’t planned to buy for me.”

Student Affairs has already loosened rules for dipping into the fund; normally a student who receives a grant can’t receive another any time soon. Now, however, receiving emergency funds in the last year won’t be held against a student thrown into further crisis by the current societal upheaval.

Meanwhile, others squeaking by now may be just one rent payment away from trouble, said Ed Kenny, director of development and external relations for Student Affairs.

“We’re just dealing with the first onslaught of 900+ applications, but we know this is likely to continue for weeks and months,” he said.

*Students in need in this story are not being named to protect their privacy.

Schools & Departments:

Division of Student Affairs

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