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UAA’s Student Support Fund offers relief during uncertain financial circumstances

by Catalina Myers  |   

christinebishop
Christine Bishop moved to Alaska in 2019 with her partner because of his job in the airline industry. But as the COVID-19 wreaked havoc on all job sectors across the state, the Physical Therapy Assistant major was faced with a tough choice — stay in school or pay the mortgage. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

The UAA Student Support Fund was established 20 years ago to help students experiencing a financial emergency due to unexpected events, such as loss of housing, an unanticipated medical bill or paying utilities.

Over the years, the fund has provided students everything from purchasing a plane ticket to attend a family funeral to replacing textbooks lost in an apartment fire, but according to Bruce Schultz, UAA’s vice chancellor for Student Affairs, the fund has flown relatively under the radar with only one or two financial gifts awarded each year. But in March, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit worldwide and universities across the nation scrambled to provide alternate course delivery and move their students, faculty and staff off campuses, the Student Support Fund was thrust into the limelight as university administration worked to secure funding from federal, state and local donors.

Since the pandemic crisis began, UAA has received over 340 applications requesting financial assistance from students ranging in need from helping to pay for academic course materials and technology to covering rent and purchasing food. 

“The fund exists because we know from time to time that students experience these crises or unanticipated emergencies,” said Schultz. “Sometimes students find themselves in a position where they don’t have the resources to solve those issues on their own.”

Schultz said the fund is focused on helping students because statistically, they know that students who drop out of programs because of financial hardship often have difficulty finishing their degree program if they ever come back and finish at all. But with three buckets of funding, federal money from the CARES Act, funding from the University of Alaska statewide system and donor funds, UAA has options to provide students with financial relief. Schultz said the largest bucket of funding is the federal money, but that there are a few strings attached and students must qualify. He said the beauty of the three-tiered Student Support Fund is that students can apply for financial relief and not have to worry that they’ll be denied because of narrow eligibility rules. The fund's three-bucket system allows wiggle room to pull from different funding sources.

“We do whatever we can to help students persist and not let the chaos of the day get in their way and aspirations of graduating from UAA,” Schultz said. “We’re a caring community — just looking at the number of people who have chosen to donate to this fund — it just shows that we’re a caring community.”

Christine Bishop, a student in her second year of the Physical Therapy Assistant program in UAA’s College of Health, had just moved to Alaska in 2019 with her partner, who worked in the airline industry. The two found themselves in the crosshairs of the pandemic. As local airlines were laying off employees statewide and across the country, they held out hope that somehow her partner would survive the rocky job market. But in March he lost his job.

Bishop said she knew they had to batten down the hatches and tighten the budget, but as a couple in their mid-20s with a mortgage, bills and car payments, it got to a point where more money was going out than was coming in and she had to make a decision — school or survival. 

Although Bishop and her partner made some quick decisions, switching her health insurance over to Medicaid, applying for financial relief where they could and using gift cards to local stores to pay for groceries and essentials, it still wasn’t enough to make ends meet. 

“It was very scary because we’re alone up here, we don’t have any strong friendships or family support system — we’re totally doing it blindly,” said Bishop. School kept her focused and grounded, but it was extremely stressful, worrying about their precarious financial situation. Bishop said she received an email sometime in the spring notifying students of the fund and a professor encouraged her to apply after she expressed her concern. “I applied for and received funding and was able to pay for two months worth of groceries and a medical bill. The remaining went to utilities and our mortgage. It’s just been so, so helpful, we’ve literally been counting pennies.”

For some students, the transition to a virtual classroom was relatively easy, but Bishop said that she and her cohort struggled with it, mostly because their classroom work was so hands-on and their classroom materials, such as physical therapy tables, skeletal and muscular models and other high-tech equipment suddenly wasn’t available — meaning some of these things students ended up purchasing on their own.

“It’s in the name itself — physical therapy — you’ve got to be physical and in-person,” said Bishop. She said the profession itself had been struggling to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, as many other health providers were able to pivot to telehealth, but as a physical therapist, treating patients without seeing and touching them is challenging. “With physical therapy, there’s just so much liability and you’re interacting with the patient and getting them up and getting them moving.”

Despite the generous donations that came in, she said she and many of her peers ended up making costly purchases to simulate the experience they would have received during their lab.

“I did have to purchase my own physical therapy table,” Bishop said. But for her and her partner, the Student Support Fund offered them an enormous amount of relief. “It’s nice to be heard and awarded something from people who don’t know me, but are willing to be generous to students.”

Schultz said that the response to the Student Support Fund has been tremendous, both from students who are grateful for the financial relief and for the incredible generosity of donors. He said going forward he expects to keep the momentum going and hopes that as the fund becomes more robust, he and his team can more widely communicate this resource available for students.

“There’s nothing traditional about our students,” said Schultz. He said that UAA’s diversity in both age, population and with many of them being first-generation college students, makes them more fragile enrollees. He said despite many of them being financially savvy, the difficulty during financial hardships for many students is choosing between supporting their family or achieving their education goals — and often education gets set on the backburner. “Sometimes we know that they’re just in this period of having a gap and we know that being able to help them pay a bill for one month is enough to help them continue their education. This emergency fund is all about helping students persist and complete their education.”

 

Supporting students during the COVID-19 outbreak

To make a gift to the UAA Student Support Fund, please click here  https://engage.alaska.edu/uaa and make your selection in the drop-down menu. Students can struggle after an emergency like the COVID-19 outbreak. The Student Support Fund provides a safety net for students who struggle with basic needs.
If you know a student who needs help, please ask them to apply here: https://www.uaa.alaska.edu/students/dean-of-students/emergency-fund.cshtml

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