George Mason University is home to more than 38,000 students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. When the coronavirus outbreak closed down Virginia, the lives of thousands of these students were turned upside down. Campuses shuttered, classes moved online, and everyone was feeling the uncertainty.
With the unexpected closures, some students lacked the financial cushion needed to travel home, to find alternate housing arrangements, or even to be sure where their next meal was coming from. Many were suddenly unemployed; for them, that part-time job may have been essential. For those who are parents, child care became an acute issue. Undergraduate and graduate students alike were wondering if they could even complete the semester, their path to a degree suddenly at risk.
For these students, a few hundred or a few thousand dollars could make all the difference.
“When the pandemic began, faculty and staff, alumni, and local businesses were asking how they could make a difference,” says Trishana Bowden, vice president for advancement and alumni relations and president of the George Mason University Foundation. “It was inspiring to have the Mason Nation respond immediately, and they continue to support by providing encouraging words for our graduates in the Class of 2020.”
Immediately, University Life established the Student Emergency Assistance Fund, aimed at getting much-needed assistance directly into the hands of Mason students. Using an online application form that went live on March 19, students were able to apply for cash assistance.
And with Mason’s fourth annual Giving Day already planned for April 2, the Office of Advancement and Alumni Relations collaborated with University Life to turn the day into the start of a much bigger effort, dubbed Patriots Helping Patriots. The initiative focused on providing urgent assistance to Mason students in need.
The public response was overwhelming. Embracing the spirit of “physically distanced, but socially connected,” the Mason Nation used email, social media, and virtual word of mouth to spread the message. Within a few weeks, more than 1,800 donors contributed more than $342,000 for emergency assistance to students. About half of those donors were faculty or staff, 31 percent were alumni, and 9 percent were parents of current or past students.
In addition, university units and programs scoured their budgets to find funds that could be redirected to student assistance. The Office of Advancement transferred $100,000 from its current operations budget to the cause. The Women in Business Initiative, a School of Business advisory board, contributed $10,000. These and other funds supplemented state dollars already in the budget, such as the Stay Mason Student Support Fund, which for several years has been a source of short-term financial assistance for students at risk of dropping out.
In all, from mid-March through May, University Life distributed more than $2.53 million in emergency assistance to 2,377 students, with an average award of $1,170.
Given the emergency nature of the requests, University Life staff continuously reviewed online applications, approving awards in three business days or less. At points during the crisis, the team was moving about $70,000 to students each day—an extraordinary pace.
“It has been amazing to see the entire university community rally together in support of our students who need us the most,” says Kaitlin Cicchetti, PhD ’17, director of advancement for University Life. “Our team has worked nearly around the clock to get money into the hands of students as quickly as possible. I’m proud of our staff for their quick response and thankful for the thousands of individuals who have donated to our emergency fund during this critical time.”
Patriots Helping Patriots continues. Through the end of May, more than 3,400 students had requested assistance through the online application, identifying a total need of $7.1 million. The most common needs continue to be for essentials such as paying rent, utility bills, child care, food, and computer technology.
“This remains an uncertain and challenging time for everyone, but especially for our students,” says vice president for university life Rose Pascarell. “We’re doing everything we can to help students look out for their physical and emotional well-being. That effort will continue throughout the fall semester, and for as long as it’s needed.”
To join others in giving to the Student Emergency Assistance Fund, please visit php.gmu.edu .