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Student Relief Fund helping students get by, but more is needed

by Chuck Gordon

Toniayah Gilchrist-Henderson’s grandparents’ home in Greenwood, S.C., doesn’t have internet access. Once Wingate University ended in-person classes in mid-March because of the looming coronavirus pandemic, the junior psychology major moved in with her grandparents in order to help care for her 71-year-old grandmother, who had recently had surgery.

With public libraries closed, Gilchrist-Henderson has no access to Wi-Fi, so she has to use her iPhone for schoolwork. The screen is much smaller than her laptop’s, and Canvas, the coursework software Wingate uses, doesn’t render well on a phone screen. “It’s very annoying,” Gilchrist-Henderson says. “The screen just jumbles everything together, and then it starts glitching.”

When her phone’s data allowance starts running low, Gilchrist-Henderson sits in the parking lot of a nearby Bi-Lo and “borrows” the grocery store’s Wi-Fi in order to complete her assignments or even participate in class on her laptop.

Earlier this week, she received something of a lifeline: a check from Wingate University’s Office of Advancement, out of the Student Relief Fund.

Student Relief Fund logo

Gilchrist-Henderson is one of hundreds of Wingate students who have experienced unexpected hardships over the past month as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Early this week, 163 of those students received financial assistance in the first wave of funding from the Student Relief Fund, getting a total of $45,830. An additional $10,000 was expected to go to 50 more students today. As of Thursday afternoon, 190 donors had contributed more than $86,000 to the fund.

This year, because of the pandemic, Wingate decided to focus its annual day of giving and service, One Day, One Dog, on meeting immediate student needs.

“First and foremost, we’re student-centered, and that means providing our students with the resources they need to be successful,” says Spencer Percy, the University’s director of development. “After assessing what the Wingate student-body needs would be in response to this pandemic, it was an easy decision to make the student-relief effort our top priority as an advancement office.”

The Student Relief Fund is just one way Wingate is helping students out during this difficult time. The University has decided to credit residential students a prorated portion of their room and board. That process is underway, and students should be able to see the amount of their credit in their online account by the end of next week. They can request that the credit be converted to a check if they are in need of money immediately.

University officials are also in the process of determining how best to use Wingate’s share of CARES Act funding so that it goes to the neediest students.

Basic needs first

The generosity of those who have donated to the Student Relief Fund is much appreciated, but even more is needed. Nearly 300 students requested assistance after the fund was launched on March 26. Wingate stopped taking applications for a while in order to assess the needs and start cutting checks, but the application portal was reopened this week, and more than 100 new applications came in.

Among them were some heart-wrenching stories. Credit cards maxed out to make car payments. Entire families left jobless. No money for insulin. Lots and lots of requests for food.

With many students losing part-time jobs because of the closure of so many businesses, a significant proportion of the needs students listed in their applications were for the most basic of necessities: food, rent, utilities, medicine. Some students returned to homes where breadwinners were being laid off or simply losing business because of the coronavirus. The most dire needs were addressed in the initial round of funding.

“The volume of need was surprising,” Percy says, “but when you drilled down to what the specific needs were, and remain to be, it’s heartbreaking. Many of our students need money in order to eat, feed their families and pay utility bills due to part-time jobs being lost. These are the simplest of living expenses and the type of need we addressed first.”

It’s difficult to concentrate on finishing out the semester when there’s no food in the house. And many Wingate students come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“The student body at Wingate University is uniquely diverse,” Percy says. “Thirty percent of our students come with some form of federal funding, meaning many of them come from a disadvantaged background. This factors heavily into our student-relief effort. By helping our students with their simplest of needs now, we keep their educational dream alive long-term.”

For other students, such as Gilchrist-Henderson, the technology support they relied on when they were on campus isn’t available at home. In their Student Relief Fund applications, 22 students said they did not have access to a computer in order to participate in online class discussions or to work on and submit assignments. Several others had problems with Wi-Fi access.

Thanks to an anonymous donor, many of those problems are being addressed. The donor pledged $25,000 to go specifically toward technology assistance, and Wingate’s Information Technology Systems department has struck a deal with Dell to use that money to provide laptops to students in need.

Travel costs and anxiety

For several students, the biggest expenses were travel-related. A good number of students weren’t planning to return home until the end of the semester, which meant unexpected fuel costs for a trip home and then a return round trip to Wingate to pick up the rest of their things, once the decision was made to hold classes online for the rest of the semester.

Other students, including a number of student-athletes, were hit with unexpected expenses related to airline tickets. Josep Canyadell, a junior finance major who plays on the tennis team, had to spend extra to change a plane ticket he’d purchased in December. He flew out on March 15 for his hometown in Spain, a couple of months earlier than planned. Almost all of his teammates had to shell out for last-minute tickets or to change previously purchased ones.

Not all the hardships have been financial. When the United States first started moving toward widespread closures and lockdowns, Canyadell says he was perplexed. He’d been watching the situation in Europe worsen – especially in Spain, which has recorded the most COVID-19 cases per capita in Europe.

“I was kind of confused, because at the beginning the situation wasn’t that bad, but then suddenly they started closing the universities, and the situation here in Spain got bad. A lot of people were getting infected,” he says. “I was kind of scared, because maybe I couldn’t get into the country.”

Now that he’s safe and sound in a coronavirus-free household, Canyadell feels lucky, but he’s still trapped in his house. Because Spain has been hit so hard by COVID-19, the government has cracked down on unnecessary outings. “I haven’t left my house in a month,” Canyadell says.

Canyadell is trying to look on the bright side as much as possible. “It’s tough, but if you focus on the bad things, your days will be tougher,” he says. “I’m just trying to stay positive.”

That’s a lot easier when your basic needs are being met. If you can, please give a few dollars to Wingate students in need. Students can click here to fill out an application for assistance.

April 17, 2020