Helping students cope with a crisis

Sign of the times: Campus signs remind those who remain to practice physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Jeremy Gantz

Emma Wolff ’21 learned the news from other students’ faces. It was Tuesday, March 10, and she was walking to Blanchard Hall. Mount Holyoke College had just announced that, due to the novel coronavirus and the safety issues the pandemic gave rise to, it would end in-person classes for the rest of the spring semester. All students would need to leave by March 20 unless they had extenuating circumstances.  

“The mood was a state of shock,” said Wolff, an international relations and computer science double major from Spirit Lake, Iowa. For her and many other students across campus, the unprecedented announcement triggered a raft of stressful questions: Where will I store my belongings? What about the money I would have earned from my work-study job? How can I learn remotely when I don’t own a computer? For some, one question loomed above the rest: Where am I going to go?

“For everybody, it’s been a whirlwind,” Wolff said.

Many international students couldn’t simply book flights home, due to virus-related travel restrictions or advisories. For other students, including Wolff, campus is their permanent home. She initially thought of heading to New York to stay with friends, but the city emerged as a center of the pandemic. So Wolff decided to head to Iowa and stay with family. But there was a problem: She didn’t have money to cover the costs associated with the 20-hour drive to the Midwest.

The College’s Division of Student Life saw these difficult scenarios coming. The week of the closure announcement, said Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students Marcella Runell Hall, “it definitely felt like a tidal wave was coming toward us.” Suddenly, her team had to create systems, policies and practices to support students for a dawning era of distance learning. New solutions would have to address new travel, housing and technology needs.

As it happened, Student Life had been planning to pilot an emergency fund for low-income students during the current spring semester. The idea was to meet needs beyond the cost of attendance — unexpected medical costs, a winter coat, a laptop. The plan was to officially launch the fund in the fall. But the COVID-19 crisis dramatically accelerated everything. “We did a semester’s worth of work in about 24 hours,” Hall said.

The whirlwind effort involved creating an application process, defining criteria for funding and working with the Office of Advancement to set up the Emergency Student Relief (COVID-19) Fund. Hall’s team made the deliberate decision to take a differentiated approach: Instead of giving standard amounts to students, a committee was formed to review applications and address needs on an individual and equitable basis. It’s a case management approach that takes more time, “but it really does give students a chance to let us know what they need,” Hall said.

Wolff heard about the new fund from a friend soon after it was announced on March 11, and applied for help immediately. “I don’t have parental support,” she said. “Something like this is really devastating for me.” Within a few days, she had met with an associate dean to review her application and received money to pay for a storage unit, and food and gas for the drive to Iowa. She also received support for living expenses because her on-campus job in the computer science department wouldn’t be able to be conducted remotely. 

For Deborah Uller ’20, the changes due to the pandemic were also a shock. A senior studio art major and Frances Perkins Scholar, Uller was in New York City on 9/11 . “This is another traumatic event that is so disruptive. It shakes your world,” she said.

A resident of Northampton for more than 15 years, Uller has always done her work on campus — she doesn’t own a computer. Suddenly she was imagining being completely cut off from the College community, unable to learn remotely and connect with classmates. But within days of the announcement, Uller had connected with Hall and applied for funding for a computer. “I was grateful and surprised that funds were available,” she said.

Her new laptop not only lets her continue learning, she said, but it connects her to the wider world. She’s had a video call with a friend in New York City who has COVID-19. “The most important thing is connection, especially now, it’s so isolating,” Uller said.

Emerald Simms ’21 also was surprised to receive emergency funding from the school. A psychology major, her home is campus and she is staying there. (Nearly 300 students remain on campus.) “When this pandemic happened, I was just nervous — I don‘t have much support outside of anyone here,” Simms said. Thanks to the emergency fund, she doesn’t have to worry about losing all income from her two campus-based jobs, and how she’ll pay for a summer storage unit and her cellphone bill. That phone is a big deal: She’s waiting on calls back about summer internships she applied for in Washington, D.C., and New York City.

The rapid support from the emergency fund has eased Simms’ anxiety in a deeply uncertain time. It’s evidence, she said, that Mount Holyoke really is her home, her first home. “I heard that before, people and alumnae talking about the College as their first home. But now I see the truth in that. I’ve experienced it.”

Wolff is also grateful to the alumnae and others who quickly stepped up to support the emergency fund — she says she has friends at other schools who haven’t received similar kinds of financial support during this crisis. “It shows how much alumnae have their heart and soul in this college. It shows me how strong a community we have, and how strong of a community we’ve always had.”

The Emergency Student Relief (COVID-19) Fund inspired alumnae, families, faculty, staff and friends to donate more than $175,000 to date. Additionally, the Student Government Association has reallocated $75,000 of its budget, composed of student activity fees, to the fund. Student Life has processed over 435 applications to date, with the goal of supporting students’ crisis-related needs through the rest of the spring semester. Applications are open until May 5 and donations to the fund are still being accepted.