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'Saving grace': Duke Student Assistance Fund helps with unexpected expenses during pandemic

As the Duke Student Assistance Fund begins its second round of funding, students who have received assistance are grateful for the support.

Duke opened the fund April 6 to support “undergraduate, graduate and professional students with unexpected and extraordinary expenses related to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to an April 6 email from Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education, to members of the Duke community. It is one of three relief funds related to the pandemic.

The first window of applications—which opened April 6 and covers funds from May through July—closed May 11. The second round, which will cover unexpected financial hardship related to COVID-19 through the end of August, opened Monday. 

The University initially committed $4 million to the fund. In her April 6 email to all students, Provost Sally Kornbluth wrote that the University is also receiving contributions from “generous alumni and donors” for the fund.

Duke turned down $6.7 million in funding from the CARES act, at least half of which would have been earmarked for emergency financial aid to students. Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, told The Chronicle in May that “legal and regulatory” issues were the principal reason the University rejected the money, and he noted at the time that Duke had already spent its own money to support students. 

Executive Vice Provost Jennifer Francis wrote in an email to The Chronicle that as of May 13—after the end of the first application window—the DSAF had distributed $2.4 million in grants, which averaged $1,317 each. Out of the 2045 applications submitted, 1888 were approved, 74 were denied and 83 were still under review.

Francis wrote that the fund has been “very successful” in alleviating the unexpected constraints of students during this time, and the team of people reviewing the applications are “doing an amazing job in carefully and compassionately reading each application, often multiple times.”

Senior Erin Regan wrote in an email that, as she is a first-generation, low-income single mother with no other sources of financial assistance, the assistance fund is her “saving grace” right now, helping her avoid potential eviction and food insecurity. Before receiving assistance, she wrote that the generosity of several professors helped her and her son eat, providing them with groceries “as a bridge to get to this point.”

She wrote that had she not received assistance, she would have had to potentially disrupt her Duke enrollment over the summer or fall, and take a low-wage, high-risk “essential worker” job to feed her son and pay her rent.

“I cannot speak highly enough of their quick choice to support me,” she wrote.

She added that on campus, she works part-time at the Devil’s Krafthouse to support both her family and her education, and as she works there part time, the University has not covered her regular salary. While she is still waiting for her North Carolina state unemployment claim to process, she wrote that the assistance fund greatly helped her financial situation. However, she worries about workers whose salaries also weren’t covered, but who—unlike her—are not eligible to receive assistance from the fund.

Junior James Mbuthia reported a similar positive experience with the fund. When he received news that students weren’t able to go back to residence halls to retrieve their belongings, he was staying with another family not on campus. As the situation kept “getting worse and worse,” he said he was increasingly worried about housing because he couldn’t continue staying at his friend’s house or go home.

After emailing Duke about his housing situation and asking for housing assistance, he said that he was directed to the assistance fund. In his application, he wrote that he was planning on returning to Durham and needed a sublease as soon as he arrived. Duke sent him the money he needed in about a week.

Jeffrey Letourneau, a third-year doctoral candidate in molecular genetics and microbiology, had an application for cash assistance denied, but he wrote in an email that he isn’t upset about it. According to Letourneau, his request was relatively minor and he expects to find an alternative solution. 

He wrote that he requested some money for a new laptop since his current one has been gradually deteriorating and the audio is “almost entirely gone,” which made it inconvenient to attend his synchronous classes, house course and group lab meetings. Hearing about the assistance fund from a friend, Letourneau applied because he met the eligibility criteria for “technology for online learning.”

He received an initial email from the DSAF task force April 17 that awarded him $0.

“After careful review of your application and accompanying materials, we are able to provide you with $0.00,” the email read.

Around 30 minutes later, Letourneau received another email from the task force apologizing for the “awkwardly worded language” in his letter—the result of an effort to get the notifications out quickly. The email added that though he would not be granted a cash award, he would be issued a loaner laptop.

Letourneau wrote that he thought it was a “hilarious mistake” and understands that the task force was trying to get responses out as soon as possible. Regarding the laptop, he wrote that he hadn’t expected to have the cost of a new laptop fully covered, but he had hoped they could cover at least some of it.

“Part of me appreciates that they only want to cover short-term costs right now, so why buy me a new laptop when they can just loan me one?” he wrote. “But in practice, for me personally, this just isn’t useful because it only pushes the cost further down the road.”

Letourneau added, however, that he wished Duke could guarantee certain funds for students in “really precarious positions, ”such as 12-month funding for all graduate students, summer funding for graduate students, emergency travel and medical expenses, and pay for all contract workers—instead of having students “jump through hoops” and apply for assistance. (The Graduate School will switch to a 12-month pay schedule for all Ph.D. students in Fall 2022.)

To apply, students can submit the application through DukeHub, uploading supporting documentation for requests greater than $500, according to the DSAF website. Each application is reviewed independently by the DSAF team, who will respond within two weeks, the website estimates.

Examples of eligible expenses for the application include—but are not limited to—emergency travel expenses, temporary housing and utilities expenses, food, technology for online learning and emergency medical expenses, according to the website. Examples of expenses not covered include tuitions and fees, any expenses beyond the summer, non-emergency travel, non-essential personal expenses and legal fines or fees.

Payments may come through direct deposit, which can be set up through DukeHub or by mail.

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