Relief Fund eases pandemic burden for hundreds of students

Special to Western News

Launched in April, the Student Relief Fund was established to provide critical resources to students who find themselves with urgent expenses related to travel, access to technology, health and wellness and other unforeseen circumstances.

Nearly 3,400 students received help covering urgent and pressing needs created by the COVID-19 pandemic – from rent to food to health care – thanks to $2.6 million distributed by the university as part of its Student Relief Fund.

Launched in April, the fund was established to provide critical resources to students who find themselves with urgent expenses related to travel, access to technology, health and wellness and other unforeseen circumstances. The fund was generated as part of a fundraising campaign by University Advancement.

“While this is a global crisis, our students are experiencing extremely personal challenges as a result of it,” said Western President Alan Shepard. “It was important to me – and to all of us – that the university step up and support its students in this unprecedented time of need.”

Many student recipients expressed appreciation for what the funds would do to help them and their families. “I’m so proud to say I am a part of a university that cares so deeply for its students,” wrote one student, not identified by name for privacy reasons. “I will forever remain indebted to Western for the kindness and care extended to me,” said another. “Every dollar is greatly appreciated,” offered more than one.

Beyond thanks, some students also shared their personal stories about how the money will bridge them through the summer by helping pay rent, put food on the table or cover other unexpected expenses. Many spoke of the stress the pandemic isolation has had on their families, dealing with bored kids, job losses, even sickness, and how even a small amount helps. “Kindness goes a long way,” one wrote.

Currency crashes. Border closures. Job losses. The realities of the global crisis have hit close to home for students. Many students were stranded in London after flights home were cancelled. Even as flight costs went up five or six times, some students purchased multiple tickets over the weeks to try and get home, only to see those flights canceled, too. Airlines have not been issuing cash refunds – only credit for future flights that may also get canceled.

One student whose family helped cover some expenses saw that disappear overnight when both parents lost their jobs. Other students are struggling to find employment in a city still shut down.

“It has been such an unusual few months creating special hardships for some of our students,” said John Doerksen, vice-provost (academic programs). “While each student’s situation is different, it became clear that many of their needs were equally urgent and pressing. It was important for the university to be able to offer help. This has been a wonderful indication of the care, concern and support people have for our students.”

In order to be considered for the Student Relief Fund, students applied directly to the university with an explanation of their situations. The Student Relief Fund Committee then conducted a careful review of every single application.

Financial support for the fund was widespread. Gifts were received from members of the university community, as well as the Professional and Managerial Association (PMA), University Students’ Council and the Alumni Association all contributing.

Distributions ranged between $500 to $1,000 per student.

With 4,700 applications, not all students could be addressed through this program. Funding was prioritized for those facing the most immediate and pressing needs, including food, housing and health care.

Beyond this particular fund, however, Western maintains other resources for undergraduate, graduate and international students.

In April, Western established the 2020 Graduate Student Summer Term Bursary program to provide one-time, needs-based help to full-time PhD students and full-time research master’s students to continue their research programs without disruption. The fund provides a top-up to the student’s overall funding package.

When graduate student applications to the Student Relief Fund were reviewed, consideration was first given to those who would not be eligible for the Summer Term Bursary in order to optimize the number of total students supported by the university’s various programs.

Graduate students received more than $500,000 from the Student Relief Fund. Additional graduate students will be supported by the Summer Term Bursary. Application deadline was May 15. Associate deans (graduate) will make final funding decisions by May 28.

“Supporting students with financial needs has long been a priority for Western. We will always be there for them,” said Glen Tigert, university registrar. “This year has stretched that commitment to the maximum. But we have responded for all kinds of students – undergraduate and graduate, domestic and international. They have all been touched by this pandemic.”

“There has been a broad range of responses by Western to reflect the varying situations our students are facing. We are constantly trying to respond to those needs.”