Looking for the Helpers

The COVID-19 crisis brings to light a multitude of needs—from food and shelter to tuition assistance and access to technology—that exist among Rollins students.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

Now more than ever our Rollins community is in need of the “helpers” who our beloved alumnus Fred Rogers ’51 always found in times of crisis.

As the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic continue to evolve, the Rollins community is grappling with a wave of student needs that reflects what the nation as a whole is facing. The first surge came with the departure of nearly 3,000 students from the campus in mid-March. Many members of the faculty and staff from across departments and offices responded to help students find secure housing, adequate food, and access to the technology they need to attend classes virtually. And these needs continue. Rollins has launched a Student Emergency Fund to help get students the resources they need to finish out the semester. 

“The reality is a lot of our students and their families work really hard and make giant sacrifices to be at Rollins, so at a time like this when the impact on health and well-being and the economy is devastating, for families it becomes even more complicated and for some it becomes impossible,” says Meghan Harte Weyant, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

Unprecedented Circumstances

As financial pressures build, some students are suddenly searching for income to make up for a lost job near the campus, especially if a parent has been forced into furlough or a job loss.

“I’ve heard from a lot of students that leaving campus and returning home means becoming a full-time charge for younger siblings so their parents can continue to work remotely,” says political science professor Chelsea Ebin. “Or caring for grandparents who require significant care the parents can no longer provide.”

Psychological and emotional factors, even aside from the fears of contracting a new disease or the stress of helping a loved one suffering from it, are adding another layer of hardship. For example, some students are feeling the toll of returning to a hometown where their sexuality remains closeted after coming out comfortably on campus.

Sociology professor Amy McClure found after polling her students that many are fearing negative effects of their self-quarantine, including isolation, depression, eating disorders, and anxiety. “The virtual classroom is going to be much-needed safe space for them, where they can come together,” she says.

The needs of the student body are just beginning to make themselves apparent during the monumental shifts brought about by COVID-19. The aftershocks of this crisis remain to be seen, as the coronavirus has not reached its likely peak among the population.

“As we watch the nation respond to this crisis, we’re going to see a whole series of financial and economic burdens that students and their families are going to experience,” says Harte Weyant. “We’re going to be facing a second and a third set of barriers, based on how long this goes on. The longer students and their families are out of work, a whole series of concerns will unfold around paying rent, paying bills, and meeting other obligations.”

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

Basic Needs

In partnership with the Center for Leadership & Community Engagement, the student-led Student Support Foundation (SSF) has long been helping students combat financial barriers through two main programs, including a confidential food pantry and modest one-time grants that help with everything from buying textbooks to commuting to campus. The pantry has seen an increase in visits this academic year and an even sharper increase once word of the pandemic began to spread.

“At Rollins, we have students who are struggling economically, students who are food insecure, and students who need these resources,” says Eliane Heller ’21, co-president of the SSF and coordinator of the food pantry. “We help students connect with resources or staff members who can advocate for them. A lot of people feel uncomfortable asking for help, so we’re trying to create ways for students to get these benefits without having to have an awkward conversation. It’s such an unprecedented time, and no one should have to go it alone.”

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

Tuition Needs

Many of our students require assistance to attend Rollins under normal circumstances and find themselves in more need now than ever. Overall, more than 85 percent of Rollins students receive some sort of financial aid. For the first-year class entering in fall 2019, 96 percent received a grant or scholarship, both need-based and otherwise, and more than 20 percent of Rollins students receive federal Pell Grants, which are provided to low-income undergraduates and some post-baccalaureate students.

It’s too soon to tell exactly what shape all the needs will take, but the financial aid office is anticipating that they will arise come May when bills for tuition go out, explains Steve Booker, associate director and vice president of financial aid.

“We know this is going to be hard on some families financially, and we’ll do everything we can to help mitigate those income reductions and those costs,” says Booker.

Rollins is moving in large and small ways to respond to the needs of the moment. Student Account Services has lifted the requirement that tuition be paid before registering for classes, so students now can register even with a balance.

Fortunately for the 272 students on a federal work study program at Rollins, the federal CARE Act that passed last week will enable Rollins to mail students checks totaling what would have been their remaining seven weeks of work. However, the same is not true for another 400 students holding campus employment positions, such as resident advisers.

Technology Needs

A digital divide, masked by the easy access to tech tools and services on campus, is surfacing since the overwhelming majority of the Rollins community left campus before spring break.

Students have embraced distance learning from homes scattered throughout the U.S. and across 60 nations. However, not everyone has a high-speed internet connection or a solid computer with a working webcam and headphones.

The Help Desk has already been fielding a 50 percent increase in requests since the campus went online. Rollins has loaned a limited number of laptops and 30 webcams to students who lacked the equipment to attend virtual classes.

Some students who depended on free Wi-Fi on campus or even at a local Starbucks are having trouble finding or paying for broadband internet access. Leon Hayner, associate dean of students, says his office has been connecting students with options to help, such as applying for a grant through SSF or finding an internet provider that’s temporarily waving its fees.

On top of that, even if the hardware and connectivity are available, it’s not always possible for a student to find a quiet space and a room of one’s own to do academic work in peace. Roommates, parents, and extended family may compete for the same armchair or kitchen table.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

Student Emergency Fund

The Office of Institutional Advancement has launched a Student Emergency Fund, a new, crisis-focused crowdfunding effort to help provide immediate relief for students as they finish out the semester. The goal is to raise $50,000, which will be distributed among students on a case-by-base basis.

“Whatever we can do to support students and their families is critical,” says Harte Weyant. “That’s the promise we make when they come to Rollins—that they’re not just going to be a number, and we’ll do everything we can to get them to graduate.”

Make a gift to the Student Emergency Fund.