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Maryland universities helping students weather financial crisis created by coronavirus

Towson University students remove their belongings from the dorms on March 11 as the school shut down days before the start of the scheduled spring break. The pandemic has forced students to turn to university aid programs for help.
Towson University students remove their belongings from the dorms on March 11 as the school shut down days before the start of the scheduled spring break. The pandemic has forced students to turn to university aid programs for help. (Rob Carr/Getty Images North America/TNS)

Wanderly Vargas was a senior Towson University psychology major two months away from graduation and looking for his first full-time job after college when the new coronavirus upended his life.

One day he was finishing a lot of class assignments, and supporting himself with a campus job. The next day the campus was shutting down, he was worried his job would disappear and he was packing his bags to go home to his parents house in Prince George’s County. One of his parents has been laid off, the other is furloughed and now Vargas is working through class assignments using a hot spot on his phone for internet because his family doesn’t have high speed internet.

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“I am trying to stay positive and trust my resources and my network around campus. I am going to trust them,” Vargas said. “I have to move forward with life, even if I don’t want to.”

The pandemic that shut down university classrooms has changed the world for everyone, including college students. Some of those students are struggling financially as they try to navigate finishing classes online. Vargas is one of thousands of students in colleges and universities across the state who are now reaching out to emergency student funds for help.

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For the past several weeks, Sarah Williamson, the coordinator in the office for student affairs at the University of Maryland, College Park, has pored over 1,100 applications from students for money from The Crisis Fund, to pay their rent or groceries.

The Crisis Fund was set up in 2001 to help students with acute, short-term financial needs. It has doled out money to cover the cost of unexpected car maintenance, short-term medical expenses or even to replace lost or stolen textbooks.

Now the need has exploded. Williamson is not the only administrator fielding calls and applications.

At Morgan State University, Towson University and Johns Hopkins University, administrators have rushed to raise money from alumni, parents and friends of their institutions to help with the immediate needs of students trying to fly home suddenly or make rent at a time of stunning unemployment and still complete their spring semester online.

Many students have lost jobs they needed to support themselves while they worked toward their degree, said Williamson.

“A lot of our students have detailed how their parents have been laid off,” Williamson said, so their usual source of financial help isn’t available. The university has distributed nearly $379,050 to 803 students since March 11, when many colleges first decided to restrict access to campus. They are also expanding a food pantry which has remained open.

Now that the funds are depleted, the university has put out a request to donors. As fast as the donations have come in, Williamson said, they are going out to students.

“I have to move forward with life, even if I don’t want to.”


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Towson University is beginning to respond to the needs of its students as well. It has $194,000 for student emergencies and hardships and another $50,000 designated to provide food for students. And the university is raising more money to help students, according to Sean Welsh, a university spokesman.

Johns Hopkins University started to take action the day its students were leaving campus for spring break by setting up a triage desk in one of its dorms to make it easier for students to find some help. The university booked flights for students who otherwise would not be able to get home, sending students to 17 states, a U.S. territory, Taiwan and Kenya, according to Jill Rosen, a university spokeswoman.

Hopkins has provided $75,000 to its undergraduates for food and financial support to help them access online learning.

And Morgan State University has launched a COVID-19 emergency fund through the Morgan State University Foundation, asking for donations from the Morgan community, said Dell Jackson, a spokesman. Morgan’s Office of Alumni Relations has launched a campaign to provide laptops to Morgan students in need and is making food available to students.

Many of the students facing financial strains are the first generation in their families to go to college. Gexi Chavez, a junior elementary education major at Towson University, is one of those students who recently learned she will receive $400 to help with expenses.

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A resident assistant in a dormitory, Chavez also worked in a program supporting first generation college students. She remembers sitting in a biology class where few could concentrate because they were concerned about their futures. As word went out that students would move out of their dorms and classes would go online, she said, “everyone was kind of frantic. It was really unclear what was going to happen to the many students who don’t have a good housing situation.”

She worried about herself, her family and the other 60 students in her dorm who were asking her questions that she had no idea how to answer.

Chavez is now back at home with her parents, siblings, and cousins. Her parents have been laid off from their jobs, and she said she has lost work as well. She has internet in her house, but no private space to do her school work. Chavez spends her days searching for work online, trying to complete her classes for the semester and worrying about her family, most of whom do not speak English fluently.

While she is aware that focusing on classes should be a top priority because obtaining a degree would help support her family in the long run, she said, Chavez is “more focused on how are we going to provide food in this household for the next month or two months.”

She is grateful for Towson University’s help.

"That took off so much stress and pressure.”

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