Student hardship fund provides safety net

By Margie Fishman | Emory Report | Dec. 14, 2011

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Jordan Stein and Stephen Ratner founded the Student Hardship Fund.

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Last month, Emory College junior Jarquisha Hollings woke up to a hard reality: would she be able to afford breakfast, lunch or dinner that day?

A work-study student at the Emory Barnes & Noble bookstore who supports herself financially, Hollings could not afford to buy clothes to keep her warm. Her mother, who lives in Macon, is disabled and cannot work. Last year, Hollings had to temporarily withdraw from Emory due to the financial strain.

Recently, she received a $500 grant from the University's newly-established Student Hardship Fund. The student-led effort assists students who are facing unforeseen financial challenges.

"I've been in situations like this before and exhausted every avenue available to me," says Hollings. "This felt like a saving grace."

The fund, fully supported by donations and administered by the Office of Financial Aid, provides up to $500 in individual need-based grants to full-time students who experience a catastrophic event, such as a death in the family, losses due to a natural disaster or uninsured medical expenses. Hollings qualified for aid because she was unable to meet her basic living expenses through no fault of her own.

College seniors Stephen Ratner and Jordan Stein launched the initiative last month after a year of planning to help students struggling to make ends meet, even after accounting for financial aid, scholarships and loans. Former Student Government Association (SGA) president Maria Town '09C originally envisioned raising a pool of money to help tide students over during the recession.

"We thought that this would fill a very big void on campus," says Stein, former chair of the SGA Student Life Committee.

Students must have a clean disciplinary record and are limited to one award per academic year. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis.

Backing up diversity

The new fund highlights the University's ongoing commitment to recruiting a diverse student body. Emory Advantage ensures access to an Emory education for all qualified undergraduates from families with total annual incomes of $100,000 or less. The financial aid program offers need-based grants and loan caps to reduce education debt for those students.

"This fund further supports the caring community that makes Emory so unique," says Heather Mugg, associate vice provost of operational student services. 

Fund modeled after program to help staff and faculty

The Student Hardship Fund is modeled after the Emory University Hardship Fund, championed last year by the Employee Council, Human Resources and the Faculty Staff Assistance Program.

Donations or applications for aid can be made to the Emory University Hardship Fund at www.emory.edu/hardshipfund. Full-time and part-time faculty and staff are eligible. So far, the employee fund has raised more than $41,000 in charitable donations, the majority received through voluntary payroll deductions. Twenty-five employees have benefited from the program, a rarity among universities nationwide. 

"This speaks volumes about the type of community we have here at Emory," says Matt Engelhardt, former Employee Council president who is senior director of stewardship and donor relations for the Office of Development and Alumni Relations. "People are willing to step forward and help each other out in a pinch."

For several years, Emory Healthcare has managed its own employee hardship fund.

Undergraduate and graduate student applicants to the Student Hardship Fund are judged by a committee of students, faculty and administrators. Students may choose to submit their applications anonymously or present their cases before the committee.

So far, the student fund has raised an estimated $6,550, with support from the financial aid office, the president's office, provost's office and the Emory Alumni Association. After awarding a total of $2,000 in grants, fund organizers are planning a T-shirt fundraiser next semester and hope to produce a promotional video highlighting student beneficiaries.

Ratner, former SGA speaker of the legislature, conducted an independent study last year during which he interviewed Emory students from lower-income backgrounds about their social and academic experiences. Previously, one of Ratner's close friends, a business major with a 3.9 GPA, was forced to leave Emory after two years because he had maxed out his loans. He still has not returned.

"So much of this is left to chance," notes Ratner. "We're trying to create a more level playing field."