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A helping hand: Giving amid COVID-19 crisis supports W&M family

  • Illustration of hands holding a paper heart
    Helping hands:  Emergency funds support W&M students and faculty during the COVID-19 outbreak.  File photo
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One student couldn’t get a flight back home to Italy. For others, restrictions on travel to China meant two weeks of waiting, followed by another two weeks of quarantine before they could return to their families. Still others lost part-time restaurant jobs, leaving them short on money for food and rent.

These were some of the unexpected circumstances William & Mary students encountered this March when residence halls closed and businesses shut down or reduced their hours in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Between March 20-27, the Dean of Students Office assisted 118 students — many of them international — with emergency housing, food, lodging and transportation needs.

Among those was a graduate student from India who did not receive his usual monthly stipend for living expenses from his bank because of the lockdown in his home country. As his April 1 rent payment date approached, panic started to set in and he reached out to the university for help. Within 30 minutes of talking with a staff member on March 26, he learned that he would receive $1,500 in emergency funds by the next day.

“It was a massive relief,” he says. “I’ve never seen any engine work so efficiently as this school.”

Using a combination of expedited housing rebates and donor-supported funds, the university distributed $140,550 to the students — sometimes within hours of when the request was made. Vice President of Student Affairs Ginger Ambler ’88, Ph.D. ’06, P ’24 enabled the Dean of Students Office to access emergency funds as needed.

“I was overwhelmed by how our university partners came together to ensure that there was no obstacle to get students the money they needed,” says S. Mark  Sikes Ph.D. ’15, vice dean for student success. “It really shows you the value of the William & Mary family all wanting to help others and to help our students succeed.”

Private support through the For the Bold campaign was essential in providing  resources for students. The newly established Health, Emergencies, And Resources for the Tribe (HEART) Fund, the Edith Rohlfs Marsh Endowment, the Student Affairs Emergency Fund (non-loan) and the Janet, John and Elizabeth Osborn Emergency Fund Endowment are just a few examples of funds that were tapped to help students facing hardships during the COVID-19 crisis.

“During this time of unprecedented need, I am more grateful than ever for the generosity of the William & Mary family,” Ambler says. “In the last two weeks, we have been able to leverage funds from multiple sources — endowments both long-standing and new; annual gifts both large and small —  to respond quickly and with compassion to our students in dire need. If ever our students needed widespread emergency support, this is surely that time.”

New donations have been coming in as well. William & Mary’s Student Assembly recently allocated up to $20,000 for Student Affairs emergency support funds (with another $15,000 available if needed) and 112 individual donors contributed nearly $18,000 to the HEART Fund, the International Student Scholarship Fund and the Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation Fund between March 12 and April 1. Some students are also giving their room and board rebates to the university.

The HEART Fund’s creators, Teri Dale Dungan ’88 and Thomas Dungan III ’88, set up the endowment in 2019 with payments to be made over five years. The Dungans, who have two children attending William & Mary and a third who’s an alumnus, say they learned that even during a typical year, many students struggle to cover unexpected costs, whether that means a new pair of eyeglasses or a trip home for a funeral. And this is no typical year.

“Kids often are working three jobs and they have a scholarship, and everything goes to books and lodging and food. There’s literally no wiggle room,” Teri Dungan says. “You put a pandemic on top of that and there’s real need.”

Both say they trust Ambler and her staff to ensure that funds are being applied to the greatest needs. They’re also encouraged to know that others have been inspired to contribute to the fund.

“We need help from other people to make sure the HEART Fund has the resources it needs to rise to the occasion right now,” Tom Dungan says.

The International Student Scholarship Fund is another source of emergency support that likely will be needed as the effects of COVID-19 continue, says Eva Wong, director of international students, scholars and programs at the Reves Center for International Studies.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” she says. “Students who have found temporary housing might need something long term. A lot of students are depending on employment on campus or off campus.”

Now those students are unsure whether jobs will be available and whether they’ll be able to work remotely.

When the residence halls closed March 25, freshman Celia Lu ’23 and two other students from China booked flights for March 28, but those were canceled. William & Mary helped them find hotel rooms and covered the $240 cost of their stay for three nights until they found an apartment, where they have a three-month lease.

Lu, who intends to major in sociology and economics, was planning to go home to Shanghai for the summer, but she doesn’t know if that will be possible because flights to China are so limited. If she stays in Williamsburg, she’ll have to find another short-term lease for the summer before she can move back to the dorm.

“It’s hard to go back to China and it’s hard to stay,” Lu says. “I’m going to wait and see what the situation is.”

Another issue that needs to be addressed is how to handle the belongings that were left in residence halls by students who had to evacuate campus quickly and travel long distances, Wong says. Those items may have to go into storage or be shipped internationally.

“Some students don’t return home every year,” she says. “Now they’ve incurred an expense that they did not foresee. That’s another example of the repercussions in terms of financial impact that students and families will have to navigate in the weeks or months.”

When the university moved all in-person classes to remote instruction on March 23, William & Mary’s Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation partnered with the university’s Information Technology staff and W&M Libraries to help faculty and students make the transition quickly.

Supported by a combination of public and private funding, the Studio opened last fall in Swem Library as a hub for promoting collaboration across disciplines and exploring new technologies and ways of teaching.

One example of how private funding for the Studio is assisting in the current online learning environment: Kinesiology and health sciences professor Carrie Dolan was able to provide $1,330 worth of statistical software and training modules to students in her Research Methods in International Health course.

Her students needed to be able to manage and analyze data for their projects. Without the new Stata software, there wouldn’t have been a way to transition that part of the class to online instruction in just a week’s time.

“In the classroom, I was able to teach the program and offer support by working with them one on one,” Dolan says. “Without the money for the software, it would have been a completely different experience for the students.”

Stata’s self-paced learning modules help students import and export data from different formats, reproduce and document their work and interact with the Stata community online.

The 15 undergraduate students in Dolan’s class are using the software for projects such as exploring how to improve vaccination rates in Kenya and the connection between cultural attitudes and trash disposal practices in the Dominican Republic. 

Gifts to the Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation Fund make it possible to provide such essential materials, says Ann Marie Stock, vice provost for academic and faculty affairs. She recalls that last year at this time, she was collaborating with a team on crafting a vision for the Studio.

“We knew it would be an important engine for teaching and learning, but we could never imagine just how important this resource would be,” she says. “Thanks to the generosity of donors, the excellence of the William & Mary academic experience is assured, despite the challenging circumstances.”  

Editor’s note: To support William & Mary students, faculty and staff during this challenging time, please visit giving.wm.edu or call (757) 221-1008.