Born at the Crossroads of Challenge and Support

How Institutional Services Came Together in the Midst of a Worldwide Pandemic to Enhance Support for Students in Crisis

The Student Emergency Fund has been a critical, yet concealed resource at SMU for years as a partnership between the Office of the Dean of Students and Parent and Family Programs. The fund, originally established by a donation from the Mother’s and Dad’s Club in 2012, has been used to support students who experience an unexpected financial hardship by providing grant-based aid to address the hardshipIn the past, we’ve assisted a student who lost possessions in a house fire, a student who needed a plane ticket home to care for an ailing parent, a student with unexpected medical bills after a traumatic incident, and a student who needed graduation regalia, to name a few examples. The onset of Covid-19 has catapulted this lesser known resource to the forefront and fundamentally changed the ways we have been able to support our students. 

While we have assisted students in a multitude of ways with the Student Emergency Fund, we began to think critically in the Fall 2019 semester about how we might better utilize this resource and align ourselves with best practices. In the past, when a student had a financial emergency, we would contact other areas on campus as necessary and work to support the student as best we could; the process was less formal and less efficient. We knew we needed to make some changes. We retooled the application and began to brainstorm a committee review process that would allow us to make better decisions for our students and collaborate with other areas of the university in a more intentional, streamlined way. The pandemic brought on the necessary push to finalize those changes and the Student Emergency Fund Committee was born! 

 The current committee consists of the following members: 

  • Dr. Evelyn Ashley, Associate Dean and Director of Student Support Advocacy and Accountability 
  • Elsie Johnson, Director of Student Support 
  • Dr. Deanie Kepler, Director of Parent and Family Programs 
  • Dr. Sidney Gardner, Director of the Women & LGBT Center 
  • Meredith Turner, Associate Director, Financial Aid 
  • Mary Jones, Associate Director, Financial Aid  
  • Dr. Alan ItkinAssistant Dean of Graduate Studies 

The committee meetweekly to review student applications to the fund. Students are asked to describe their circumstances to help the committee understand needs and to outline other options they may have should they not receive funding. As a committee, we make determinations to award students funding for rent (paid directly to the landlord) and/or funding for other expenses (paid directly to the student).

We have read heartbreaking and heartwarming stories. We have laughed. We have shed tears. We have been stunned to silence as we think through what our students are currently experiencing. We have collaborated. We have disagreed with one another, and then acquiesced as we understand that we’re all working with the same goal in mind—student support.

We’ve also been able to work together on other initiatives as a result of conversations started in committee review. Serving on this committee has been one of the most difficult and intrinsically rewarding experiences I have had in my career to date. 

The pandemic has created an interesting crossroads of challenge and support, a term we student affairs professionals are deeply familiar with. It has broken apart the cone of silence around economic hardship at SMU. This is a particularly fraught time for so many, as we grapple with the unknown and make decisions with limited information. Still, I am particularly proud of the way our colleagues in the division and other areas of campus come together and work hard on this committee. I am proud of the SMU community, stepping up to provide over $100K in donations to the student emergency fund over the last few months. I am hopeful about this work and look forward to continuing to support our students in need.

Since March 2020:

  • $81,340 awarded from the Student Emergency Fund
  • 114 student applications reviewed
  • 25 Student Emergency Fund Committee review meetings held

Written by Elsie Johnson, Director of the Office of Student Support