April 12, 2023

For students in crisis, Giving Day donors have their backs

Students’ Greatest Needs Fund helps UCalgary students get back on their feet and focus on their education
grocery store
Gemma, Unsplash

When someone experiences domestic violence and decides to leave, there is upheaval — emotional, social, financial — that makes staying on track difficult. And being in school can complicate matters.

“They’re trying to find their way, while still trying to be a student,” says Carla Bertsch, who, as co-ordinator for the Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Support and Response Office at the University of Calgary, has worked with students in such circumstances. “There are so many nuances for students in need, different than anybody else. There are so many snowballing effects.

“Classes don’t stop. They don’t wait for you.”

Carla Bertsch

Carla Bertsch.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

For navigating emergencies like this, the Students’ Greatest Needs Fund can help. The UCalgary program provides financial aid for those blindsided by exceptional circumstances such as job loss, family death, housing disruption or student-loan delay.

Necessities like healthy food and safe lodging can sometimes fall by the wayside when a student is in crisis, and the Students’ Greatest Needs Fund can fill the gaps. Available, for instance, are gift cards — up to $500 — for groceries.

Students are then able to regain their footing, says Bertsch, and remain focused on their academic goals. “Like any of us, in a moment of crisis where you feel like you’ve lost all hope, if you’re able to get some kind of community support? It’s life altering.”

Administered by Student Wellness Services and supported entirely by donations, the program helped 20 students in 2021. A year later, 66 students received assistance. With rising inflation, demand continues to increase.

UCalgary faculty and staff among fund’s top supporters

Not surprisingly, it’s an initiative that strikes a chord on campus.

During UCalgary Giving Day last year, only two funds received more gifts than the Students’ Greatest Needs Fund, which drew 134 donations, including more than 40 from UCalgary faculty and staff.

“Students’ costs are going up every bit as much as ours, but they are paying to be here every day, while we’re getting paid to be here — that’s a very big difference,” says Colleen Bangs, senior director of alumni engagement at UCalgary.

“We know that there are students facing food insecurity, housing challenges and other life circumstances that are not necessarily within their control. As an employee and an alum, I care about our students and how life's challenges are impacting their experience. I want to be part of the solution.”

Colleen Bangs

Colleen Bangs.

Colleen Bangs

Bangs, BA'03, one of those employee donors, emphasizes the importance of participation over the size of one’s gift, especially during Giving Day — on now until April 27 — when gifts are matched by the university, up to $2,500 per gift, while matching funds last. And, like last year, the UCalgary Alumni Association Board is further matching gifts from alumni to the Students’ Greatest Needs Fund, meaning alumni gifts could have up to triple the impact.

“If I was only able to give $15, that’s going to make sure that some person on campus is not going to be hungry for a day — that’s powerful,” says Bangs, who plans to donate to the fund again this Giving Day. “Students are the most integral part of our community, so, yes, we should think about giving. This is a fund that can connect us and make the community, as a whole, stronger.”

Program efficiency critical for students in crisis

Kelsey McWilliams, a residence support adviser with Student Wellness Services, recalls talking to a single mom who, after being abandoned by her partner, was left facing childcare costs. A grocery gift card, provided by the Students’ Greatest Needs Fund, allowed her to direct cash earmarked for food into child care and, ultimately, to stay in school.

Efficiency is part of what makes the program effective. Generally, a decision on an application takes only a day or two. McWilliams has even seen same-day approvals. The streamlined approach to assistance is critical.

“I can’t overstate the importance of a low-barrier response for people in crisis,” says Bertsch. “The institution trusts our authority as a professional who says, ‘This student has expressed in our conversation that financial aid is something that would help them at this particular moment.’ So there is very little paperwork to then get the money to the student. Which is huge.”

Without sudden exceptional circumstances, McWilliams points out, there are no grounds for aid. “Most students do struggle financially. Unfortunately, that (alone) doesn’t really meet our criteria. That’s always hard, to deny people.”

But plenty do qualify for assistance. And their appreciation for financial relief, when they need it most, is unmistakable, according to Bertsch. It can restore their bottom line — and their mental health.

All of which increases the likelihood of staying in school.

“We don’t want to see students abandon (their education) because of one month when they needed just a little bit of financial help,” says Bertsch. “And graduating is a way for them to gain some financial security.”

UCalgary Giving Day is April 27. Whether you support student awards, critical research or any one of UCalgary’s innovative funds, your gift will help change lives and shape the future. All eligible gifts made from April 1-27 will be matched, dollar for dollar, up to $2,500 per gift — but only while matching funds last. Make your gift today at ucalgary.ca/givingday.

Gifts from UCalgary alumni to the Students’ Greatest Needs Fund during Giving Day 2023 will be further matched by the UCalgary Alumni Association Board, up to $2,500 per gift, while matching funds last.

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