From emotional support to storage spaces, members of the Pitt community continue to provide relief in any capacity they can amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
After Pitt moved to online classes in March, Student Government Board, in partnership with Student Affairs and the Office of Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement, launched the Student Emergency Assistance Fund, which allows students in need of emergency financial assistance to apply for a grant from the fund to cover expenses. As of Thursday, the fund has granted a total of $254,326 to 457 students, out of more than 700 students who have applied for money, according to University spokesperson Kevin Zwick.
Zwick said a common theme among student requests was difficulty in paying rent and food insecurity due to loss of student or parent employment.
SGB President Eric Macadangdang said requests have been financed through a portion of student activities fee funds originally dedicated for Pitt Seeds, a student grant program for projects related to Pitt’s strategic plan. In light of new needs, SGB decided to use the Pitt Seeds money to fill half of the Student Emergency Assistance Fund, with the approval of Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner, while the Office of Student Life assisted in financing the other half of the fund.
“This fund is a pretty good example of utilizing this money that is specific towards students,” Macadangdang said.
Zwick said ongoing fundraising efforts implemented by Student Affairs and SGB have had a significant impact in bolstering the emergency fund and supporting a large number of requests.
“The number of students benefiting from the Emergency Assistance Fund is limited to the availability of funds,” Zwick said.
Macadangdang said some students have encountered difficulties in providing University-required documentation in order to apply for a grant, but he hasn’t “heard anything outright negative about it.”
“That’s the difficulty of going through funds set up at the university,” Macadangdang said. “There has to be some sort of verification that this money is being used towards exactly what it’s been stated for.”
Macadangdang also works as an SGB liaison for Pitt Mutual Aid, a student-led resource for students and community members who face various forms of adversity due to the pandemic. He describes the work Mutual Aid is doing as a “natural response” to provide communal relief to students and those within the Pitt community.
“Pitt Mutual Aid is more of a grassroots attempt at being there for one another, providing resources and support,” Macadangdang said.
Neerja Garikipati, a senior molecular biology major and project director for Mutual Aid, said 100 people have requested housing and storage services, 35 people requested some form of aid and one person has requested emotional support, as of Monday.
Garikipati said the project has been able to adopt creative ways of digitally organizing and raising funds, such as a Discord chat server and an interactive Bingo game on social media.
“Some clubs have set up Bingo boards on Instagram,” Garikipati said. “You Venmo some amount of money to someone and you get your name put on [the bingo board].”
This method of fundraising alone has allowed Mutual Aid to raise $400, Garikipati said. The project has raised a total of $2,100 in donations, as of Monday.
But Garikipati said it’s tough to handle a large number of aid requests given limited resources, but it is helpful that there are multiple active funds to help students.
“If we have someone request aid we can’t provide, we direct them to either Pittsburgh Mutual Aid or the Student Emergency Fund through SGB,” Garikipati said. “SGB had all this money lying around that wasn’t going to be used for the rest of the year, so why not divert it so students who need it have access to it?”
Although Mutual Aid has been primarily involved with “matching,” or pairing student requests with financial assistance, Garikipati said the organization is currently focused on providing emotional assistance in collaboration with Pittsburgh Mutual Aid, a separate organization serving the larger Pittsburgh community.
“Things have calmed down since the initial rush,” Garikipati said. “Once a week we get together in a group with people who have requested [emotional assistance] and just talk about what we’re doing, whether or not we’ve bumped into obstacles during the week, and, in general, share advice.
Garikipati said the emotional support group also involves more community building activities, such as movie nights and game nights.
“That’s what you would do in the summer, but it’s kinda hard to do that when things are the way they are,” Garikipati said.
Garikipati added that she believes the organization has a long-term future at Pitt beyond just the current crisis, and hopes it becomes a permanent fixture on campus.
“It’s very clear right now that the problems highlighted because of this pandemic aren’t going to go away anytime soon without major change,” Garikipati said. “This was born out of crisis, but I definitely see it sticking around.