Emergency Support, with a Human Touch

How FAST Funds Meet Students’ Needs

Faculty and Students Together (FAST) Funds offer emergency aid to students. From bus passes and groceries to textbooks and rent, FAST Funds jump in to help keep students on track. The first FAST Fund was started seven years ago by AFT Local 212 at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC). That first year, the fund helped about 26 students with around $7,000 of emergency aid. Growth has been tremendous, especially in the last few years. In July and August 2023 alone, MATC’s FAST Fund helped 433 students with $105,000 in aid. (For a short case study describing how the Local 212/MATC FAST Fund got started and how quickly it has grown, see go.aft.org/30a.)

We sat down with Liz Franczyk, director of the Local 212/MATC FAST Fund, to learn how the fund meets students’ needs and how more AFT unions can start their own FAST Funds.


EDITORS: What’s unique about FAST Funds—and about your Local 212/MATC FAST Fund?

LIZ FRANCZYK: The premise is that faculty are on the frontlines. I teach at MATC; my colleagues and I see our students not being able to complete their work because they are hungry, don’t have a stable roof over their head, or don’t have transportation—whatever it may be. The need is immense, and our fund is growing every year at a rate that I don’t think is sustainable. Frankly, we need legislation to make college free; short of that, we need to increase higher education funding and student aid.

At MATC, the FAST Fund brings faculty and students together and bypasses all the bureaucracy that comes with big institutions. We purposefully don’t have many requirements for assistance. In contrast, MATC has several forms of assistance, including scholarships and an emergency fund, but they have requirements like completing a certain number of semesters or maintaining a 2.0 GPA (some of those requirements are the result of federal financial aid rules or other federal mandates). We don’t put up those barriers, and we help with books, fees, rent, groceries, gas—whatever is threatening to throw the student off track.

We also help students connect with other resources. For example, we don’t run the campus food pantry—the student resource center does—but to support the pantry, our FAST Fund secured a partnership with a local organization that distributes diapers. Every month, I pick up 5,000 diapers and 100 boxes of wipes, plus period products, and drop them off at the food pantry. Those are typically gone in two weeks.

We pride ourselves on the fact that even as we’re growing so quickly and have so many applications to get through, we try our hardest to talk to every student who applies for aid. Other institutions that offer aid have everything automated. If a student doesn’t meet a criterion like having a 2.0 GPA, they get an automatic rejection email. But we talk with students and find out why their GPA has slipped—then we figure out if we can help and how to best do that. When we need to make referrals, we stay involved; we make introductions and walk students through applications.

Given their other experiences with trying to find aid, students are genuinely surprised that we answer the phone. But for us, these conversations are crucial. As we get to know students, we’re able to make connections to other supports and determine how much aid we can offer. And when students come to us two or three times in a semester, we’re able to explain to them that we’re an emergency fund and try to connect them with other resources that may offer longer-term assistance.

One important part of our application is an instructor referral, but not everybody can provide that. When they can, it’s helpful to have confirmation that this person is an amazing student who needs a little help. (The instructor referral is also a good way for adjuncts and others who are spread too thin to learn about the union and the FAST Fund. I know of many instructors who have joined the union after seeing what the FAST Fund does.)

When students can’t provide an instructor referral, our simple screening process helps us make decisions and act quickly. We consider: What is our impression of that person? Are they responsive? Are they respectful? Are they clear on what’s expected of them? Are they clear on what we can provide? Do they have a clear plan moving forward?

Our goal is to be a one-time source of emergency assistance, but we are very aware that poverty is an ongoing emergency. So, our method is mixed; it’s a little bit of art, a little bit of science. We have parameters, but we make aid decisions mainly through our conversations with each student. Unlike many other organizations, we do not make students prove their poverty.

EDITORS: How did you decide to get involved in this, and what keeps you going?

LIZ: I am from Milwaukee. After getting my master’s in Spanish literature, I spent about a decade as the business manager at a coffee-roasting company during the day while teaching at MATC at night. My day job was fun, but not challenging. In January of 2020, I quit to try to teach full time. I knew there were very few full-time positions, but I thought I could be an adjunct at a few campuses.

In February of 2020, a friend invited me to the FAST Fund fundraising gala. I had never heard of the organization and was blown away by what they were doing. At the gala, MATC student Bria Burris shared how the FAST Fund had helped her remove a felony conviction from her record so she could receive federal financial aid. She had been homeless with her two kids. Bria graduated in 2020, and now she works for the Milwaukee Housing Authority and is on MATC’s board. At the end of the gala, I met her and offered to volunteer.

I started by taking student cases. After about six months, we experienced a surge in need, driven by the pandemic. We recognized that with more organized financials and procedures, we could apply for more grants. So, my volunteering expanded to bookkeeping and grant writing. Our FAST Fund was entirely volunteer-based until 2021, when I became the first paid employee. That was possible because we were given a $2 million endowment from the children of an MATC employee who had passed away. Without that, we would still be all-volunteer—and able to help far fewer students.

I cry almost every day out of stress or sadness, or sometimes joy. I got a text recently from a student I helped months ago. She was escaping domestic violence, and she took her children without anywhere to go. I’d gotten her into a hotel for a week, and then hadn’t heard from her. It was such a relief when she wrote to me: “Hey, I just want to let you know I’m back on my feet. I have an apartment, school’s going well, my kids are happy.” I started crying in my car. That’s why we do this.

I also appreciate that the FAST Fund gave me a way to get involved with my union. I don’t know much about contract negotiations and other traditional union work. But I know a lot about my students. As a faculty member and union member, it has been easy for me to become an advocate for my students and all MATC students.

I don’t have an official role in the union, but with the FAST Fund I’ve become the voice for students—the person going between students and the college administration. At our institution, like most large institutions, many decisions are made without student input. I speak up for and with students. For example, I bring students to MATC board meetings so they can describe issues they’re facing. I think it’s powerful for them to be there and to say things in their own words. Having the union at my back allows me to engage with the board like this with confidence. If I didn’t know I had the union’s support, I would be a much quieter person.

EDITORS: What advice do you have for AFT locals that would like to start their own FAST Fund?

LIZ: The first step is to find a group of people who have the drive and capacity to do this. One person cannot do this on their own. Then, contact Believe in Students (go.aft.org/7xw), which is the umbrella nonprofit for many FAST Funds (though some have grown, like ours, to become their own nonprofit). Believe in Students has developed awesome tools to help with initial seed funding and to guide setting up a fund. And the AFT has worked closely with Believe in Students, including giving it a $100,000 grant in 2021 to help 19 AFT locals launch or grow their FAST Funds.

The next steps are relatively uncomplicated. Obviously, you need funding; that can be intimidating, but it’s doable. Most of my fundraising happens through networking. You need to understand your audience and develop relationships with people at each organization that could become a donor. Faculty and retirees have been a reliable source of support.

While you’re fundraising, you need to develop your application. Believe in Students emphasizes keeping it simple and getting aid to students quickly. Once you have some funding, spread the word. Our on-campus FAST Fund advertising has been almost exclusively word of mouth—but we have essential partners like the campus food pantry. We’ve also been successful having faculty include us in their syllabi. Also, toot your own horn by issuing press releases. An English or communications teacher could help you with that. This helps inform the community about your work and potentially generates more funds.

The last, and most important, thing is to be open, compassionate, and empathetic—and be prepared to hear some really sad stories. You will hear some awful stuff, but it can also be uplifting. I often think, “Wow, you’re going to school through all of this? You’re still trying to better your life?” Students’ resilience is astounding.

One thing that’s been integral to our growth and to educating the community is elevating students’ voices as we help them. So, for example, after we send the check to their landlord, we email the student a memo for their records and ask, “If you have a chance, could you send us a short testimony of how we are helping you in your life, in your education, and what this means to you?” Sharing those stories with our donors and our community to show what it’s like to be a college student today is so important.

EDITORS: We’d like to understand students’ experiences and needs better. Could you share a few more stories of students you’ve helped recently?

LIZ: One of the main needs we help students with is debt to the college. There’s nowhere else to turn to get that paid so that they can enroll. A woman called me in September who is 52 and trying to get back into school. She’s been teaching at a private Catholic school where there isn’t strict credentialing, and she needs to go through our teacher education program to get her associate degree. When she tried to sign up, she discovered that she has a $2,000 balance on her account from 1991 when she enrolled after high school but never attended. For this unusual situation, I contacted MATC’s president directly, then began working with the head of Student Accounts. We’re working toward forgiving this old balance. In this case, the FAST Fund’s contribution is not monetary—it’s my connections on campus.

We’ve also found that English as a second language (ESL) and GED students who need aid tend to fall through the cracks. They often don’t qualify for federal financial aid, and there’s very little grant or scholarship funding for them. Not long ago, an ESL student named Apexa needed help with a bus pass. As with so many supports at MATC, students can only get bus passes after they earn a certain number of credits or if they are in specific programs. Apexa didn’t qualify.

I have a great contact at the Milwaukee County Transit System who understands the FAST Fund. He gave me a bus pass for her. Apexa later wrote me a long thank-you note. Here’s a portion of it:

The generous support in the shape of a bus pass may appear to others to be a tiny gesture, but it has been a lifeline for me.... I was able to attend classes on a regular basis and participate in educational activities and seminars because of the bus pass’s ease. This priceless guidance has not only kept my grades up, but also increased my self-confidence and drive for success. Sincerely, I think the FAST Fund’s assistance to students like me is proof of the influence of kindness and the positive changes it can bring about.

In August, I received an application from an ESL student from Afghanistan. He had been here for five months, and he needed a bicycle. Outside the United States, in almost every other part of the world, bicycles are an integral part of getting around—and they mean freedom since the cost to maintain them is minimal.

I’m a cyclist, and I used to work at a local bike shop. I called my old boss, and he said to bring the student in. When we arrived, the owner sold us a bike for $150 (the FAST Fund paid), which is about a third of the retail price. Although the student barely speaks English, he gave us an enthusiastic thumbs up and was so grateful to be able to get around the city and campus. It’s easy to underestimate what freedom of movement means to people.

EDITORS: What are your plans for the future?

LIZ: We’re hoping to build on the work we started last spring to develop the Great Lakes FAST Fund Consortium. We started last year with a $150,000 grant from the AFT’s Powerful Partnerships Institute (PPI). Our short-term goal is to help funds throughout the region grow, so that all the FAST Funds in our consortium are as large as our Local 212/MATC fund. Long term, we’re aiming for systemic changes in higher education. The consortium developed an advocacy agenda identifying the most urgent needs facing our students and specifying the actions we can take at the campus, community, state, and federal levels to address these issues.

As we were establishing the consortium, one of our first activities was asking students what issues they wanted to address. Independently, groups of students on each campus chose food-pantry-related issues. The top request was for expanded pantry hours, followed closely by more personal hygiene products. Many people wouldn’t think personal hygiene is related to educational success, but being able to brush your teeth—having dignity—is crucial. Several of our student activists reached out to local grocery stores to get boxes of hygiene products.

It was really hard to get a lot of traction with the consortium work in just one semester. I’m excited to see what our consortium will accomplish this academic year. In October, we won another grant from the AFT, allowing consortium members to support each other as they build relationships with students, educators, and community members and continue developing local campaigns for collectively identified campus issues—including expanding our pantries’ hours and products. I think having this PPI support for the whole academic year will help lead to adjustments on our individual campuses regarding basic needs insecurity and to regional organizing that will result in lasting systemic change.

[Illustrations by Itziar Barrios]

American Educator, Winter 2023-2024