Faculty fund grows to help college students in need

One student needed $500 for car repairs so she could get herself to work. Another nearly dropped out because she couldn’t afford the iPad required for her nursing program. A third didn’t have enough food for her family to eat.

woman with hand on her forehead
Photo credit: Getty/nattrass / E+

Each of these college students made it through tough times—and stayed enrolled in school—thanks to union faculty and staff who run FAST Funds, emergency relief programs that assist students in need. These programs are more vital than ever now that the pandemic has hit so many families so hard.

So far, there are 30 of these faculty-run funds—called “FAST” for Faculty and Students Together, but also because they are able to quickly get students the often small amounts of money they need to stay in college. Fourteen of them were initiated by AFT faculty-staff union affiliates, and some were kick-started by grants from the national AFT office.

Sandi Estep, president of the Governors State University chapter of the United Professionals of Illinois, secured $5,000 from the AFT to start a FAST Fund in February, which enabled the union to raise an additional $10,000 through a matching donation. Union faculty and academic support professionals donated another $5,000.

At a school where most students are commuter students and nearly all of them work, the effects of the pandemic have been especially difficult, says Estep; the union received a whopping 350 applications for help. The FAST Fund distributed nearly 100 grants from $100 to $200, and Estep says “it broke our hearts” that she and her colleagues couldn’t offer more.

But students were grateful for every penny. “One hundred dollars!” wrote one in a thank-you note. “You have no idea, my family will eat this month.” Another applied for $25 for a book he couldn’t otherwise afford.

The Temple Association of University Professionals established a FAST Fund in 2018, and members have donated $53,462 to more than 100 students over the course of three years. The money covers “lots of rent checks,” says Patricia Blakely, TAUP’s operations manager, a particularly urgent need since the pandemic swept away so many jobs. Other frequent requests are for funds to cover books and commuter expenses. One student, who was going into shock because of uncontrolled diabetes, needed money for an expensive insulin pump to regulate medication.

“Food insecurity, housing insecurity and living paycheck to paycheck is real, but hidden like an iceberg below the water,” says Blakely. “There is still a stigma about not being self-reliant, so students hide from faculty, trying to be the perfect version of themselves.”

“There’s a huge portion of college students who are literally hungry, describing hunger pains,” says Luma Haddad, a counselor who helps distribute FAST Funds at Los Angeles Valley College. Other needs are more specific: When Haddad noticed one of her students “dripping with sweat” during a Zoom call, she learned the student was working from a closet, the only space available in her crowded household, and she’d closed the door in 100-degree LA heat because her children were busy with schoolwork just outside the door. This pre-nursing student was on the verge of dropping out, but the FAST Fund helped her get a cooling fan for her work space, and the gesture of support, along with the cooler space, inspired her to stick with her classes.

Big picture: Nationwide need

According to research from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, 39 percent of student survey respondents are food insecure, 46 percent are housing insecure and 17 percent have been homeless. The center, founded and led by TAUP member Sara Goldrick-Rab, initiated FAST Funds and leads the #RealCollege movement, uncovering the truth about poverty among college students. The center also provides a plethora of resources to help individual institutions assist students who struggle with financial instability, and is a leader in the fight for free college. Believe in Students extends that work even further with hands-on tools to reach those most in need.

As a sociologist who studies equity issues, Daisy Rooks, a member of the University of Montana-Missoula College Faculty Association, knew there were a lot of first-generation college students “living on the edge,” but even she was surprised by the level of need when she and her FAST Fund launched last spring. “It was amazing to see how many students were so close to being evicted,” she says.

“We got flooded with applications,” says Rooks. With help from grants and generous donations from faculty, the fund has provided $30,990 in emergency support to just over 100 students, in portions of $100 to $300 each. Needs are as basic as food and housing—students say things like, “I’m trying to keep myself and my kids housed, can you help us?”

Like many FAST Funds, the Montana FAST Fund does not consider grades or progress toward completion before it extends a helping hand. “I don’t care if somebody is a C-minus student across the board, who cares?” says Rooks. “If they have some emergency needs, we’re going to give them money. To me, that’s the special thing about FAST Funds.”

[Virginia Myers]