Photo of a young woman holding her toddler son under a blue sky, both smiling and wearing gold tops and blue jeans
Marjan Rajabi ’21 and her son

The Student Emergency Fund: A Bridge to a Brighter Future

“This is a scary time for everyone, but especially for kids who can’t get home or work jobs that once sustained them,” said Sara Jane Harris, whose son Andy is a sophomore and a member of the Cal lacrosse team. Harris said she was happy to make a gift to Berkeley’s Student Emergency Fund after receiving an email about it.

As California began to shelter in place in March, Harris was among many donors who made new gifts to the Student Emergency Fund, which helps bridge sudden unexpected gaps in critical resources. Established in 2011 in the wake of a fire on Telegraph Avenue that left several students homeless, the fund has often served Berkeley’s most vulnerable populations.

Photo of two women smiling into the camera, with paintings hung on a pale gold wall behind them

Madison Luzar during her externship with Tracy Lieu at Kaiser Permanente, January 2020.

“Berkeley has always gone out of the way to support under-resourced students,” said Dr. Tracy Lieu, whose three degrees, including an M.P.H. from Berkeley, are all from UC schools. A director of research at Kaiser Permanente whose daughter is currently at Berkeley, Dr. Lieu reflected on the cascading consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. “My daughter has had to cancel a summer internship, but for students who don’t have a home to go to, or parents to support them, or the equipment they need — there are more pressing kinds of problems.”

Today, students from a broader range of economic backgrounds increasingly require support as jobs are lost and once-secure families find themselves at risk in the wake of COVID-19. As of April 22, 818 campus friends had added $411,000 to the fund, and awards totaling $800,000 had been deployed to help students address the myriad economic challenges brought about by COVID-19. More recently, Kathy Kwan ’87, M.B.A/M.P.H. ’93 — a UC Berkeley Foundation trustee who is involved with the School of Public Health, the Data Sciences Initiative, Letters & Science, and the Jacobs Institute — made a $1 million commitment to support student emergency financial aid.

“The economic consequences [of the pandemic] came super-fast,” said Kwan. “Overnight, a number of students lost part-time jobs and summer internships that were helping them fund their education.” 

Photo of a woman smiling into the camera, a colorful wreath of flowers partially visible behind her

UC Berkeley Foundation Trustee Kathy Kwan ’87, M.B.A/M.P.H. ’93

Noting that middle-class students are in jeopardy because of the financial domino effect of the crisis, Kwan emphasized the importance of addressing urgent needs while keeping in mind Berkeley’s long-term health. Berkeley invites the broader community to consider Kwan’s generosity as a challenge and inspiration to make their own contributions to this vitally important fund.

Kwan is among donors who are engaged in conversations about bolstering student success in the longer term.  “How do we ensure that the maximum number of students finish their Berkeley education?” she asked. “I’m working with the campus to see how I can help find an equitable and balanced approach to meeting student needs.”

Spring is always a busy time for Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of Financial Aid Cruz Grimaldo and her team as they work to meet the needs of students newly admitted for the fall. The pandemic has increased their workload in unexpected ways. As a priority, for example, the team now reviews clues in current student records — such as outstanding balances that could interfere with enrollment — to determine if the emergency fund might help.

Private support to address pressing student needs will be augmented by funds from the federal government through the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Currently, the top needs the fund addresses are related to costs incurred by the requirements of online learning and sheltering in place. Grimaldo noted that she and her colleagues are also deploying the fund as they build new frameworks of support for student parents, who, even in the best of times, are juggling competing priorities.

One such student parent is Marjan Rajabi ’21. Originally enrolled in 2008, Rajabi had taken time away from Berkeley and then came back after having her son, who is now two. Before the shelter-in-place order, Rajabi’s parents had been helping her with childcare and her husband had a steady gig as a structural engineer. They had just moved into a larger apartment with a higher rent when the crisis hit home. Her husband’s pay was reduced to minimum wage and Rajabi’s parents, who are at high risk for infection, could no longer help with her son. Suddenly, she was trying to study while being interrupted by her child and having to choose between paying the rent and buying groceries.

“I cried when I got the emergency funding,” said Rajabi, who had been considering using loan funding that would incur interest. “I got an email about emergency funding for student parents, and it was really fast. Within two days I received $1,500.”

Rajabi is one of many students who are continuing to move toward their academic and career goals with a little help from the Berkeley community. A gift to the Student Emergency Fund is a simple and effective way to relieve the pressures brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, and to deepen the foundation of support that will keep students on track to graduate and bring their talents to the world.

Check out a panel discussion with Chancellor Christ, campus leaders, Marjan Rajabi, and Kathy Kwan discussing how Berkeley is addressing the changing landscape of student need in our volatile moment. 

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