Odessa College has taken steps to help students impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic with an emergency scholarship fund, its food pantry and CARES Act funding.
Executive Director of Advancement for the Odessa College Foundation Jacqui Gore said the fund started March 20, right as the quarantine began and OC moved classes online.
“We set some parameters for the scholarship, so we allotted $100,000 for the emergency scholarship fund and those who can apply are part- and full-time students enrolled in degreed programs with a 2.5 GPA that have been affected by COVID. That could mean their hours were cut; they lost their job; someone in their family lost their job impacting their ability to continue on with their education,” Gore said.
“We set it up to award up to $500 per student to cover tuition and/or books,” she added.
From March 20 to June 15, when this interview was conducted, 167 students had received emergency scholarships totaling $81,273, Gore said.
“If we could get more donations for emergency scholarships that would enable us to help our students. … This isn’t a short-term process … We know the impact of COVID is continuing, our economy is still struggling and so the focus of this scholarship is to help students continue their education,” she added.
When students apply, they provide a description of their situation.
“And there have been some heart-wrenching stories where students were so very close to completing their degree, lost their job, or someone in their family lost their job, their spouse or their parent, there was no way to pay. So this was the OC Foundation’s way of helping those students, above and beyond the scholarships that had already been awarded for the spring semester,” Gore said.
Gore noted that many OC students are non-traditional and the crisis shed light on their needs.
“… They’re working parents. They have kids in school. They’re trying to advance their careers or change careers with their education and all of a sudden it felt like overnight maybe their job changed and their children started needing to be educated at home, so there were so many challenges there. With the lack of technology in the home, lack of time to get it all done with mom or dad needing to complete their coursework and the children needing to complete their coursework just many challenges and several of the applicants talked about that in their request,” she said.
Vice President for Student Services Kim McKay said the college received just over $1 million in funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, for student needs.
The college also got another allocation in about the same amount for institutional needs.
“… Institutions are able to access those funds, or draw down those funds, for the same type of needs that they experience due to the transition to online instruction, so it could be technology, it could be preparing for bringing students on campus this fall,” McKay said. “… We have used it to increase technology so that we are able to seamlessly provide remote, virtual and online instruction during the transition in the spring and continuing through the transition this fall.”
The funds received as part of the CARES Act stimulus funds allows OC to distribute emergency aid to students impacted by the transition to online instruction.
“The college was given $1 million, just over $1 million, to distribute to students over the next academic year. We have a process by which we identify the students that had the most need on our campus, students whose expected family contribution through the federal financial application was zero and those were the students we reached out to first. Then we scaffolded our communication to include more and more students and cast a wider and wider net. In the past month, we’ve been able to distribute … up to $300,000 so far to students who are impacted by the transition to online instruction,” McKay said.
That translated to close to 500 students as of June 23.
“We review applications every Monday and we have a task force that goes through the eligibility criteria set forth by the Department of Education and includes some of our own processes and procedures …,” McKay said.
She added that OC also received additional emergency funding from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board that could be awarded to continuing education, international and DACA/Dreamer, as well as dual credit students that present with a need.
McKay said OC is hoping there will be additional emergency funding options and opportunities for students in the near future.
“The CARES Act funds will continue until we exhaust the funds, or until the academic year is over, which we anticipate at the rate we’re going now we’ll certainly be able to exhaust those funds and get the aid into students’ hands. It cannot used to pay tuition and fees. It has to be used to meet a basic need,” McKay said. “… Our students are dealing with lots of different needs not only because of COVID, but also because of the economic situation in the region. We don’t anticipate having to give any of that back. We think all of it will be used before the end of the academic year. What it has allowed us to do is really put together a strong emergency aid program for students and start to look for additional funders, both in the region and outside the region, that support emergency aid initiatives for college students.”
Kristi Clemmer, director of student support services, said through May, the food pantry served 299 households, a total of 779 individuals.
“Then in June and throughout the summer we’ve seen about 26 cars, because we’re doing curbside delivery for the food items for the students, and so that’s been per week. We have returning students and their families, so we have seen an uptick in new students and even some OC staff that are coming to use the pantry. But it seems they come every two weeks and it seems to be pretty steady that they’re coming in and getting those items,” Clemmer said.
The college has partnered with the West Texas Food Bank and the food bank has provided boxes that will feed a household.
“… It’s a variety of pantry goods, shelf-stable items like soups, pasta, fruit … energy bars and things like that. Then the food bank is able to assist us with providing fresh items when we order our boxes. Sometimes we’ll get milk. Last week, we were able to get produce boxes to supplement the pantry boxes and then they like to try to give us different items like potatoes, bread and other items as they get them donated to them,” Clemmer said June 23.
“In a normal time, we would purchase the items through our partnership with the food bank, but currently the food bank is providing these boxes to us at no charge during this crisis. The National Guard is actually assisting the West Texas Food Bank with making the boxes and maintaining the numbers that they’re giving out for distribution, as well, so they have helped us tremendously by providing this to us at no charge,” Clemmer added.
Ruth Campbell covers education for the Odessa American. Reach her at 432-333-7765 or firstname.lastname@example.org