Photo of Adella Robinson in a white polo shirt and gray sweater.

New initiatives help students in financial distress stay in school

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

When Adella Robinson was forced to make a career change for health reasons at age 55, she didn’t realize the current job market would be so difficult to navigate.

“I realized I need my bachelor’s degree to move forward,” Robinson said. “I have my associate degree, but it hasn’t really been getting me any interviews.”

To speed up her graduation, Robinson took on a five-course load in Spring 2019. Unfortunately, this exhausted Robinson’s student loans while she was still between jobs.

In need of help, Robinson turned to Northeastern’s Student Emergency Fund and within a week, she had a check to help pay her monthly rent bill.

“If it had not been for that emergency fund of $500, I probably would have a five-day notice,” said Robinson, an Interdisciplinary Studies major. “I don’t even know where I would be today.”

The Student Emergency Fund is one of two new avenues for Northeastern students to seek immediate assistance during financial emergencies such as housing insecurities, unexpected medical hardships and job loss that might derail their academic progress. Northeastern also has an agreement with The Nest residence hall for emergency housing for students who unexpectedly become homeless. So far, the results of these efforts have been profound.

Since it was established through the NEIU Foundation in November 2018 by Vice President for Student Affairs Daniel López and Acting Provost Wamucii Njogu, the Student Emergency Fund has assisted more than a dozen students.

“The idea of the emergency fund was based on the information we that know about our students,” López said. “We have students who have emergencies that come up and it interferes with their school work. Some end up dropping out, and it creates stresses that they don’t really need.”

Robinson, a mother of two, had started working toward a bachelor’s degree years ago, but stopped when her daughter needed help getting through high school. Robinson enrolled in Northeastern in Fall 2018 and is determined to be the first person in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree.

“When someone’s behind on their rent, which is the most common occurrence, we do make sure that if we do provide this emergency fund, they can get back on track the next month so that we’re not chasing good money for bad, that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for them and a way to continue with staying current,” said Dean of Students Matthew Specht, who reviews the applications. “That’s been pretty successful.”

With the support of the Student Emergency Fund, Robinson was able to pay the majority of her rent, which eased the pressure as she went on job interviews. Shortly thereafter, she was hired by Catholic Charities to be a home care aid. Eventually, Robinson hopes to use her Northeastern degree to either work as a resource coordinator with a nonprofit or start her own organization to help children and the elderly understand what avenues of assistance are available to them.

Students may apply online for aid of up to $500 for many emergency needs, with some exclusions such tuition and health insurance. The fund can, however, help cover a medical bill.

English major Madeleine K., who suffers from a chronic autoimmune disease that causes her to be more susceptible to other illnesses, contracted influenza last year and went to an urgent care center. Six months after her visit, Madeleine discovered that insurance did not cover all of the charges, and she still owed nearly $375 that she could not afford to pay. Madeleine applied for help through the Student Emergency Fund and quickly was granted the money she needed to stay in school and keep the bill from going to collections.

“I needed to pay that off because if I hadn’t, I would probably not be able to go to school,” she said. “I would need to work, and I was still feeling sick due to my autoimmune disease.”

Around the same time as the creation of the Student Emergency Fund, the Northeastern chapter of University Professionals of Illinois (UPI) launched the Faculty and Students Together (FAST) Fund with a similar mission. This fund’s proceeds can be used for a specific bill, and can cover emergency tuition needs, car repairs and various other costs that the Student Emergency Fund cannot cover. The limit for this fund is also $500. Students are allowed to apply for emergency funding from both programs and are encouraged to do so if they are truly in need.

“Most of the grants we’ve given have been for back tuition,” said Nancy Matthews, president of Northeastern’s UPI chapter. “A lot of times there are students who owe $4,000 and we can only do $500, but that’s often enough to let them continue registering for classes because it helps them get started on a payment plan.”

Renee Hightower, a senior Justice Studies major, had exhausted her financial aid. All she needed was one six-hour class with an internship to complete her degree. 

“It’s kind of hard to work and be a single parent and be a student and do an internship and somewhat be successful,” Hightower said.

Hightower said a FAST Fund grant of $500 allowed her to register for her final course and line up her required internship, which she’s doing with Sharing Connections, a nonprofit in Downers Grove that helps struggling families furnish their homes with gently used items. Hightower hopes to work in juvenile justice after graduation. Her commute to Northeastern from Westmont is at least an hour by car, but the commute is worth it.

“The FAST Fund is the reason I was able to take this very last course,” Hightower said. “If they had not put the down payment down for me to be able to get into the course, I wouldn’t be in this course. I was at my wits’ end trying to finish this course. If it wasn’t for the FAST Fund I don’t know what other options I would have had. It was even at a point where I was thinking, ‘Do I pay rent or do I take this course?’”

Instead of fretting over that decision, Hightower is now planning to celebrate her impending graduation.

Both emergency funds rely on contributions from the Northeastern community. Employees can contribute to the Student Emergency Fund through payroll deductions, and anyone can donate through Northeastern’s Giving website by selecting “Student Emergency Fund” under “designation.” If UPI members want to contribute to FAST Funds, they are encouraged to reach out to Matthews for more information.

“I think it’s great that we have different sources for funds,” López said. “It’s really a great cause. Our students are so well deserving, and it would be great if we can help more.”

Often, these emergency funds are just enough to help students in need get through a rough patch, such as a transitional period before starting a new job.

“I talk to some of the students when they come to pick up their check, and a lot of them are incredibly appreciative and say, ‘This is just the little bit I needed to kind of stay above water,’” Specht said. “That’s what we’re trying to do is provide that little bit that alleviates some of that stress of their daily life and allow them to focus on school.”     

Though Madeleine is still struggling with her health and Robinson is in the process of applying for grants and scholarships to ensure she can finish her degree, both are grateful for the funding they received. Hightower is especially thankful to Matthews, who “went above and beyond” to make sure she could register for the class she needed. Their shared hope is that more students can take advantage of these programs in the future.

“I can’t imagine someone trying to pursue a degree and not having assistance,” Robinson said. “Words cannot express enough how it helped me to hold on to the hope of continuing my education at a point where I was unemployed.”

Other Resources

Job loss is a major contributor to student emergencies. In addition to the Student Emergency Fund and the UPI fund, Northeastern offers these services for all students:

Career Development
Career Development is not just for graduating students or those looking for internships. Career counselors are available to students at all stages of their degree process to help with resumes, cover letters, job searches and interview preparation.

Student Counseling Services
Students struggling with job loss, housing insecurity and other emergency situations are often under a tremendous amount of stress. Student Counseling Services provides high-quality, inclusive and responsive counseling to help promote student success. In addition to one-on-one sessions, group counseling and Mindfulness Meditation sessions are offered at no cost. 

Student Pantry
Northeastern’s Student Pantry provides support for students with food insecurity. It is sponsored by the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s Health Kids Market and provides a mix of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as shelf-stable items. The pantry is located in E-050A in the Student Lounge. Hours change each term. Contact student-pantry@neiu.edu for more information. 

Power Closet
If a student has an interview scheduled but does not have appropriate attire, the Power Closet might be able to help. The closet contains basic business attire and accessories to help students make a great first impression. Students must bring their student ID and proof of an interview to select one outfit and accessories. Hours of the Power Closet change each semester. Contact power-closet@neiu.edu for more information.