Shutdowns have pushed many students to the brink of bankruptcy. How is the university helping?

As the graduate director of Southern Studies, Dr. Jessie Wilkerson is used to helping students, but she knew the way students were helped would change when the pandemic sent students away from campus and closed many sources of income for them.

Now, though graduate students will not lose their stipends because of the shutdowns, many still find it hard to make ends meet because they lost other jobs.

“These are students who support themselves and some of them support their family members as well,” Wilkerson said. “What I would describe is just layers of fear and uncertainty. And what we’re witnessing is the pandemic and the concerns around that and then the economic collapse on top of it at a rate that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression. I mean, most of us, with the exception of, you know, some of our grandparents, have never experienced something like this in our own lifetimes.”

In early April, the university held a fundraiser to provide financial relief for students, which raised $186,372 through 915 donations. The university also secured $8.32 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) act, which can be used for food, housing, course materials, technology-related expenses, health care, childcare and travel.

Students can use this application to be considered for relief.

When asked whether students had begun receiving the money that had been collected through the fundraiser, a university spokesperson declined to comment.

“The university is committed to assisting all of our students and especially those in need of emergency financial support right now in light of the global COVID-19 pandemic,” they said in a statement.

It isn’t just graduate students that are feeling the financial pressure, either.

Kate Forster, the director of advocacy for UMatter, a university program to connect all students to resources available to them, said that many students — graduate and undergraduate alike — who have talked to her feel like “the bottom fell out from under them financially.”

“Our work has shifted towards being kind of the initial point of contact for students that are facing financial uncertainty or financial challenges right now,” Forster said.

The UMatter office does much more than provide students financial resources. It also connects students with mental health care, Title IX services, academic accommodations, and other help during a time of crisis. Forster, who has a graduate degree in social work, said she tries to meet students where they are and connect them to resources they need from there.

How is COVID-19 affecting the violence prevention office? Listen to a conversation with Shelli Poole, the confidential advocate at the office, to hear the impacts of the pandemic on survivors and the university.

One student who spoke with her, for instance, had a laptop that broke just as online classes were getting started. Without the job she usually relied on, she had to continue her classes on her phone. When she could not do all of her coursework on her phone because of software compatibility problems, she called UMatter to find a solution. Together, Forster and the student worked together to find an affordable laptop that was eventually bought with relief money from the university.

Another student to whom Forster recently spoke had just lost a family member to COVID-19. She is focusing on 

“It’s not different than the work we normally do,” Forster said of the caseload post-pandemic. “It’s just very concentrated right now, and it all has to do with, for the most part, COVID-19”

Now, as students begin testing positive, Forster and her colleagues are working to provide each of them with the resources available to them for their unique situations.

UMatter is also the office that advises the Ole Miss Food Bank, a student-led initiative to prevent food insecurity on campus. Forster said that while students are away, she has been helping keep the food bank running.

“We’ve seen numbers up there just go through the roof in terms of utilization,” she said.

The food bank has been providing bags with food for individuals to take with limited contact to other people to reduce the risk of infection.

Forster said that she wants students to still know that the university is there for them through the pandemic.

“We hear you; we support you; we’re not forgetting about you. Even though we can’t see each other, you know, my goal all along is to continue to be in touch with students and be as responsive and as accessible as possible to students, because they’ve got to know that we’re still here for them, and that we’ll continue to support them through this.”

Wilkerson, though, said the university is to blame, at least in part, for the problems students are now facing. Because graduate students were never paid enough in the first place, she said, they are finding the pandemic even more stressful.

“The problem is their stipends are pretty low. And actually more than pretty low. They’re criminally low.”

Many graduate students receive a stipend around $11,000 for their work. Seth Smith, a graduate instructor in the English Department, makes $11,500 for his work. He uses half of it for rent, and stretches the other half as far as he can to survive. Still, he uses food stamps to subsidize his low income.

“I am a graduate instructor at the University of Mississippi, and I live on the brink of poverty,” he said in an essay published earlier this year. “Enough is enough. Pay us for our visible and invisible labor, which is vital to the function of this university.”

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