When the University of Maryland’s Student Government Association decided to redistribute more than $400,000 to support classmates during the pandemic, there were no excuses, no delays, no political arguments.
The money will support the school’s crisis fund, train students to respond to mental health emergencies, supply campus bathrooms with menstrual hygiene products and fight food insecurity.
“It’s going to affect hundreds of students, thousands over the years with some of these projects,” Alpert said. “We can utilize an unfortunate event like covid and turn it into a positive for students.”
The action is a first for the student-led organization, and made possible by unused student fees, Alpert said. Full-time undergraduates on the College Park campus pay $40 each semester — part-time students pay half — to support about 400 clubs. The money sends students to conferences, helps organizations host events and brings speakers to campus.
But during a pandemic, much of that is no longer happening.
Some of the redirected money will support initiatives that have already existed on campus, such as the Student Crisis Fund, which was created in 2001. Before the pandemic, the crisis fund received between two and five requests for help each week. Now, it’s closer to 30. At one point in April, 250 students reached out for help in a single day, said Sarah Williamson, a coordinator in U-Md.’s Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs.
“The amount of need that was out there certainly surpassed the resources that we had,” said Williamson, who helps distribute the funds.
The student government will give $300,000 to the crisis fund, which could help about 600 students, Williamson said. The fund, on average, disburses grants of about $500.
“Our entire team has been overwhelmingly speechless and blown away by their graciousness,” Williamson said. “[This is] going to allow us to be able to continue to help students in the crises that they’re in, in a more swift way than we’ve been able to do in the last 10 months.”
Another $47,000 in redirected fees will provide free meals to students living on campus and support a new culinary training center for students to learn sustainable food practices.
The student government also will support new programs — including a $10,000 effort to train 300 students over the next two semesters to deal with mental health emergencies.
“They’re not counselors, they’re not therapists, but they’re going to be good at first responding,” Alpert said about students who will receive the training. Mental health problems have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and 1 in 4 young adults have struggled with suicidal thoughts since the pandemic hit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In addition, about $48,000 will be used to supply campus bathrooms with tampons and pads. Students have tried before to stock restrooms with hygiene products but couldn’t secure enough support from university administrators, Alpert said.
“We have the money and it benefits all students, essentially,” Alpert said. “If the school’s not going to do it, we’ll do it.”
The student government will fund that project for three years. Alpert and other student leaders hope to collect enough data during that time to persuade the university to continue the initiative.
The effort by U-Md.’s student leaders comes as universities contend with budget woes. Jay Perman, chancellor of the system that oversees U-Md. in College Park and 11 other state institutions, earlier this semester warned of pay reductions, furloughs and layoffs across campuses.
“We know there have been budget cuts across the state and the university has been affected by that,” Alpert said, adding that students are “stepping up where others aren’t.”