A Solid Foundation
How the Foundation for the Los Angeles Community Colleges Supports Students During the Coronavirus Pandemic
“There is a lot of pressure for me to succeed in higher education since I am breaking the generational curse. This has been a really tough role for me, as I have faced a lot of obstacles, but my goal remains the same.” That’s what one student wrote in a letter to the Los Angeles Community College District upon receipt of a laptop computer that the college district’s foundation provided as part of an emergency-relief package following the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.
“This scholarship is crucial for my success because my life has been on a downhill slope for the past couple of months,” the student continues in their letter. “In December, I became homeless due to rising rent costs. In January, I was taking winter classes as East Los Angeles Community College, but I was sleeping in my car.” And it got worse from there.
Coronavirus has impacted many facets of the higher education world, but perhaps the cohort struggling the most is students. Community college students rely on community colleges not just for education and career guidance, but for physical and mental health services, food, child care, housing, technology, and comradery. With many of these services currently cut off, thousands of students are at a loss for access to components of daily life many of us take for granted, such as food and even reliable access to the internet.
80% of students in the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) in California are from underserved populations, living below the poverty line or experiencing homelessness, making the student body especially vulnerable. Fortunately, the Foundation for the Los Angeles Community Colleges is working tirelessly to ensure that as many students as possible are taken care of while in-person classes and services are suspended on campus. And fortunately, the foundation already had had some services in place prior to the pandemic so that resources were ready to go to students when it disrupted campus life.
When Michael Fuller joined the foundation as the Director for Institutional Advancement, one of the first challenges he tackled was implementing an efficient system to deliver money to students. The system is tied to the student information portal, so students can use the same login information they use to access other college-related services. This update began three years ago and has been improved upon continually since its creation.
Another key preparation proved to be Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s 2019 decision to provide all college promise students with laptops in addition to aid dispersal.
Having already implemented these aid efforts made the distribution of grocery debit cards (funded by a grant from the Kroger Foundation) and laptops to students in need easier once the pandemic hit. The foundation has since distributed more than 8,000 laptops and 6000 grocery debit cards to students and raised $1.8 million.
In return, many students have sent the foundation thank-you notes to acknowledge receipt of their aid and, in many cases, detailing their harrowing life circumstances. The foundation shared some of these letters, with names redacted, with ACCT.
Among the students, many are pursuing their college educations despite homelessness. Among them is a tremendous amount of ambition and potential waiting to be filled: one student who has earned all As and Bs will complete two AA degrees this fall, with the intention of becoming a psychiatrist in the prison system.
Another is a biology major who has been admitted to the University of Southern California, where they plan to pursue a medical degree.
Another wrote that they felt when writing their letter “vulnerable, like I was exposing myself as helpless or irresponsible. My son is my first priority…I would chew gum as a meal replacement any day if it means he gets what he needs. School expenses and time consumption of classes have not been the easiest to accommodate, but prayer goes a long way when you feel like the scales are not balancing correctly. This [financial] award brings joy to my heart…I can buy food with a shelf life so I can spread out meals.”
“It’s unbelievable, for a $50 gift card, what the students express in these messages. It’s been such a revealing insight into our student body,” said Fuller.
“I use the messages to send to donors. One student who received an emergency grant said, ‘we had some of our relatives move in with us because they lost jobs, now there’re seven of us living in one house, then our electricity was shut off. By you giving us this emergency grant, you’re not helping one person, but seven.’ This is a student who is trying to complete their education.” Fuller identified the thank you letters from students as a key way for the foundation to seek out more aid. Student voices are often the best way to tell a story, and donors seem to be receptive.
While it is nearly impossible to predict a pandemic of this magnitude, the Foundation for the Los Angeles Community Colleges has been effective in supporting students through preparation. The focus of that preparation was ensuring that the foundation has an efficient way to provide aid, whether in the form of money, gift cards, or laptops, to students. Another key, thus far, has been soliciting thank-you letters from students who receive aid. As Fuller said, these letters are critical in showing donors just how important their gifts are and giving college administrators thousands of snapshots of how harsh the coronavirus pandemic has been on students.
A final aspect of students’ letters Fuller received is the common thread of hope—hope that they will persevere, and hope that they will be able to pay it forward in the future. “A huge percentage of students who write these letters say things like ‘I hope that one day I am able to do something like this for someone else.’ It’s a message of hope for our society.”