Student emergency fund becomes academic lifeline

As the COVID-19 pandemic rampaged the United States and shut down Minnesota, students at the School of Dentistry were left with impossible choices.

Candidates for graduation scrambled to find last-minute housing and extend their stays in Minneapolis as some faced a lengthened program. Students who didn’t own computers had to figure out a way to attend their courses virtually. “So much was unknown,” recalled Emily Best, acting director of development.

Then came a beacon of hope: the student emergency fund. An idea that had been considered previously was brought to fruition in March 2020, amid the changes and uncertainty of the pandemic’s early days. The fund would aid students who found themselves in unforeseen circumstances and might otherwise have to extend or suspend their studies and degree completion.

At this point, many alumni were facing financial uncertainty of their own—but they remembered what being in school was like, and knew that “what students were facing was unprecedented,” said Best. They jumped at the opportunity to donate to the fund and support students in situations of crisis.

“I thought about how tough it would be to be a dental student during the pandemic,” said Pete Hehil, DDS ’88, explaining why he chose to give to the fund. “I learned that the fund could help students through challenges of delayed licensure exams, clinic uncertainties and financial stress.”

Anita Thomas, DDS ‘84, said she remembered “as a student, how tight funds were,” and so she felt compelled to “help a student with the financial burden of dental school,” particularly during the pandemic.

Paul Thai, DDS ’98, was driven by a desire to give back to the school and the students. “With the increasing amount of debt students have, I hope it can help them some,” he said. He recalled “the camaraderie with my classmates” from his time in school, hoping that a bit of relief to students’ financial burden could allow them to experience the same.

Since March, the emergency fund has directly helped five School of Dentistry students. Another 52 students have been supported by University emergency funding. Students in DDS, Dental Therapy, Dental Hygiene and advanced education programs have benefitted from the fund, and awards have ranged from $250 to $1,200 per grant, with an average of $700 to $800.

While the majority of applications for emergency funding came early in the pandemic, the student and resident affairs office continues to see a need for support and reviews student requests on the basis of need.

Donations to the student emergency fund have made a significant impact on recipients. A current student reflected, “due to measures surrounding COVID, I was faced with immediate obstacles that would have been a tremendous financial burden. The grant from the emergency fund enabled me to pay for those expenses and avoid the potential added costs to my student debt.”

A student who graduated in May shared that, “because of COVID-19, there have been delays in my ability to obtain a license and begin my employment in Southwestern Minnesota. Thanks to financial assistance from the student emergency fund, I am able to bridge the gap and cover essential living expenses.”

The student continued, “I hope to one day pay this forward and be a blessing in another student’s life, as you have been in mine.”

Individuals interested in donating to the student emergency fund can give online via our secure website.

Pete Hehil, DDS ’88
Pete Hehil, DDS ’88