Student Emergency Fund helps students through hard times and stay in school



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There was once a time in Carrie Coulombe’s career as a student at Central Michigan University when her future – and chances of graduating – were in doubt.

At the end of the Fall 2012 semester, Coulombe was having trouble finishing her degree in secondary education. The single mother was paying her tuition out of pocket, all while supporting two children.

"I had my first daughter pretty young, before I started college, but I still wanted to go (to school)," Coulombe said. "You see the success stories on TV of women going back to school, but doing it is extremely hard. It came to the point where I couldn't afford to go to class and I began to think 'Maybe I can't do this. Maybe I can't make it.'"

Looking to her parents for financial assistance wasn't an option either. Her father was battling cancer. Between her maternity leave from work and daily commute from Houghton Lake, Coulombe's bank account dwindled.

Seeking help from the university to stay enrolled in classes, Coulombe visited the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid and learned about CMU’s Student Emergency Fund.

"I didn't think I would qualify," Coulombe said. "I felt that it was my own, bad situation. I had kids before I went to college, I maybe did it the way I shouldn't have and I felt like the student emergency fund was for something more deserving. Maybe some of my bad fortunes weren't as bad as other people's."

Despite her reluctance, Coulombe applied anyway. The faith she put in her request paid off, as she was picked to receive a much needed boost in her funding.

Coulombe received a $1,000 award that year. The funds helped her pay for school as well as other living expenses like daycare for her children, rent and utilities.

With the money, Coulombe was able to continue her education in addition to growing and supporting her family. Things were finally looking up, but soon her family life faced another challenging roadblock.

Coloumbe’s father died last February after losing his battle with cancer. During the following Fall semester, she was student teaching and found herself in familiar territory once again, as she began to run out of money and options. As her situation became worse, she reached out to the Student Emergency Fund once again.

Coulombe was hesitant to apply a second time. She was desperate though and felt she had no other choice.

“I felt so lucky to receive the fund the first time, I didn’t think I would be eligible to receive it again,” Coloumbe said.

When CMU examined her situation, they found her eligible for the aid and was awarded with an additional $1,000.

"I was so amazed I was able to receive the support again," Coulombe said. "Especially after my Dad had passed away, it had been such a rough year for my whole family in general, but to get that extra step to get me graduated did wonders for all of us."

Use of the fund increasing

The Student Emergency Fund was created to specifically help students in situations similar to Carrie’s and other emergency type situations.

The Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid is responsible for overseeing the fund. The office receives applications for funding and determines if students are eligible.

Kirk Yats, director of scholarships and financial aid, monitors the process and helps award students who qualify.

Students may receive up to $1,500 with no set minimum amount per year, he said.  The office tries to limit students to one award, but students can apply once every year.

“We leave it up to the students to tell us what the emergency is, what the cost is that needs to be covered,” Yats said. “We leave it in the hands of the student to report to us what they need as far as a value of the emergency.”

Before the money is awarded, Yats and his office work with the student to make sure there are no other options for a student to receive funding. Once the student's financial status is reviewed and is confirmed, the office reviews the situation and makes a decision regarding how big of an award it can give away.

College students can run into many situations where they need help and can be considered emergencies. These can vary from needing help paying bills to family medical emergencies.

In the Fall 2013 semester, the office received 67 applications and 47 of those requests were awarded funding.

“The number of applicants is growing,” Yats said. “As bad as it sounds, we expect to see the number continue to grow. With the economy and costs continuing to rise, we feel that students are running into more true emergencies.”

Funding dollars primarily come from CMU fundraising organizations, including the annual CMU Phonathon, online giving and Text2Give, a fundraising apparatus that allows users to text donation amounts of their choice.

Last fall, fundraising for the fund reached $35,834, exceeding an original goal of $25,000. An anonymous donor agreed to match the $25,000, bringing the total fundraising efforts for the emergency resource to $60,834.

Helping dreams come true

Bryan Griffin, director of annual giving and development, credited the donors for generous donations over the years, as well as the myriad staff members who worked to raise the money for the fund.

“I think a lot of people can relate to the fact that if something were to happen with a parent, or if they got sick, it would be tough to pay for things," Griffin said. "The message really helped us.”

Marcie Otteman, executive director of alumni relations, said her job is to help present opportunities for alumni to give back to CMU. The Student Emergency Fund is a gift giving opportunity that many alumni contribute to regularly, mostly because they can relate to the struggles of a student in need of some extra cash.

Otteman stressed the importance of having a specific fund specifically for emergencies. While there are other options to help students in tough times, she said it’s important to have this fund for those more specific, emergency situations.

“It’s an emergency fund, (but) it is for dire situations,” Otteman said. “When a student has a scenario occur that they have no control over, the fact that we can step in and help, that is very, very important.”

To apply for aid from the help from the fund, students request an application from the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid by calling or emailing them. Griffin said they are working on developing an online Web form to make the process easier. He hopes to have the Web form launched later this spring or early this summer.

Despite whatever work Griffin and his team need to put into creating greater access to the funding, he said knowing the office helped someone stay in school is worth it.

After receiving the fund twice, Coloumbe said she feels extremely fortunate and thankful for the support.

She now holds a long-term substitute position as a Spanish teacher at Gaylord Middle School and Gaylord St. Mary Cathedral School teaching seventh-through 12th grade students.

“I’m so glad I was able to finish,” Coloumbe said. “There were lots of times where it got really tough and I began to think that maybe it wasn’t worth it, especially spending so much time away from my kids. I love being on the same schedule as my kids. I love teaching. Everything is finally working out.”