Students helping students

On March 10, 2020, President Mitch Daniels announced the decision to close the Purdue University campus for the spring semester and move to remote instruction by March 23, following spring break.

As the campus emptied to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Purdue student governments stepped up in remarkable ways.

With their programming and events cancelled for the remainder of the semester, the Purdue Student Government (PSG) and the Purdue Graduate Student Government voted in emergency meetings to transfer unspent balances from operating budgets to a COVID-19 critical need fund for students. 

Dean of Students Katherine Sermersheim said $25,000 for the fund came from the undergraduate student body and $15,000 came from graduate/professional student government. Those budgets do not roll over from year to year.

For PSG President Jordan “Jo” Boileau, the proposition was simple: the COVID-19 pandemic placed “acute and particular burdens” on members of the undergraduate population, and it was the duty and obligation of the Purdue Student Government to care for and to support the undergraduate population.

Driven by stories of fellow students in dire situations, many related to financial hardships, PSG held an emergency senate session over WebEx on the night of March 27. Members unanimously voted on a bill to support fellow students who lost income from sudden unemployment and faced food and shelter insecurity—including those international students who could not return home. Some 1,200 and 2,000 students had to remain in on-campus housing for the duration of the semester. 

Boileau said the PSG bill included $10,000 to provide meals to students who do not have a Purdue meal plan or reliable access to food. PSG also agreed to transfer $2,500 to the ACE Campus Food Pantry for students on-campus. 

The remaining $25,000 in PSG’s discretionary budget would go to the emergency critical need fund for students, administered by the Office of the Dean of Students.

The Purdue Graduate Student Government members, in a similar emergency vote, proposed to allocate unused budget funds to help support the ACE Campus Food Pantry. A provision also included collaborating with Purdue’s Counseling and Psychological Services to ensure quality teletherapy to help members of the campus community impacted by distress related to COVID-19. 

Some of these emergency need funds went to help set up Wi-Fi “hot spots” so that students could access the Internet at home to enable online remote instruction.

Boileau said his PSG administration worked alongside Dean of Students Katherine Sermersheim, Vice-Provost for Student Life Beth McCuskey, University Senate Chair Cheryl Cooky, and Provost Jay Akridge to get the job done.

“So many students had told us of their many needs and circumstances, which helped us advocate for the reallocation of funds,” Boileau said. International students cut off from returning home. Broken laptops. Students forced to leave their dorms and pay for storage. Rent problems due to job loss. Some students lost financial resources because a parent lost a job.

Student leaders wanted to help in a way that was different from the Dean of Students’ emergency loan program, which offers money that has to be paid back within 30 days. PSG leaders won approval from Purdue administrators to allocate a one-time gift of up to $500 per student without any requirement to pay the money back. 

“We really loved working with Dean Katie, and a really awesome collaborative effort came out of the extraordinary situation that helped a lot of students in ways that had an immediate, focused, and precise impact for those in our community most in need,” Boileau said.

Student Senate President Assata Gilmore, the incoming student body president and the first black woman to hold that position, wore many hats during the process. She worked out details in collaboration with the Purdue administration, interacted with local restaurants that rely on student patronage to implement a hot meal program, and even delivered food to students on campus whose immune systems were compromised.

“We heard some really heart-wrenching stories,” Gilmore said. “Hard as it was, it was definitely worth the effort.”

Says Dean Sermersheim: “We are so proud of our student culture and give our heartfelt thanks for student government members’ initiatives to help their fellow students in this difficult, highly unusual, and challenging time.”  

Caption: Purdue Student Government (PSG) undergraduate leaders, Student Senate President Assata Gilmore and President Jordan “Jo” Boileau. Gilmore is the incoming student body president. PSG and the Purdue Graduate Student Government voted in emergency meetings to transfer unspent balances from operating budgets to a COVID-19 critical need fund for fellow students. 

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