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When Eastern Kentucky University established the Student Assistance Fund for Eastern (SAFE) last fall, a global pandemic on the scale of COVID-19 was only the stuff of horror novels.

As the Coronavirus began to impact the U.S. this past winter, devastating families, upending students’ lives and forcing EKU classes online for the rest of this semester, the fund suddenly took on even greater importance. And now, alumni and friends of the University are joining the urgent effort to help Eastern students keep their educational dreams alive.

Already, more than $18,000 has been contributed by 80-plus alumni, friends, faculty, staff and students, and the University’s Development office is prioritizing its efforts to help students who have been hindered by the epidemic.

“EKU is a school of opportunity, meaning we take students who often have personal, academic and financial challenges and move them toward graduation,” said Betina Gardner, vice president for development and alumni engagement at Eastern. “It is becoming cliche to say that COVID-19 has caused unprecedented challenges for our students, who were barely hanging on to housing, sustenance and medicine, among other basic necessities. Yet they are persisting, moving forward toward their degrees and careers that will provide a life with a sense of security. I think we need to encourage their resiliency by helping with the things many of us take for granted.”

In response to a charge from Dr. Gill Hunter, executive director of retention and graduation, the Student Assistance Fund was created to provide short-term emergency funding assistance to students unable to meet immediate, essential expenses due to an unexpected emergency or crisis.

“Students face unexpected financial challenges that impact their ability and decision to stay in school,” said Matt Schumacher, senior director of student success. “The fund was established to assist these students so they can focus on classes, stay enrolled, persist and ultimately graduate. EKU already had an emergency loan program, but we thought it was critical to be able to award grants to take that burden off students who are often already financially committed so they could continue to focus on their academics.”

The typical challenge that many EKU students face in meeting basic expenses has only been “heightened due to the pandemic, because students have lost their jobs, or their parents have lost jobs or been displaced,” Schumacher said.

As of March 27, 30 students had been awarded an average of $250 each. “We strive to limit awards to immediate, non-academic needs, both to support a student with an identified burden and to enable the relatively modest budget to be stretched as far as possible,” Schumacher said.

Students can learn more about the Fund and apply for support at After eligibility based on their financial aid package is determined, applicants are contacted to arrange a phone call or virtual meeting. Schumacher noted that students are also notified of any additional resources, such as unemployment assistance, various forms of public assistance, job postings, housing, utilities, internet, etc.

University officials piloted the award process early in the spring semester. Then, as the pandemic worsened across Kentucky and the nation, Dr. Lara Vance, director of the Student Success Center, worked with the Development office to escalate the process. Development provided its full support, even postponing its Annual Day of Giving (originally scheduled for April 14). “We are instead using our energy to promote SAFE, which is the University’s priority at this time,” said Krista Rhodus, director of annual giving with University Development.

Alumni and friends may contribute to the Student Assistance Fund by visiting or by sending a check (made out to EKU Foundation with SAFE in the memo line) to: University Development, Coates CPO 19A, 521 Lancaster Ave., Richmond, Kentucky, 40475.

“Every gift, large or small, directly impacts the lives of our students, especially during this difficult time,” Rhodus said.