OREM — For Utah Valley University’s Caela Hansen, the COVID-19 pandemic brought her forward progress to a sudden halt.

© Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Rachel Cox, a Utah Valley University student who declined CARES Act funding because she believes others need it more, poses for a photo in front of the Fulton Library on the UVU campus in Orem on Wednesday, May 13, 2020.

She just got a promotion at work and she was working hard to juggle school with professional demands. She commutes to UVU’s Orem campus from Salt Lake County so she finally was on firm enough footing to buy a new a car.

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Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and seemingly overnight, everything changed. Her classes pivoted to online instruction. A short time later, she got word that she had been laid off from her job.

Because she was an out of work college student, she didn’t qualify for food stamps. She had some savings but it was quickly depleted.

“Let’s just say I’m grateful I still have my hair. I was close to pulling it out,” she said.

Help came in the form of Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security or CARES Act grant. Thus far, UVU has distributed $5.9 million to eligible students.

As the reality of coronavirus pandemic set in, Hansen was anxious about how she could meet her financial obligations and continue to attend school.

“I’ve been super panicked and that, on top of taking three classes, doesn’t mix well. I was lucky enough that I have family that was helping me, too. My sister-in-law, thankfully, has been able to work remotely so she was still allowing me to basically go without paying rent until I was able to get some funds to do so. I’m lucky enough to have a family that was still able to work remotely. But it’s been really, really tough,” she said.

UVU received just under $23 million from the U.S. Department Education, half of which is to be used to assist students whose lives have been disrupted.

John Curl, UVU’s director of financial aid and scholarships, said the grants have ranged from $500 to $1,000. Schools aren’t asking students how they plan to use the funds but some have volunteered that they needed to upgrade their laptops or boost their internet service so they could better participate in class.

The grants are intended to reduce or eliminate barriers that can prevent or postpone students’ progress toward earning their degrees, Curl said.

The university’s goal is to distribute $11.4 million to eligible students for expenses directly related to coronavirus disruptions such as food, housing, health care, technology, course materials and child care.

“One of our main goals as a university is to provide exceptional care to our students,” said UVU President Astrid S. Tuminez in a statement.

“One way to demonstrate that care is to make sure our students receive their funding as quickly as possible. We know this time has been difficult, and we want them to succeed.”

Eligibility for CARES Act emergency grants is based on the number of credits a student took during spring 2020 and their need according to their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Curl encourages students who have not yet filled out federal financial aid applications to do so as soon as possible. Students should work with financial aid offices if their financial circumstances have changed.

The feedback UVU officials has received from students who have received the grants has been “incredibly positive,” Curl said, not only for the timely help but for understanding that many students have encountered situations they could not anticipate.

While most students offered the help gratefully accepted it, some like UVU student Rachel Cox, declined it.

“I’ve been able to work full time so I haven’t taken a huge financial hit. Also, I have a Pell Grant for this semester and that helps me a lot with taking care of school expenses,” she said.

Cox, who is deaf, works 40 hours-plus a week from home. Since the UVU campus shuttered, she has been home with her boyfriend, who is immunocompromised so they rarely leave their apartment. They have had groceries delivered and only occasionally venture out to meet with friends, with most of those meetings occurring outdoors, at a distance and everyone in a mask.

Even though her income is such that she is eligible for a federal Pell Grant, Cox said appreciates that she is in a better position to weather the pandemic than others.

“I knew a lot of other people who were out of work who needed it a lot more than I do,” she said.

“I knew a lot of other people who were out of work who needed it a lot more than I do.” — UVU student Rachel Cox, who declined a CARES Act emergency grant.

Elsewhere in Utah, colleges and universities are processing emergency grants for eligible students.

Utah State University, for instance, began processing $8.7 million in grants this week. Students in need who are not eligible for CARES Act funds can apply for emergency assistance through the privately funded USU COVID-19 Student Emergency Hardship Resources Fund.

“We know many students faced unanticipated costs associated with the pandemic this last semester, and many are struggling right now trying to make ends meet,” said USU President Noelle Cockett in a statement.

“We’re distributing CARES Act funds in a way to help those who need it the most, while also providing other ways for students to access help.”

USU received more than $17.4 million under the CARES Act and private donors have contributed $115,000 to the USU COVID-19 Student Emergency Hardship Resources Fund. The fund is currently in the third round of awards since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and the university plans to open it for applications soon for another round.

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