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Basic Needs Coalition fundraises to fill institutional resource gaps for student needs

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Last Thursday, the Basic Needs Coalition launched its $100,000 fundraising campaign, the Basic Needs Fund, following the cancellation of Stanford’s plan to bring freshmen, sophomores and new transfers to campus for fall quarter.

The Basic Needs Coalition is a student-led initiative that aims to provide students access to essentials that have been made inaccessible by the COVID-19 pandemic, including food, housing and healthcare, according to their statement of purpose. As of Wednesday, the Basic Needs Fund has raised $11,615.

“We’re just trying to meet the needs of everyone in the Stanford community who is currently being left behind by administration and institutional resources,” said fund management board member Lizzie Avila ’23.

The coalition is made up of members from student organizations including the First-Generation and/or Low-Income (FLI) Partnership, Stanford Mutual Aid, Stanford Food Recovery, Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) and Students for Workers’ Rights (SWR).

The idea for the coalition came from March community support initiatives, such as circulated spreadsheets that facilitated mutual aid between students, according to Basic Needs Coalition team member Caleb Zerger, a sixth-year Ph.D. student in applied physics. A similar initiative this summer allowed for one-to-one matching between alumni and students in need.

“But we were still having issues with getting everyone what they needed,” Zerger said. “And so looking to SWR for inspiration, we thought the best way to really get as many of [people’s] needs met as possible is to transition to this general fund.” 

Virtually anyone in the Stanford community is eligible to receive funds, including incoming freshmen who are deferring enrollment and independent students who may be classified as dependent by the University, Avila said.

“One of the really unique things about our Basic Needs Fund is that if you are living at home with your family, as a lot of folks are in the times of the coronavirus, you can also request support for families as well,” Avila said.

According to Avila, the fund management board is responsible for distributing funds. Information collected from the application process is sent to board members through a spreadsheet where names, classes and demographic information are not visible. 

“All we can see is the amount requested and a description of the request, so it’s a very secure process,” she said. “The board of folks deciding is currently three people, but we’re still looking for more grad students who are very involved with the community.”

In regard to how the University has handled accommodations and relief efforts for low-income students, Avila said she has been “disappointed but optimistic.”

“I think that there are a lot of folks within the University admin who really do care and want these basic needs to be met,” she said. “It just currently isn’t working.”

University spokesperson E.J. Miranda told The Daily that Stanford remains committed to providing the financial aid that has been promised to students and is expecting need to continue and increase during these times. He stated that Stanford trustees approved a 3% increase in payout from endowment funds to support student financial aid. 

“From the grad student perspective … there have been a lot of long-term concerns about graduate affordability that now I think this has brought to light and made more acute,” Zerger said. “There are long-standing issues of things like food insecurity; a big one is childcare.”

“The provost recently announced that, beginning with the new academic year, every Stanford Ph.D. student, provided they are in good academic standing, is eligible to receive 12 months of funding each year, for as long as five years,” Miranda wrote.

While graduate students have stated that this is a step in the right direction, many raised concerns that the policy failed to address certain problems, pointing to the five-year limit, the implementation of the policy after students had taken out loans for the summer and a lack of consistency in how the policy would be implemented across departments.

“As students, it should not be our job to meet the emergency needs of folks who are dependent on this University, a University that has the resources to do these things,” Avila said. 

“There is definitely more that we think the University could be doing to alleviate some of this financial stress,” Zerger added.

Miranda wrote that students who are receiving aid and have out-of-pocket medical expenses can be supported through the financial aid program, and that financial aid was also available to students who were enrolled at least half-time during the summer. This summer’s earnings expectation was also waived for incoming and continuing undergraduates.

“We have actively deployed funding through the Opportunity Fund to meet the emerging needs of low-income students during this time to supplement what is available through the financial aid program,” Miranda wrote. “We expect the needs of our FLI community, and our student community more broadly, will continue to evolve as the ongoing pandemic presents further challenges.”

“The university is committed to providing support to our students during this extraordinary time,” he added.

The Basic Needs Coalition does not anticipate soliciting institutional funding to continue to provide for students the University currently does not serve.

“What we want to do is fill in the gaps that Stanford isn’t providing, but we also do want to advocate for Stanford to close as many of those gaps themselves as they can,” Zerger said.

Miranda pointed to actions the University has taken to support students during the pandemic, including adjusting undergraduate aid packages to reflect students’ new living situations, factoring in a minimum of $2,000 for living expenses for those unable to live with family. Additionally, Stanford has reduced the standard work expectation for 2020-21 by 50%, expanded emergency grant-in-aid funds to help support graduate and postdoctoral scholars facing pandemic-related financial hardships and covered the costs of acceptable internet access and computer equipment for students in need of that assistance. He encouraged students to contact the Financial Aid Office to discuss the details of their individual situations.

Avila added that the coalition hopes to establish a Stanford Center for Basic Needs that connects students with resources for food and housing insecurity, modeled after one at the University of Southern California.

“I think that’s definitely something within Stanford’s capabilities and would help out folks a lot out, just connecting them to those resources,” she said.

The team members indicated that while their short-term goal is to help people as they settle in and figure out their plans for fall quarter, they have hopes of keeping the organization running in the future.

“We anticipate there will always be a need for emergency funds for people,” Zerger said. “We do want to keep this infrastructure running for the foreseeable future as long as this pandemic is around, but we might do specific fundraising pushes around times that we think are particularly needed, like right now.”

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Esha Dhawan '23 is a Science & Technology Desk Editor interested in the intersection of science and communication. She is majoring in human biology and minoring in creative writing. Contact her at edhawan 'at' stanforddaily.com.