The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) addresses the digital divide and how its organization meets the academic needs of underserved communities through the pandemic. There is an assumption that once students get to the college level that somehow, they automatically gain access to technology; however, that is a misconception. Students in higher education who depend on face-to-face instruction are now thrust into a remote learning situation. With most higher learning institutions moving to virtual instruction, there is some difficulty transitioning to an online format for Black and Brown students. Part of it is attributable to many households not having home broadband services and not owning laptops or desktops. This puts many Black and Brown families at a disadvantage academically.
Kelly Washington (KW)– We talk about schools at the K-12 level and how the pandemic, socioeconomic status, and the digital divide affects learning. Rarely do we discuss how the same factors impact higher education. Colleges and universities were already underserved before the pandemic. What resources has UNCF provided or will provide for students affected by COVID?
Christal Stinson (CS) -Thank you for thinking of UNCF. UNCF has been able to respond to the significant needs facing both our schools and students during the COVID-19 pandemic. With many of our member HBCUs already facing challenges, the pandemic has exacerbated and highlighted those conditions. UNCF quickly established a response to those needs, and we are so grateful to the many donors who supported our efforts. I want to thank our 2020 gala co-chairs Toi Salter, President, and CEO of Salter Financial Management and Charles Matthews president and CEO of Peoples GasSince mid-March, UNCF has distributed over $7M to students and member institutions. Institutions received $4M in general support, and we distributed over $3M to students in the form of scholarships, degree completion grants, and emergency aid. Now, more than ever, the support we provide to institutions and students is critical. For example, you also think about social distancing measures and other safety precautions; schools had to pivot to comply with those requirements and revise operations quickly. We were able to provide support to assist them in those measures. Together, with the generosity of so many donors who recognized the need and generously supported UNCF, we were able to meet the needs both institutions and students faced and will continue to do so.
KW– Has COVID affected the way that UNCF supports black students? What are some challenges?
CS- COVID-19 truly surfaced a complexity of issues for students- and some we may not have anticipated. Schools closed quickly, and students need to return home. Remote learning became the norm, and equipment and internet access was required. Jobs that provided income for students vanished overnight. In some cases, internships and other opportunities could not be fulfilled. For many families and their students, these challenges were not easy to overcome.
A UNCF Student Pulse Survey was conducted in June. We wanted to understand the impact that COVID-19 was having on students attending our member HBCUs. So, we asked the students 0 directly. Over 5,100 responded with a response rate of approximately 23%. Unfortunately, more than half (54%) are experiencing financial challenges due to COVD-19. Of course, this looks different for each student, but the declines in financial stability mean they are more likely to consider transferring. It can also mean some students may not be able to continue with their education as planned. This is where the support of UNCF is so essential. UNCF was able to provide emergency assistance to address these needs. We worked with our HBCUs to deliver aid to students.
KW- I want to touch on if UNCF has or will craft their policies to prepare students for an unprecedented college experience. Can students still apply for scholarships, and what will it look like during a pandemic? For example, scholarships may require essays. Should students include how COVID may have upended their lives?
CS- Our President and CEO, Dr. Michael L. Lomax, and his leadership team are working closely with UNCF member institutions to ensure they are positioned to best support students in this new environment. Yes, students may still apply for scholarships, and we continue to add new ones each month as they become available. We encourage students to visit our website frequently for updates on scholarships, internships, and other opportunities. If students can continue their courses and make progress towards their degree, we want to support it. It is a very personal decision as to how and when students return to campus, and options vary by school-but tuition costs are still a barrier for many black students. You mention the essays; yes, scholarships may require essays, and it’s a significant opportunity for applicants to share their perspectives, experiences, and goals. They provide a chance to get a real sense of the student and are such a vital part of the process. Here in Chicago, we hosted a series of workshops last year in partnership with CPS to help students draft robust, effective, and compelling essays. It’s often not the most favorite part of the application, but it matters. Certainly, sharing the impact of COVID-19 can be an essential element of a student’s essay. It’s personal, timely and shows the real-life impact and toll the pandemic has on people’s lives. For many students, their need is even more significant as a result.
KW– The pandemic has further exposed systemic biases and inequities in every level of education. As I said earlier, we cannot underscore the digital divide even at the higher education level. Now that colleges and universities rely heavily on remote learning, how can UNCF address that and the digital divide of its Black students?
CS- The digital divide is real! As we rely on remote learning at every level- including at the college and postgraduate levels, UNCF provides resources to its member institutions to deliver online instruction. We provide support to our schools that range from accessing digital platforms, to internet access, to training teachers for online teaching. UNCF is partnering with technology companies to help our member HBCUs pivot to a comprehensive virtual learning environment. That includes providing faculty development opportunities to help them become savvier about their online engagement with black students and the curriculum, providing access to online courses through Strayer and Capella Universities through a partnership with SEI, and working to build a robust online learning platform that our member schools can leverage for their future course delivery.
KW- Would you please tell me more about UNCF’s 2020 National Virtual Walk for Education?
CS- Absolutely! Chicago has been so committed and generous to UNCF. This year, we made history on behalf of the 20th anniversary of the UNCF, “A Mind Is…Gala”! We exceeded our goal of 1.5 million during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis!
The National UNCF Virtual Walk for Education will be held on September 19, 2020, from 1:00P-3:00P(CDT). UNCF Chicago is excited to celebrate 37-years of this special event and join other communities across the country in this effort. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle will be our honorary chair. Due to the pandemic, fundraising events have shifted across the country. We also transitioned our approach. Chicago has been such a big supporter of this event, with many sponsors and teams joining us, raising critical funds for our member schools and students. UNCF Chicago can’t say thank you enough to the Chicagoland area, co-chairs, sponsors, and neighbors in Milwaukee for their long-standing support. Please register, donate, or form a team at UNCF.org/ChicagoWalk.
Kelly Washington is a freelance writer living on the southside of Chicago. You can follow her on social media @ Sunrise and Sugar (Facebook) and @ BlackBFly7 (Twitter).