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Yingjie Wang / Columbia Daily Spectator

In July, Nanette DiLauro, Barnard’s director of financial aid, wrote to students who received financial aid and had participated in the housing lottery in the spring semester. She informed them that they were eligible to receive a financial aid award of $7,846 to support off-campus room and board as a part of the campus reopening plans.

The award came with many strings attached: Students would have to pay their fall tuition bill in full, or the balance would be deducted from their $7,846 award. Only housing somewhere in the five boroughs would qualify. A nine- or 12-month lease would have to be presented to receive approval. Finally, the funds would not be distributed until after September 18—significantly later than the start of a September 1 lease.

Elysa Caso-McHugh, a Barnard sophomore, struggled with housing insecurity over the course of 2020. They saw an opportunity for wealth redistribution in the midst of Barnard’s decision to only invite some students back to campus and posted in the Barnard Class of 2020 Facebook page. They proposed that perhaps wealthier students could sponsor students who are low income and pay their rent instead of getting an additional apartment.

The post resonated with fellow students, many of whom suggested that it might be helpful if such a program was made into a single consolidated fund. Interested commenters created a group chat and started organizing themselves for their common cause. They set up Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts.

On July 22, the aid request form was officially published, and on July 29, the official Columbia mutual aid fund, named Students Helping Students, began accepting donations on Venmo. Within 24 hours, Caso-McHugh says they received over $5,000.

Students Helping Students have now been operating for over three months. To date, 82 students have requested aid and not cancelled that request. The average amount requested is about $2,000. Already, Students Helping Students has administered aid to 31 people.

Housing and food insecurity are not new concerns on Columbia’s campus. Still, Caso-McHugh believes that students are struggling more than ever to meet their needs. “A lot of why we started it was because we felt like there was a lot of gap between what students actually needed and what they were receiving from the University and other scholarships,” they say. “For students, it’s really things like paying for rent and groceries and technology assistance and things like that that they may not necessarily be eligible to receive aid for.” During the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, mutual aid funds, like Students Helping Students, popped up at academic institutions ranging from Cornell to the University of Pittsburgh to Wesleyan.

Mutual aid funds as a practice are nothing new and exist as fundamentally different structures from charitable organizations. Mutual aid recently came to prominence during the pandemic as a way to supplement the lack of government support. People across the country created disaster relief funds, Slack channels, and progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez even co-hosted a webinar on it.

It is erroneous, though, to consider the increased visibility of mutual aid as a reawakening. As scholars of economic justice like Caroline Shenaz Hossein note, Black Americans have long had to practice forms of mutual aid, as part of their experience living in a diaspora that systematically limited their ability to access state services. She argues that Black people in America have been “experts in economic cooperation” for centuries. Working-class white Americans, too, utilized mutual aid in the early 20th century to secure health insurance and build infrastructure. Mutual aid funds in the United States have thus taken many forms, from the 1808 African Society for Mutual Aid to 1930s fraternal societies.

In general, mutual aid funds operate under the philosophy that communities should take care of each other in a symbiotic exchange of resources.

At the end of October, Students Helping Students signed a contract with Academic Mutual Aid Foundation, a fiscal sponsor organization dedicated to empowering students and student employees through social and financial resources. Students Helping Students specifically selected AMAF as a partner because they only take a five percent portion of donations over $250 and that five percent goes directly back to other university mutual aid funds in the country, rather than to an anonymous corporation or administrative costs.  Further, all donations are tax-exempt because of their non-profit status.

The group does not intend to become a Columbia-official student organization, as the guidelines for becoming a Columbia-recognized club directly prohibit holding funds in off-site accounts, like Venmo, and would require two semesters of activity to apply. According to Rebecca Galloway, a Barnard sophomore and founding member of Students Helping Students, the group briefly considered becoming a 501(c)(3) but concluded that it would be too lengthy a process. Some members would like this to be the direction the organization eventually considers for the long term.

Sloane Clifton, a Barnard junior, learned about Students Helping Students when a friend shared a post advertising the aid request form. She initially considered applying for funds to address an unexpected $10,000 tuition bill, but changed her mind when she realized how dire most of the requests were.

“This isn’t like $100 that could help, this is students [with needs] ranging from $100 to $10,000,” Clifton says. She decided to volunteer and has assisted with the group’s financial operations this fall.

Students Helping Students prioritizes urgency above all else. They divide requests for aid into different tiers of need: basic survival needs, like food and housing, are prioritized over less dire needs, like school supplies or a laptop repair. The vast majority of those 82 requests have fallen into the highest tier of urgency. “I think we had maybe two that were the lowest,” she says.

As a response to canceled housing, Columbia College and Columbia Engineering instituted an off-campus living allowance of $4,000 per semester to help with living and technology expenses related to remote learning for students on financial aid.

For pressing circumstances, however, support is less comprehensive. The Deans' Student Assistance Fund, launched in 2015 as a source of emergency funding for students who have a parent contribution that is less than $5000, but the funding specifically “cannot be used to cover expenses already factored in to the Cost of Attendance (tuition, fees, housing and meals, books and supplies, travel and personal expenses).” To apply, students must first meet with a financial aid officer, a provision that increases the bureaucracy students must wade through in order to receive relief.

Similarly, Barnard’s new funding application, known as the Supplemental Academic Support Application (SASA) through Access Barnard is intended to provide students with a single form to request support for additional unmet educational needs." However, those needs cannot include “funds for apartments,” and must be related to “academic support.” Further, Barnard’s newly released preliminary housing plans for the spring state that they will implement the same requirements for off-campus housing that had proven troublesome for low-income students previously.

In contrast, Students Helping Students strongly upholds anonymity and aims to meet the needs of students without expecting them to mine their own trauma, or provide explanations for why they need help.

“We also want to provide a safer space. We don’t want to judge students, and we don’t want to force students to give us a long spiel about why they deserve to receive financial aid or mutual aid,” Caso-McHugh says.

Caso-McHugh points to Barnard’s previous usage of personal statements for aid requests. When Barnard originally allowed select upperclassmen with extenuating circumstances to apply for on-campus housing in the fall, students were asked to justify why they needed to live in a dormitory.

“What we wanted to do was limit the amount of information they had to give us to the bare minimum of needing to know sort of what it was going towards just so that we could prioritize it in the correct order of sending out aid, but not forcing anyone to explain it beyond I just need rent money, and it’s due by XYZ date,” Caso-McHugh says.

As the semester progresses, Students Helping Students has had to adapt to the slower pace of fundraising during the school year. Without a pressing, immediate catastrophe, donations have slowed. Galloway admits they haven’t had to switch Venmo accounts for several weeks because no caps have been met.

“There are days where we don’t get a donation,” Galloway says. “To be honest, we’re very behind. We didn’t think we’d be this behind.” To date, Students Helping Students has fundraised $45,421, but $158,678 has been requested by students. They would like to raise $160,000 by the end of the semester.

In order to maintain momentum, they’ve had to be more creative. In September, Students Helping Students collaborated with Students for Justice in Palestine, South Asian Feminism(s) Alliance, and the Young Democratic Socialists of America, who agreed to help raise funds on their behalf. In turn, Students Helping Students was able to advocate for the causes those groups advance by encouraging their followers to support SJP’s divestment campaign and YDSA’s tuition reduction campaign.

More recently in October, Students Helping Students announced a matching campaign with Columbia International Relations and Council and Association for up to $3,500. Similarly, the group’s Instagram Linktree directs viewers to a variety of online resources, from Barnard’s official financial aid request forms, to the Columbia Class of 2024 first-generation low-income GroupMe, to other economic justice petitions.

Students Helping Students, as a student organization that came into prominence during the digital age, has in this way evidenced a unique level of competence in digital organizing. Unlike other clubs who had to adjust to Zoom meetings, Students Helping Students has never operated in an in-person capacity, and instead most coordination is completed on the messaging website Slack. Izzy Snow, a Barnard senior and current member, believes this has proven to be a strength for the organization.

“I think we’re most efficient when we’re just talking on that versus when we have meetings because it’s very hard to schedule meetings with a bunch of Columbia students,” she says. “If you have an idea for a project, it just sort of takes off a little bit in the Slack versus like in more traditional clubs, you might have to email someone, then maybe they ghost you, and then you go to the meeting.”

At its base, the organization is a tool for economic redistribution. But in practice, it has also served as a powerful form of solidarity building, even if that solidarity is sometimes reactionary in nature.

Take for instance, August 14, 2020–the day on-campus housing was officially canceled, the Venmo feed for Students Helping Students lit up. Dozens of donations ranging in size fluttered in.

Galloway wondered at the time if perhaps her phone was broken because every Venmo notification seemed to have the same comment. Messages that condemned Columbia and the housing decision flooded her phone—a stark contrast from the more usual heart or dollar sign emojis.

When Galloway realized the messages were the student body’s sincere, uncoordinated commentary on the sudden change in housing plans, she was touched.

“I just think things like that are kind of amazing: how similarly people react to a situation,” Galloway says.

Enjoy leafing through our fourth issue!

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