The Business of



UNCF Funds Help Students Through COVID-19 Crisis

By Gwen Thompson Hewitt


The COVID-19 outbreak hit suddenly and left all of us reeling. We all have felt overwhelmed, frustrated and anxious. However, the impact on the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and the students we served was dire.

While most of us were frustrated by the endless search for toilet tissue and hand sanitizer, UNCF students anxious to maintain their studies frantically contacted their schools with requests to borrow the technology required to enable them to continue their academics remotely.

UNCF students unable to return to campus and unable to afford the $75 bus ticket home moved in with fellow classmates. Together, five or six students lived in an apartment designed for two — obviously not social distancing, but able to pool their meager resources for food and other essentials.

Others sought $150 for car repairs to ensure they could make it back home. Most of our students are the first in their families to go to college. They’re from households with annual incomes of less than $35,000, so they qualify for federal financial aid and hold down part-time jobs to supplement the cost of their education.

The pandemic highlights the many gaps in our systems of emergency preparedness, health and education. Our focus today at UNCF is to make certain that despite COVID-19, none of our students fall through the gaps.

Consider these facts:

The pandemic disproportionately affects people of color, adding to the significant challenges that impede our students’ ability to complete their studies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released nationwide data that revealed 30% of COVID-19 patients are African American, even though African Americans make up about 13% of the U.S. population.

About 76% of the students we serve are on financial aid. Our students are more likely to have parents who have lost their jobs, and many students are without funds to travel home, find temporary housing, purchase meals or access health care. When they do go home, they are often returning to communities where the needs are extreme. This challenge is even more palpable in the South, where communities of color face historic inequity.

Historically black colleges and universities that are part of the UNCF community, such as Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, are already strapped for supplemental revenue with median endowments of $12 million, compared with $34 million nationally. The pandemic has drained resources just as our schools need to shift to remote curricula, ensure campus safety and protect vulnerable students.

Through the immediate action of our corporate, foundation and individual supporters, we have responded to the crisis. With their assistance, since March 13, UNCF has taken bold steps to help our institutions and students cope with COVID-related challenges. We have provided more than $3 million in scholarships, degree completion grants and emergency aid to students at our institutions. We have also led efforts to secure an online platform for our member colleges and universities to deliver coursework online now and going forward.

Every day, the pandemic exacerbates the challenges our students and institutions must overcome. To help, Central Florida is joining the National UNCF Virtual Walk for Education to raise funds to support students. We must get our students back to school.

Central Florida participants in the Virtual Walk can make a difference while practicing social distancing. Just form a team, join a team or make a donation. Choose whether to walk, run, cycle or dance. Then join an online celebration at 2 p.m. September 19, 2020, with celebrities, member presidents, students, alumni and others. For information, visit the website at https://uncf.org/event/2020-virtual-walk-for-education-orlando.

As UNCF enters its 76th year, our mission is critical now, more than ever. We must equip our students to answer the call this pandemic has put forth. We need them to fill essential fields in medicine, public health and emergency response.

We face an unprecedented time in our history. UNCF will persevere — but only with the help of partners, donors and friends who make our work possible and believe in our mission.

Gwen ThompsonGwen Thompson Hewitt is the area development director for the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), serving Central and North Florida

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