A student wears a face mask on Duke University's West Campus.
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Duke University

In a Year Eclipsed by COVID-19, Hearts and Hands Open

When the last day of classes concluded for the fall semester, Duke received glowing marks from the L.A. Times, among other publications, for its innovative and collaborative approach to combating COVID-19 across its combined campus and health systems.

It’s true that the novel coronavirus pandemic brought about a profound amount of uncertainty and chaos. Colleges and universities, even those as ahead of the curve as Duke, were not immune to the pandemic’s challenges. But amidst the uncertainty, Duke University was always assured about one thing: It was committed to taking care of its people first — and most importantly, ensuring the most vulnerable in its wings, including Duke students, had the assistance needed to sustain through the virus’ surge.

The university’s COVID-19 response included a comprehensive science-based approach focused on protecting public health, supporting patient care and clinical staff at Duke Health, and continuing the institution’s vital missions of education and research. It also laser-focused the university’s fundraising efforts around three key COVID-19 relief funds to address rising and immediate calls for support. To help get these funds off the ground and running, Duke contributed $9 million in initial seed funding.

Of the three philanthropic initiatives, the Duke Student Assistance Fund (DSAF) looked at ways to help students whose lives had been directly impacted. Some students had internships or early job offers fall through. Others had their living situations unexpectedly morph or evaporate. Many had their ways of learning change overnight, which meant new technological barriers to education. Lastly, some students — newly unable to take advantage of opportunities on campus — were unsure of how to stretch their budgets far enough to ensure they would have healthy meals to eat for the foreseeable future. Student need for assistance was real.

“You will have no idea how this will help alleviate my need during the pandemic. I hope that one day I will be able to repay this help for some other students who are in need as well."

-- a thankful student who received support from the Duke Student Assistance Fund

Quickly, Duke created a taskforce to evaluate and access the myriad ways students were being affected in the wake of the pandemic. With calls for support coming from both domestic and international students of all levels, the university wanted to answer as many requests as it feasibly could. Once word traveled around the Duke community, alumni, parents, donors and friends rallied behind the effort and put their dollars to work to help these students in need. “I am deeply grateful to receive this, as it will be greatly helpful during this strange, difficult, and uncertain time,” said one grateful student.

On the support they received, another student added: “You will have no idea how this will help alleviate my need during the pandemic. I hope that one day I will be able to repay this help for some other students who are in need as well.”

In total, the three COVID-19 relief funds raised more than $1.9 million in philanthropic support from donors.

Over the course of five months between April and August in 2020, the DSAF distributed over 3,534 grants to students, totaling $5 million in support, with an average grant size of $1,379. Food assistance represented nearly a quarter of the funding. For those in need of technology, Duke distributed 118 loaner laptops to students.

It’s proof that Duke is a community which leans inward in times of need. We pitch in and help one another no matter the circumstance or call for assistance. And as an institution, we entrust the ability to unlock Duke’s full potential to our outrageously ambitious students and alumni.

I'm speechless, thank you so much. This is a big help and reduces financial stress,” said another student on how their life has been transformed by the outpouring compassion from those who proudly call Duke home. “Thank you!”