With both the COVID-19 pandemic and the financial hardship it’s created for USF students lasting longer than originally anticipated, the USF financial aid department is trying to keep up by developing new strategies for increased support. However, despite better contact with students around relief funding, the financial aid department has struggled to provide comprehensive information to the USF student body.
To help navigate these challenges, assistant vice provost of student financial services Angelika Williams is increasing transparency with students, despite an ever-changing virtual environment.
Williams, who underscored the importance of an open-door policy in the department when she started her job nine months ago, was not aware that her contact information was not listed publicly on any USF-affiliated website.
Without an easily accessible or identifiable chain of command in the financial aid office, students have struggled to maintain communication with the department particularly when in-person visits are impossible.
“It probably took over a week to get a response and the only reason I think I got a reply was a connection to [vice provost for strategic enrollment] Michael Beseda. The delayed communication made my personal financial situation that much more uncertain,” a USF student, who wished to remain anonymous, said about her experience following up on an award disbursal mistake this year.
Even before the pandemic, interactions between the financial aid department and students were a point of contention. In an opinion piece written in August 2019, current Foghorn staff member Ethan Tan wrote about his and his mother’s experience calling the office. “We were sent down a referral-hole where no one could give a direct answer and instead referred us to other personnel in the office, oftentimes leading us to someone’s voicemail inbox and leaving us without answers,” Tan wrote.
As more calls and email requests flood in, Williams has focused on improving the response process, now prioritizing a 48 hour turnaround on emails and a same day response for calls. In the past, replies from the financial aid office could take as long as seven days.
Despite her contact information not being publicly listed, Williams said that she tries to meet with as many students as possible. On average, Williams meets with two to four students a week and focuses on giving new students a point of contact in the office.
Williams has been directing her efforts towards the visibility of the financial aid department and has already offered twenty eight workshops for students during her time at USF.
The virtual setting has posed challenges for Williams, though. “Transitioning during the pandemic made it that much harder to reach students. I’m always connected with the students at some kind of level and that’s being tainted in [a] way,” she said.
While Williams said she has expedited the financial award packaging timeline by 46%, the department as a whole has struggled to communicate clearly and proactively with students this year.
The distribution of the recent emergency funds was a notable example of this communication breakdown, as USF’s disbursal was delayed in comparison to other universities.
Williams addressed this mistake, saying, “There were changes in regulations that required a change in process. Unlike the CARES Act, the CRRSAA requires that institutions prioritize students with exceptional need and authorizes grants to students exclusively enrolled in distance education.”
In an April 13 school-wide email about the disbursal of Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA) funds, interim provost and vice president of academic affairs Tyrone Cannon mentioned new developments to the COVID-19 Response Fund.
“As we approach the fall semester, students will receive additional information from Strategic Enrollment Management about how to access this fund,” the email stated.
The fund was created from donations by the Board of Trustees in May 2020 and was intended to bridge the gap between federal grants. Grants from this fund are one-time supplements in the $500 to $1500 range, accessible via an application.
It’s notable that because CRRSAA and CARES funding were from the federal government, undocumented students were not able to receive grants from them, making university funds one of the only avenues for these students to receive economic support.
Although federal student grants from the CARES and CRRSA Act have received the most publicity, several efforts by the University to provide students with emergency funds also exist.
Canon’s mention of renewed access to this fund was the first widespread follow-up on the status of this fund since the email announcement of its existence sent by senior vice provost for academic affairs Shirley Maguire in May 2020.
Editor’s Note: Assistant Vice Provost Williams asked for her email to be shared. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.