It’s graduation season, and that typically means celebrating graduates in large arenas with pomp and circumstance. But nothing much is typical these days. With a high school senior at home, I know how disappointing it’s been for students, as well as for us proud parents who want nothing more than to applaud our children’s achievements and cheer them on.

Each one of us is coping with varying degrees of difficulty and loss. And yet, as we’ve seen with everything to do with coronavirus, people who were vulnerable to begin with are finding life upended in far more devastating ways.

This has certainly been the case for one group of young people who might easily fall between the cracks — low-income CUNY college students. Through our funding of local Hillels, over the years we’ve come to learn about the challenges these students face as they work to free themselves from the grip of poverty. Brimming with potential, these young people are turning to education to change the trajectory of their lives.

Everyone has their own story, but there are some commonalities. Many of these students are the first generation to attend college. They may be immigrants or the children of immigrants. Pre-virus, many were working full time or part time to pay for tuition, books, and other expenses, and to help support their families’ basic needs. Hillel programs brought relief because along with a chance to connect with community, students could count on a free slice of pizza. Astute Hillel staff knew which students were grappling with food insecurity and sent them home with leftovers.

Then coronavirus changed everything. Classes moved online, except many of these students don’t have the right technology or Wi-Fi, or they’re sharing one device with younger siblings. Home might be cramped and there’s no place to study quietly. They and/or their parents may have lost their jobs. If food was scarce before, it’s worse now, and desperation is mounting. Many are thinking that it might just be better to drop out.

For all these reasons, as part of our early Covid-19 relief funding, UJA allocated emergency cash assistance for qualified low-income CUNY Hillel college students. The money can help with rent and food and whatever else might alleviate their hardship. Additionally, research has shown there is a strong positive psychological impact on the individual receiving cash assistance.

The Hebrew Free Loan Society (HFLS), our partner that administered the grants, was inundated with requests. More than 240 students received checks; another 173 who applied were waitlisted. To determine who should receive the first batch of funding, HFLS focused on students whose household income was $23,000 or less. Now, with thanks to a generous foundation that learned about this acute need, we have the funds to eliminate the waitlist.

To give you a better sense of the students receiving this assistance: Their majors include nursing, biochemistry, social work, Jewish studies. On the funding application, when asked what other sources of income they had, one wrote that her parents were dipping into retirement savings to pay for food and household expenses. Another, tragically, wrote that her mother was unconscious on a ventilator. She was uncertain if her mother had filed for unemployment before she became ill, and didn’t know what support she could count on.

With so many competing needs demanding our attention, these emergency funds for college students may just be a stopgap. But they’re also the rallying cry of the Jewish community saying to these future nurses, biochemists, social workers, Jewish communal professionals: please don’t give up on your dreams.

We can’t wait, in coming years, to see you in cap and gown, ready to change the world.

Shabbat shalom