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Estrella Rodriguez, a pregnant community college student with her 5-year-old daughter, Nevaeh, is grateful for the women who bought her diapers when they saw her on line at Costco, but also anxious to get her laptop computer back from her shuttered campus. Credit: Photo by Uvaldo Rodriguez

NEW YORK – When news came that coronavirus concerns would close South Carolina’s Benedict College for the semester, Jayla Berry soon found herself heading home to Detroit with her ticket fully paid for and her transportation arranged.

“They helped us load up and even arranged for someone to take me to the airport,” said Berry, a sophomore environmental engineering major who attends the historically black college on a full scholarship. “The guy who picked me up and took me to the bus had no sleep because he’d been helping all the students get home. Even the [college] president called to check in on us, and I am forever grateful. They didn’t have to do that.”

The acts of kindness shown to Benedict College students came courtesy of its board of trustees, who offered to cover the travel costs home for every student who needed it, even to places as far as away as Brazil and Budapest. The school is one of a number of colleges and universities that are standing out for their humane approaches to the coronavirus. These institutions are helping students find cost-free ways to leave campus, keeping dorms open for those who don’t have other options or identifying ways to enable less-wired students who can’t access online learning to still finish out the semester.

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Not all colleges are being heaped with praise, however, and the contrasts are striking. At California’s Pomona College, for example, some circulated petitions demanding the school do more to help students who don’t have housing alternatives.* The University of Pennsylvania has been under fire for asking private landlords to send students home.

There’s no playbook for handling the unprecedented coronavirus calamity, but I’m quickly seeing what a big difference offers of help, financial assistance and even phone calls of concern can make. With a little luck, the power of kindness and generosity will be one of the key takeaways of this crisis when it abates, as will newfound appreciation for teachers. (Just ask a parent trying to take the place of educators while working from home.)

Related: Stuck at home with young kids; here’s what to do and not to do

For some college students, well-timed assistance can make the difference between falling deep into poverty and dropping out or getting to graduation. In recent weeks, I’ve seen aid come in the form of deferrals of student loan payments, laptop loans, free storage or help shipping items home, grocery deliveries, pass-fail grading, help finding temporary housing and paycheck continuation for work-study students. Meanwhile, cultural institutions are relaxing rules and paywalls to offer much-needed diversion, like free streaming of Broadway musicals and plays, operas, online art programs and free downloads of books from public libraries.

Benedict College paid for Jayla Berry’s travel back home to Detroit from South Carolina after the campus closed. She said she is “forever grateful.” Credit: Photo by Rashad Paige

Individuals can help most, advocates say, by making financial donations to groups that are aiding students in need.

The scholarship matching app Scholly launched its Scholly COVID-19 Student Relief Fund to help students and parents with cash assistance. The Constance Fund, which had been providing emergency student aid, had to pause until April 1 because it was overwhelmed with requests. And the Student Relief Fund, which was set up to assist students facing homelessness and hunger because of the crisis, has raised $95,000 so far.

Related: Coronavirus is poised to inflame inequality in schools

Lauren Wright, a sophomore psychology major at Stevenson University in Maryland, is stuck in her apartment near campus because her mother is ill and can’t risk the exposure. Just about everyone she knows has gone home.

In search of help, she answered a few questions on a form and emailed with Stacy Raphael, a Philadelphia-based social worker and higher education advocate, who is one of 13 volunteers with the Student Relief Fund. The fund opened March 11; hundreds of students have asked for help so far, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, who helped launch the fund and runs Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice.

“They stayed up late to help us, the guy who picked me up and took me to the bus had no sleep because he’d been helping all the students get home. Even the (college) president called to check in on us, and I am forever grateful. They didn’t have to do that.”

For Wright, just having someone to talk to and email with who could point her to potential resources made a big difference. “It helped me a lot,” she said. “I’m scared, if I’m being honest. It’s spring break now, and I’m feeling kind of stuck. I can’t do my jobs. I was supposed to present my research at two different campuses, but that got cancelled. I can’t go home. I’m feeling a bit shaky.”

So is Aleina Dume, a 19-year-old freshman at Swarthmore College, who is now back home in Queens. Dume is the daughter of a single mom and doesn’t have a big family support system, nor does she have wifi at home. She is grateful for regular calls with her mentor from a summer journalism program she attended at Princeton University; she also got a mobile wifi hotspot sent to her by Swarthmore.

Volunteers with the Student Relief Fund connected Dume to organizations and people that are helping students adrift because of the coronavirus, including the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services and individual therapists. “I felt so hopeful that there is at least someone that can point me in the direction of resources,” Dume said. “My job at school helps pay bills at home, so I’m really worried.”

“Unfortunately, there are many students … with many obstacles and just barely getting by,” Raphael, the Student Relief Fund volunteer, told me. “We social workers are all too familiar with individuals who have complex and overwhelming needs. It’s really important to be working on the ground.”

Related: Tears, confusion and financial woes as colleges abruptly end semesters and send students home

The crisis is also underscoring how uneven access to technology remains in this country, something Estrella Rodriguez discovered recently. Rodriguez is a 26-year-old pre-med student in California and a single mom who is expecting her second child.

She was issued a free laptop as part of a scholarship but has been unable to pick it up because her campus is locked down.

“I was first on line and two ladies behind me bought me boxes of diapers. That was just so nice.”

Rodriguez lives in a one-bedroom apartment with seven family members who are now out of work. She needs the laptop for her job as an online math tutor, a much-needed source of revenue for all of them, and to finish the semester and transfer to a four-year college in the fall.

A phone number Rodriguez got via Instagram led her to referrals for food stamps and other services, but she still hasn’t figured out how to get her laptop. In the midst of the madness, though, she’s grateful for an act of kindness that came after she got in line at a Costco at 3 a.m. last week to score scarce household items like toilet paper.

“I was first on line and two ladies behind me bought me boxes of diapers,” Rodriguez told me. “That was just so nice. I just hope this baby doesn’t come early because of all the stress.”

In the meantime, her daughter, Nevaeh, wants to go back to the preschool she attended on campus while Rodriguez was in class. “Now, we are both out together. She won’t have her little graduation and I won’t have mine,” Rodriguez said. “It’s pretty crazy right now. I wake up like it’s a nightmare.”

Related: Canceled research, sports, recitals – college students are coping with more than closed campuses

Even as online learning begins this week, Benedict College, one of the many schools that provided travel assistance to students, has a lot more work to do. Benedict is now sending out information on job hunting and interviewing skills and offering ongoing online support and services to its students, said Emmanuel Lalande, vice president for enrollment management.

“Honestly, we’ve reached an unprecedented point in higher education,” Lalande said. “We all have more questions than answers.”

But there are some answers that can make a difference, everywhere, in these profoundly unsettling times: donating to emergency education funds – and a little kindness.

*Clarification: This sentence has been changed to reflect updated reporting on campus closures.

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Liz Willen, a longtime education reporter, has been proud to lead an award-winning staff of The Hechinger Report since 2011. She was recently honored for commentary writing by the New York Press Club....

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