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From crisis to confidence

Carolina Cares Fund offers vital support to students

Once a student drops out of college, they’re unlikely to return. In July 2021, there were 40 million college dropouts in the United States, according to the Education Data Initiative. That fall, less than 900,000 returned to the classroom.

“Sometimes it just takes one thing — an illness, or an accident, or somebody breaks into their home — to take them off the path to academic success,” says Lisa Jerald, director of student advocacy.

 That is where the Carolina Cares Fund can offer a glimmer of hope. Since 2022, the emergency fund has been a lifeline for students facing one-time, unforeseen expenses that threaten to derail their academic pursuits — like housing, food, transportation or other emergency aid. 

“A lot of times the student had a plan — and it would have all gone well except for that one thing, and you can just see the relief on their face when we tell them that we can help,” Jerald says. 

Emergencies happen, but Jerald says that doesn’t have to mean an end to a student’s dreams.  

“We've had a student who had their car stolen, we helped a student who was in a car accident and faced some unexpected medical bills and I can think of few different situations of house or apartment fires and students lost everything. Red Cross did help, but the students still needed to replace their laptops and books,” Jerald says. “Being able to provide emergency funds kept them from losing the semester or having to leave school after they already lost everything.” 

“I was a first-generation college student myself, and although my parents were supportive, it was a big challenge.”

Austin LaForest, director of student care and case management

Austin LaForest, director of student care and case management, says his team handled nearly 750 referrals in 2023, with 70 of those related to basic needs such as food or housing insecurity. Anticipating an increase this year, the care team is prepared to help students navigate these challenges by connecting them with emergency funds and other resources.

“This help is life-changing for a student who feels like they are absolutely drowning because of a financial situation that can be overcome with only $200 or $500 in emergency assistance,” says LaForest.

The Carolina Cares Fund isn't only about addressing emergencies, but also promoting a culture of support and inclusivity within the university community. LaForest says Carolina Cares also connects students with the on-campus food pantry, the Gamecock CommUnity Shop.

“I would have considered myself food insecure back when I was in college because I was eating whatever I could get access to. Food insecurity doesn’t necessarily mean a full-blown crisis, but if someone can only afford to eat 30 bags of ramen noodles for an entire month, then we want to help them,” says LaForest. “Students need to fuel their brains to be able to be their full selves in the classroom and everyone deserves a balanced meal to eat.”

LaForest believes that offering aid is pivotal in leveling the playing field and empowering every student to reach their full potential, regardless of their financial circumstances. Supporting students in need fosters an educational landscape where everyone can thrive. 

“I was a first-generation college student myself, and although my parents were supportive, it was a big challenge,” LaForest says. “I really struggled my first semester of college and it would have been very easy for me to drop out, but thankfully I got connected to someone in student affairs who gave me advice and helped me get through college. So, that is the reason I'm so passionate about helping these students.”  

The Division of Student Affairs and Academic Support hopes to expand the reach of the Carolina Cares Fund and enable more students to overcome obstacles. LaForest believes that it goes beyond addressing immediate needs and is an investment in the future.  

“This allows us to support these hardworking students when they are facing a real crisis,” says LaForest. “If we can help them get past that and achieve the dream of graduating college, maybe for the first time in their family’s history, then the economic opportunity that comes with getting that four-year college degree is priceless. It’s just life-changing for them and it can be life-changing for their entire family.”