Students launch mutual aid networks to meet financial, basic needs

Seeking to support each other at a time of great strain, students at colleges and universities across the nation are launching mutual aid networks to pool resources and rapidly distribute them to peers in need. 

The mutual aid model—in which peers voluntarily combine resources to meet specific needs on a case-by-case basis—has seen swift uptake in many U.S. neighborhoods in recent months. Inspired by the approach, students are applying it to their campus communities, organizing mutual-aid networks that cover basic needs such as housing, food, and medical costs. Neha Tallapragada, who helped found a mutual aid effort at Rice University, told The New York Times that these assistance networks have stepped in to “fulfill a lot of the needs that have been exacerbated or are there in a greater degree due to the pandemic.” 

Related: COVID-19 intensifying college students’ housing, food insecurity >

“That’s really been a painful experience for a lot of students,” she said. “Students have been laid off from their jobs, or they’ve had to take on new responsibilities because of losses in family income, perhaps due to COVID-related layoffs.”

Student organizers say that many of the aid requests result in micro-grants that go toward expenses like textbooks, groceries, and other non-tuition-related essentials. Many of the mutual aid networks distribute those funds by way of payment apps like Venmo. 

Some student-led efforts have raised thousands of dollars to provide monetary aid to their peers at institutions like Rice, Duke University, and Georgetown University. Other mutual aid efforts incorporate or prioritize non-cash resources, including temporary housing, food donations for community pantries, and personal protective equipment. 

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of sociology at Temple University and the founding director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, says students continue to play a vital role in calling attention to basic needs insecurity.

“These mutual aid networks are springing up because the new economics of college, which is what I tend to call it, puts students at a significant economic disadvantage,” she said, citing Hope Center research on the prevalence of housing and food insecurity across higher education.

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