How One College Community Rallies During COVID-19 Era

Old West Sunset

A look at the impact of the Emergency Response Fund

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

In March 2020, Kat Pham ’21 (mathematicsquantitative economics) was studying abroad in Toulouse, with plans to begin an internship after her return to the U.S. Then COVID-19 happened, and Pham knew she needed to leave France immediately.

The question: Where would she go?

“I was between a rock and a hard place,” says Pham, an international student on a tight deadline and even tighter budget. “I was both saddened by the possibility of my semester ending early and scared about the uncertainty of what to do next.”

One year after the U.S. lockdown began, we’re taking a look at the impact Dickinsonians have had through gifts to the college's Emergency Response Fund (ERF), lending a helping hand to our students during this challenging time.


The ERF provides a way for alumni, parents and friends of the college to support increased need for financial aid and other expenses related to the college’s response to COVID-19.

When the college shifted quickly to remote learning last March, this fund made it possible for Dickinson to purchase licenses for remote-learning tools like Zoom, and it also supported equipment purchases to ensure that all students had seamless access to a Dickinson education. The ERF aided students who didn’t have the resources to unexpectedly return home from studying abroad or to ship essentials they’d left on campus during spring break, such as laptops and textbooks, to their homes.

The ERF provided $70,000 in summer housing costs for students in need who weren’t able to return safely to their home countries, or faced housing and/or food insecurity at home or needed to remain on campus to follow through with a key learning opportunity, such as a locally based internship or community-based research. And it helped pay for needed disinfectants, sanitizers and personal protective equipment (PPE) on campus to keep them safe.


Pham was among the students who benefited from help with summer housing.

Studying abroad at the start of the global pandemic, Pham knew that if she returned home to Vietnam, she’d forfeit the U.S. internship—a potentially career-launching opportunity that, because of her Visa status as an international student, was very difficult to secure. She obtained permission to return to campus, packed up her stuff, hopped on the first available flight to the U.S. and entered quarantine on campus, intending to enter internship-supplied housing during the summer. Then she learned that the housing was no longer available.

Pham could still serve the internship if she remained in the U.S., and her internship salary—combined with savings augmented by her salary as co-head tutor at the Writing Center—was enough to cover Dickinson’s housing fees. But she wouldn’t have enough money left for food.

Thanks to support from Dickinson donors, the ERF enabled the college to waive her summer housing costs. “I felt lucky that I could still complete my internship and attend school, and I hope that other students can be supported as well,” says Pham.


One year after the ERF’s creation, there’s light on the horizon, but the humanitarian and economic uncertainties of the ongoing pandemic remain. 

Increased financial aid is needed for students whose families are hard-hit by the pandemic. With some students on campus still unable to return home, Dickinson anticipates a need to cover summer housing costs for international students in need—who do not qualify for CARES/HERF funding—in summer 2021. And with half the student body on campus this spring, Dickinson must purchase more sanitizers, PPE and COVID-19 tests than ever before. Testing and other measures associated with keeping our community safe have cost in excess of $2 million, but our community has kept the positivity rate very low because of responsible planning made possible with ongoing donor support.

The ERF remains a vital resource, as the college meets these previously unimagined challenges and continues to invest in promising Dickinsonians like Pham and Carmen Maria Canino ’22 (biochemistry & molecular biology) as they forge ahead toward brighter futures.

“It’s been a highly unusual time,” says Canino, a Massachusetts resident planning on a nursing career who also lived on campus during the virtual semester with support from the ERF. “Support of the ERF makes a difference in the lives of students like me, and our Dickinson experience benefits greatly from your giving.”

Pham adds that studying remotely while living on a near-empty campus wasn’t easy—and that while being an Asian student in America at this moment, and not having the opportunity or means to see her family for more than a year, made it tougher still—she, too, is grateful for the opportunities her internship and fall semester have brought.

“In this time of uncertainty, of sadness compounded with loneliness, and of financial struggles, each of us just wants to be safe—to have food and a roof over our heads, and to be free from as much stress as possible. And for students like me, especially, we just want our future to not be hindered by the temporary struggles that we are in,” says Pham. “If someone is willing to open their hearts and willing to sympathize, I think they will understand why ERF is so important to those in need of help.”


Published March 30, 2021