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Clemson University is a safe harbor for many students – reliable WiFi, in-person instruction, a stable living situation. 

For students like senior Maghen LeBlanc, the pandemic took that away.

The loss of in-person classes meant a loss of the free tutoring and help she needed to pass math courses, her worst subject.

“I was in the middle of taking my stats class for the second time, because I failed it the first time, when the pandemic happened… everything switched online,” the Greenville native said. 

“So then it was just trying to figure out how to do math by myself.”

At the same time, Pickens County School District – where LeBlanc worked as an after-school staffer – moved online. Her paychecks stopped. The school asked workers to volunteer to come back for work, but LeBlanc didn’t feel safe. 

“I have an autoimmune disease, so I’m high risk. I couldn’t put myself out there like that. So then I was struggling to make ends meet. I tried to find another job around Clemson, but I couldn’t,” she said. 

This summer, LeBlanc took another online math class. Her professor wasn’t skilled at tutoring virtually and the private tutor she hired could only meet her at Starbucks, where they had to sit on the outdoor patio in 100-degree heat. She failed the course. 

“This has been really hard. There’s been a lot of times where I just wanted to give up, because I didn’t know how I was gonna pass my class,” she said. 

LeBlanc is not alone.

“We know that this pandemic is going to amplify the disparities that unfortunately already exist: health disparities, economic disparities, educational opportunity disparities,” Pres. James Clements told The Greenville News and Independent Mail in July.

‘There’s definitely a divide’

For the 2019-2020 school year, about 75% of Clemson’s undergraduate population had an “expected family contribution” – or how much their household will pay out-of-pocket for college expenses – higher than $10,000 a year, according to Elizabeth Milam, director of the Office of Student Aid.

LeBlanc said her parents helped her out when she became unemployed this spring, but, otherwise, she is paying her own way through college.

With the pandemic has come the pressure to not only make her grades, but, pay the rent. It’s a reality many of her classmates do not face.

“There was definitely a lot more stress on my end, having to worry about how I’m going to make ends meet. Whereas my friends were just like, ‘It’s no big deal, my parents pay my rent anyway,'” LeBlanc said. 

“There’s definitely a divide.”

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Bubba Britton, Clemson University Alumni Association Director of Philanthropic Initiatives, has a zoom meeting from his laptop near Sikes Hall Tuesday. Students and workers have been adjusting to online video chat meetings with Coronavirus closing campus buildings.  (Photo: Ken Ruinard / staff)

Andrew Mannheimer, a sociology lecturer at Clemson, said the April tornadoes knocking out power and the recent killings of Black people, like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, have created more stress for Clemson students.

“Students can have these stressors to the point where school is really not a top priority,” Mannheimer said. 

“The biggest thing we have to do as educators is to continue to reach out to students that don’t have that access.”

What Clemson is doing to help 

Thirteen percent of Clemson’s student body – about 3,400 students – receive federal Pell Grants, the need-based scholarship given to students who come from impoverished households, according to the Office of Financial Aid. 

“These types of economic hardships are real for people and they will find their way to this campus,” Chris Miller, Vice President of Student Affairs, said. 

When the pandemic hit and unemployment skyrocketed to 14% in April, Clemson created a COVID-19 emergency fund to provide financial assistance to students in need. Students in need were awarded up to $300 in funds, according to the website. 

Students had to apply for the grants, which were awarded on a case-by-case basis. 

Additionally, about 9,000 students received CARES Act grants ranging from $500 to $1,000 as part of the federal allocation the university received. 

But for some students, money isn’t the only obstacle – issues with internet and home life may be a hindrance, too. 

Greenville native William “Smiley” Moir had few options when Clemson University moved classes online. 

He could study at home, where WiFi is unreliable and he has multiple “siblings who run around and make schoolwork annoyingly difficult.” The downtown Greenville library was closed until July, meaning its free internet access was unavailable. 

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Teacher Johanna Connelly of Clemson works on her classwork from Clemson Elementary school, sitting outside the Cooper Library at Clemson University, since her internet is not working at home. Clemson Spring semester students are finishing classes online too, and some will take online classes for a summer session.  (Photo: Ken Ruinard / staff)

On campus, students struggled with finding internet access, which is why Clemson stepped in to provide access. 

During the spring and summer semester, Clemson Computing and Information Technology (CCIT) loaned 225 internet hotspots and 82 laptops to students, indicating a much higher demand than in previous semesters. 

Students can request hotspots and laptops for the fall semester, but demand has lowered since the spring, according to CCIT. 

The department said they will continue to work with students on technology needs. 

Needing a stable place to study, Moir, an architecture student, was one of about 500 on-campus residents granted a waiver to remain there during the Spring semester, despite the shutdown, according to university leadership. 

And, Clemson is allowing a to-be-determined number of students to move in early this fall. A panel will review student requests and make exceptions for those with extreme need, Miller said. 

“If a student finds themselves compromised and not able to attend, because of… homelessness, food insecurities, an inability to work remotely or family situations which would prohibit them from having an appropriate place to study, then we have offered up exceptions in that regard,” he said. 

Miller added the university will continue to support students and “over-communicate” the resources available to them. 

One virtual resource that’s been a surprise success is Clemson’s temporary partnership with the Medical University of South Carolina to provide telehealth and telecounseling appointments to students, Miller said. 

“There’s a great deal of comfort for people not having to do face-to-face meetings with this kind of counseling, so it has been very, very successful.”

Clemson will continue to offer the virtual care, especially since counseling services have dealt with high demand and long wait lists for months. 

Pres. Clements said the university is looking into additional need-based scholarships funds, too.”We need to do everything we can to take care of anyone who is hurting,” he said. 

Zoe covers Clemson for The Greenville News and Independent Mail. Reach her at [email protected] or Twitter @zoenicholson_

Read or Share this story: https://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/news/2020/08/24/how-covid-19-pandemic-widening-equity-gap-clemson-students/5553598002/