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COVID-19 pandemic creates challenges for Penn State Smeal students

November 23, 2021

By Anne Louise Cropp

Hillary Vicioso (400p)
Hillary Espinal Vicioso
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State Smeal College of Business student Hillary Espinal Vicioso said that the COVID-19 pandemic hit her family especially hard.

The fourth-year marketing student said her parents had to close their family business at the onset of the pandemic. Later, her father needed heart surgery after being ill with the virus.

With no source of income, the Vicioso family was in a precarious financial situation.

To help her parents meet their expenses, she gave them the money she had previously saved to help pay for her Penn State education.

“Although that's all I had to be financially stable in college, I didn’t want my family to struggle the way they were,” she said. “It knew it was the right thing to do.”

That decision created unexpected challenges for her.

As would happen to many Penn State students, the business she worked at prior to the pandemic was forced to close, and she found herself without a job. As a result, she struggled to cover her tuition and living expenses.

“The early days of the pandemic drained me both physically and mentally,” she said.

She said there were times that she didn’t have enough money to buy groceries—a problem the University Task Force on Housing and Food Security said affects as many as one in three Penn State students.

She said that her older sister would sometimes help her with her expenses, but that not all students are as lucky.

The Smeal Student Emergency Fund offers funding for students who face an unexpected crisis during their time at Smeal.

Those crises may include a parent losing a job, medical expenses, an unexpected additional semester of college, time away from the University to participate in co-ops or other professional opportunities or myriad other events that can derail even the best laid plans to finance a college education.

“There is no question we are living in challenging times,” said Felisa Preciado Higgins, associate dean of undergraduate education. “We need to ensure that we are providing our students with relevant and timely education. But we also need to ensure that they have the resources they need to be successful.

“No student should have to go hungry, not have a safe place to sleep at night or access to basic medical care, and I feel fortunate to belong to a community that shares this belief.”

Today, Vicioso’s father is back on his feet, and the family business is thriving. But the challenges of the last year are always at the forefront of her mind.

“I’m fortunate to have scholarship support this year, which goes a long way in helping me pay my living and educational expenses,” she said. “But I know how quickly circumstances can change. I was really happy to learn that Smeal is raising money to help students like me who need a helping hand.”

Without donor support, Vicioso said she likely would have given up on her education.

“That would have been the worst decision I could have made,” she said.

To help students like Vicioso, the Smeal College of Business is raising money for the Smeal Student Emergency Fund this GivingTuesday. Visit our GivingTuesday website to learn how you can help.

Fundraising for GivingTuesday is already underway, and gifts made through the University’s 140+ GivingTuesday campaigns will advance "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.

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