Emergency fund assists students faced with unexpected crises

Tom Joudrey
September 04, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — At a time when the coronavirus pandemic has strained resources and compounded financial hardship for many Penn State families, an emergency assistance fund is providing relief to undergraduates in the College of Health and Human Development. Earmarked for students majoring in recreation, park and tourism management (RPTM), the resources are being directed on a case-by-case basis to students who, confronted with unforeseen obstacles, demonstrate the motivation and persistence to stay enrolled.

Professor emeritus Harry C Zinn endowed the fund in 2018 to encourage his fellow RPTM faculty to build on his initial gift. Unlike academic and need-based scholarships, which are allocated to offset tuition and other anticipated expenses, the Faculty Emergency Assistance Fund acts as a short-term financial bridge to see students through difficult circumstances. Qualifying events include the death of a parent, sudden loss of income, illness, inability to secure affordable housing and other life-altering events. The fund was established on the principle that accidents of fate should not derail an education and leave students saddled with debt and without the credentials to embark on a successful career.

Senior Eva Blankenhorn is one recent recipient of assistance. When the pandemic forced the closure of Penn State campuses this spring, she lost the income from her on-campus job just as one of her parents was unexpectedly furloughed, throwing her family’s finances into disarray.

Amidst this turmoil, Blankenhorn was offered her dream job: a seasonal park ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park with the National Park Service. Her excitement was tempered by the unprecedented circumstances: health regulations had shuttered park housing, meaning she would need to find more expensive housing and commute to work. “I kept thinking about the cost of summer tuition and textbooks and housing. I just felt really trapped,” Blankenhorn recalled.

Then a trusted adviser in her department mentioned the emergency assistance fund. “I certainly didn't think that I would qualify,” Blankenhorn said. “I'd never been the type to ask for help, and I was scared to admit that my family and I, like so many others, were in a tough spot.” But her application was approved, and the fund covered a month of rent at her new apartment in Hanover, Pennsylvania, as well as the textbooks for her two online summer courses.

For Blankenhorn, the experience as a park ranger was a transformative. “I got to work alongside some of the best historians and interpreters in the National Park Service as we developed new digital content and safely engaged with the public,” she said. “I'm so thankful that my RPTM family was there to support me when I needed it the most.”

The idea for the fund was conceived by Zinn, professor emeritus of recreation, park and tourism management, who made a pledge to endow the fund at the $50,000 level, thereby ensuring that its emergency aid will be available in perpetuity.

Zinn began his academic career at the University of Maine at Orono and moved to Colorado State University before joining the faculty at Penn State in 1998, where he remained until his retirement in 2011. Across these years, he repeatedly encountered students who were waylaid by short-term crises that prevented them from completing their degrees.

“It chewed at me for a long time,” Zinn said. “Sometimes it was sickness. Sometimes it was mental health issues, or the complexities involved with government funding for student visas. In one case, a student came to my office mystified about a hold on her student registration. It turned out her father had lost his job and was too ashamed to tell his family. Again and again, students opened up about their problems to a trusted member of the RPTM faculty or staff, but at the time we just didn’t have the resources to intervene.”

Since the fund was activated in February 2018, approximately 15 students have received emergency aid.

“Through his remarkable foresight and generosity, Dr. Zinn has helped us build a critical safety net for students who have been dealt difficult setbacks,” said Peter Newman, professor and head of the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management. “I’ve witnessed, firsthand, the grit and resilience of our students through tough times, and we are grateful to have the resources at our disposal to help them press forward to realize their dreams.”

Zinn’s gift advanced “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 fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 04, 2020