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Inside Benedict College's effort to get more than 100 struggling students home amid COVID-19 outbreak

When South Carolina's governor ordered all public schools closed in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Benedict College administrators had already started to prepare for a potential closure. Benedict, a small historically black private liberal arts college in Columbia, has a student population of just over 2,000. When the school decided to close, there were still hundreds of cash-strapped students on campus, many of whom were wondering how to get home to their families until Benedict president Roslyn Artis and her team helped more than 100 domestic and international students go home.

"We moved quickly," said Artis. "My team…clarified the plan and began to execute almost immediately."

Artis' team began by notifying the university's board of trustees about what a college closure would mean for Benedict. According to Benedict administrators, 74% of their students are the first person in their family to attend college, and 84% are Pell grant-dependent, meaning that without this financial aid they wouldn't be able to afford to attend college.

"The ability of our students to simply purchase a plane ticket and go home, or for a parent to send for their children or leave work and come get them on short notice was not something that was realistic for our particular population," said Artis.

"When [Artis] informed the board about the challenge of evacuating the campus, she did not ask her board members for financial assistance, but we heard her pain," said Trustee Doris Johnson, whose husband's law firm also donated money to aid the students. "It was just a natural response that we all wanted to assist in any way that we could."

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Benedict College board meeting, Columbia, South Carolina. Benedict College

The board helped raise nearly $25,000 in just days, which the school used to purchase flights, bus tickets, and even luggage for students. A boardroom in Artis' office became a kind of central command, and administrators and staff became on-site travel agents, collecting information from students and alerting them once their travel arrangements had been made.

Freshman sports management student Fabeina Riggins said she would not have been able to get home to San Diego on such short notice without the help of the college.

"It's not easy for college students to come up with plans like that in a matter of a couple of days…we knew it was a situation but I definitely couldn't have done it without them," said Riggins. "Even though this was such an immediate and urgent situation, they definitely had everything under control."

Dorm directors and resident assistants even stayed awake to make sure students made it on time to the shuttle bus that would take them to the airport or bus station. Staff drove students to airports and bus stops in vans and even their personal cars, in some cases. University personnel also helped escort students who had early flights to the bus shuttle from their dormitories, so they wouldn't have to walk alone on campus before the sun came up.

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Benedict College

Senior sports management student Deveall McClendon stayed on campus throughout spring break, so that he could continue to work for the City of Columbia Parks & Recreation. McClendon said that in addition to paying for his flight home to Minneapolis, Benedict staff went "above and beyond" by meeting students at the airport to ensure that even their luggage fees were covered and students made their flights. "I'm just still happy that I was able to get around to be with my family," said McClendon.

Less than 10 minutes away at the University of South Carolina, students were also notified that they should leave campus within days, unless they had extenuating circumstances. In those cases, students could fill out forms to receive approval to stay on campus. Senior journalism student Hayden Blakeney lives near the campus and said he took pictures of students packing up their things and getting ready to depart.

"It was less of a frenzy and it kind of felt more like a funeral...you just [saw] a lot of people walking around with suitcases," said Blakeney. "It was pretty, pretty solemn — unfortunately, a lot of people, kind of low morale."

Universities across the country have been migrating to online classes for the duration of the semester to prevent students from meeting in-person to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But on some campuses, students are still living in dormitories and eating in university dining halls.

A survey released Wednesday of more than 500 community college and university students conducted by the non-profit group Rise, which advocates for college affordability, showed that 21% of students reported they hadn't experienced significant changes as result of coronavirus, aside from the transition to online learning. However, 75% of students said they're experiencing higher levels of anxiety, depression or stress, and 20% lack access to a mobile device or Wi-Fi.

"Many [students] would be going to low wealth areas where there would not be internet access," said Artis. "Our faculty really had to double down on how to really disaggregate material into smaller segments that can be distributed using a smartphone, which might be the students' only access to technology extension."

University of South Carolina junior media arts student Jalen Hodges told CBS News he sympathizes with students who may not have internet access to utilize resources as the semester comes to a close.

"A lot of people relied on the computers in the library and like equipment at school that they needed to use because they didn't have it themselves [because] they couldn't afford it," said Hodges. "I'm losing a lot of the learning and experience I should get, especially being in a journalism school. I can't really use a lot of the software, equipment, studio, and stuff like that…just doing online, like video calls and stuff isn't enough."

The lasting impacts of how the coronavirus outbreak on college students remains to be seen. Hodges, who had gone to France for spring break and self-quarantined upon returning to his home in Charlotte, contends that while no one is to blame, he and other classmates are feeling the pressure.

"Having to deal with keeping up with school while also worrying about the state of the world, it's just a lot on other people's mental health," said Hodges. "Everybody is just kind of just going through the motions like not really putting their hundred percent in because they're dealing with this scary situation that we really haven't experienced before."

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