FIU Foundation News

FIUstrong: Providing emergency relief for students during the pandemic

The university is raising funds for students suffering financially during the health crisis.

–For FIU Magazine

When FIU student Gabriella Llaña lost her job during the pandemic, she feared she might lose her apartment, too. Living alone, she wasn’t sure how she would afford rent.

With support from the FIUstrong disaster relief initiative, the university was able to intervene. Llaña was granted an emergency aid scholarship to help cover bills. 

“I was scared that after paying the [last] month of rent, I would be left with nowhere to go,” Llaña said of her dwindling savings. Help from FIU allowed her keep up with rent payments and purchase groceries, which made it possible to maintain her high grade point average and live without worry.

Thousands of other FIU students have similar personal situations that have grown increasingly dire as the pandemic persists. While young people struggle to meet basic needs, financial difficulties threaten their dreams of attaining a degree.

A crisis like no other

The campaign to raise money for the FIUstrong emergency fund has been activated to help Panthers before, including after hurricanes Irma and Maria, but this time is different, said Howard Lipman, senior vice president of University Advancement and CEO of the FIU Foundation, which is leading the initiative.

“The university raises money for emergency relief throughout the regular academic year,” Lipman said. “But the pandemic has left the entire globe in crisis for months, and as a result, we are seeing unprecedented need here in our FIU community.”

When the university first transitioned to remote learning in March, between 50 and 100 students daily asked for some kind of extra help – as many as would normally make such requests in a six-month period. The number of students in need soared to the thousands in a matter of weeks.

In April, the university received $19 million from the Higher Education Emergency Relief fund established by the federal CARES Act to provide students emergency aid grants, which helped alleviate the financial burden of more than 9,500 students. 

But the money has been completely disbursed, and still more students need assistance – including more than 1,600 who were ineligible to receive CARES Act funds and 2,200 who were eligible but who applied after those funds had been exhausted.

The majority have requested relief to meet their most basic needs, including housing, food, child care and other living expenses. Many are out of work or have faced drastic cuts to their work hours. Some need help equipping their homes for remote learning. As of June 12, their unmet need amounted to more than $5 million.

FIU steps up

With the help of FIU’s alumni, community partners, faculty and staff, and parents, the university can continue to assist those Panthers the pandemic has left vulnerable.

Through FIUstrong, Panthers’ collective efforts have helped more than 380 students like Gabriella, as of June 12. But as the pandemic stretches on, the number of students seeking assistance will only grow.

“We need the private support of our Panther family and friends to ensure no FIU students are forced to choose between keeping the lights on or continuing their education as a result of the pandemic,” Lipman said.

It goes beyond the here and now. The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities says unmet financial need is a significant barrier to completing a degree for many low-income students.

“When students are forced to pause or even stop their education, they may not end up realizing their life goals and dreams,” Lipman said.

Honors College alumnus Joel Gandara ’03 is among those who have pledged support for FIUstrong. Gandara is a success coach and entrepreneur actively involved in Honors College life by mentoring students. When he started hearing stories of people who lost their jobs or were forced to close their small businesses, he realized he hadn’t been affected by the pandemic as badly as some and started looking for ways to lend a hand.

“Everyone is going through a storm right now, but some of us are in different ships,” Gandara said. “Some of us are in a rowboat and are hurting.”

Llaña, a junior majoring in finance, is grateful the FIU community was there for her. 

“I want to thank the donors,” she said. “There are many students who might be on the verge of living in the streets due to COVID-19 with nowhere to go, but with your help, we are able to maintain faith, health and a positive mind.”  

If you are able, please consider making a contribution to the FIUstrong initiative by going to