With 58 percent of its students from families earning less than $40,000, Brooklyn College has always been sensitive to the difficulties students face in improving their lives through education. Should any sudden emergency arise, many would face the prospect of dropping out. And once students leave, the numbers suggest they are unlikely to return.
For this reason, the gift from the Carroll and Milton Petrie Foundation that the college received six years ago was extraordinarily welcome. In keeping with the Brooklyn College Foundation's mission to help students have access to, and success within, the CUNY system, the Petrie Foundation provided a three-year, $300,000 grant specifically designed to help students confronting sudden emergencies such as homelessness or inability to pay for books, transportation or child care. Last spring, the grant was extended for another three years, through 2018.
"It's a beautiful grant," says Beth Farryn Levine, associate executive director of the Brooklyn College Foundation — and for many reasons. Most notably, it's not a loan; it's a grant. The program is a lifeline to students already burdened with debt. The program is also nimble and responsive. Within days, funds can be dispatched to help students confronting small crises like a lack of funds for MetroCards, or larger ones. In one case, it freed an international student from the cruel necessity of dropping out for a semester in order to attend a parent's funeral. More than once, a school official helped a student who had not eaten, and had no money to buy food even for that day.
"These are emergencies you just can't anticipate," says Ronald C. Jackson, dean of students, whose division supervises the grants. "We have students here who are homeless, but you would never know it. They're in good academic standing, but they are dealing with an enormous problem. One student came to us, asking for a laptop. It turned out that he was living in a shelter where people were constantly stealing his things. Just today he told us things were so bad at the shelter that he was leaving — he actually preferred living on the street. We’re now working on getting him a room."
Since 2005, more than 430 students at Brooklyn College, and 6,000 in the larger CUNY system, have been helped through Petrie Student Emergency Grants (PSEGs). As of last spring, about 91 percent of the grant recipients at Brooklyn College for academic year 2014–15 had remained in school or had graduated. "These are students who have real emergencies, and yet they stay, which is why we do this," says Beth J. Lief, executive director of the Petrie Foundation.
Most of the funds are spent on housing. "The Petrie Grant allowed my sisters and me to pay one month's rent during the most stressful part of the semester, between midterms and finals," Selena, a history and secondary education major, wrote in gratitude to the committee that oversees the grants. "It gave us time to search for new jobs. More important, I will not have to stop attending school."
The college hopes to expand the types of benefits the grant can provide. The Division of Student Affairs is opening an on-campus food pantry that will enable the college to feed a greater number of hungry students for far less money than the previous program, which provided vouchers for use at local retailers.
Beyond material benefits, the grants affect students in less tangible ways. After a mentally unstable roommate ransacked her apartment, Courtney received a grant that let her find a safe home. "The assistance has inspired me to give back to the community, and help other students overcome problems and achieve their goals," she wrote in a thank-you letter to the foundation.
Other letters the foundation has received are filled with similar expressions of gratitude. "I had nowhere to go, I had no one to turn to, and I was stuck," wrote Frances, a psychology major. After the grant helped resolve her housing crisis, too, she said, "This grant literally saved my life…. It feels great knowing that the college I've invested in cares about me enough to invest in me also."
The generosity of the grants mirrors the character of the man who bequeathed the funds, Milton Petrie, the son of a pawn broker who made his fortune in a chain of women's apparel stores. Described alternately as "a real-life Daddy Warbucks" and compared to the anonymous benefactor in the 1950s television show The Millionaire, Petrie was known to dash "off checks to hard-luck cases he learned about in the morning’s tabloids," The New York Times wrote about him following his death in 1994. Among the beneficiaries of his largesse at the time were Marla Hanson, the model whose face was slashed by an angry landlord, and Steven McDonald, a young policeman who was paralyzed by a gun-wielding criminal, as well as hundreds of anonymous others.
For the generosity shown them, Brooklyn College students, too, could not be more thankful. As one PSEG recipient wrote, "I can say one million 'thank you's,' and I would still feel that it would not be enough."