Higher education has been difficult at times for Keyla Ayala, a first-year accounting student at El Paso Community College, but not because of academics. On top of her classes and homework, she also must care for her 3-year-old niece, Helena.

Ayala, a Northeast resident who attends EPCC’s Transmountain campus, said that she sometimes cannot focus on school because of her familial responsibilities. Her story is similar to many students at EPCC, which reported more than 40% of its students are parents. That number rose to 50% during the spring 2020 semester.

In an effort to support such students, who are at high-risk to drop out of school, the college used some of its remaining federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund money to prepare Student-Parent Resource Centers at each of its campuses. The first one launched April 28 at the college’s Transmountain campus, 9570 Gateway North.

Ayala and her niece were among the EPCC students, staff, administrators and guests who toured the converted classroom near the campus library on its opening day. The room has stations where young children can read, play, watch television, entertain themselves with video or interactive games, or sit at tables to study or to do homework. The room also has computers and related equipment where college students can do classwork as they supervise their dependents. A private lactation room is adjacent to the SPRC.

“It was hard to balance school with childcare,” said Ayala, a 2022 Parkland High School graduate. “Sometimes I couldn’t go to school and my grades suffered. I think this (center) will have a positive impact. It’ll be good for people with kids. I can supervise (Helena) as I do my homework.”

HEERF lifeline, deadline

As the COVID-19 crisis evolved, the federal government passed legislation in 2020 and 2021 to bolster the country’s economy. Of the almost $5 trillion doled out in three phases, more than $75.3 billion in HEERF money went to trade schools and institutions of higher education and their students. Of that, the government gave $122 million to EPCC, $154 million to the University of Texas at El Paso and $1.4 million to Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso.

The institutions spent large chunks of their COVID relief funds on direct student aid, which helped students pay for food, housing, child care, utilities and transportation, as well as for academic expenses such as books, supplies, tuition and related fees. They also used the money to discharge student debt and to provide essential mental health services. Additionally, the institutions spent the money to purchase the necessary technology – laptops, hotspots and broadband capability – and to develop online courses for virtual learning.

“Ultimately, these funds helped students focus on their education and reach their academic goals during the challenging time … and as we recovered from the pandemic,” said EPCC’s Ines Lopez, executive director of Student Financial Aid.

TTUHSCEP has exhausted its HEERF money, but UTEP and EPCC must spend the rest of their COVID relief money – $12 million and $7.3 million, respectively – by the federal deadline of June 30.

EPCC’s Fernando Flores, interim vice president, Financial and Administrative Operations, said the college plans to use the rest of its money to recover revenue lost to decreased enrollment and eligible institutional expenses tied to the spring 2023 semester. These include tuition for credit and non-credit courses, and assorted fees for tests, labs, parking, distance learning and library use, as well as decreased commissions on food services.

Flores said college leaders will consider in the next budget cycle which HEERF projects they will continue to fund. Among those under consideration are staff and supplies for the college’s SPRCs/lactation rooms, and the Social Service Mental Health Centers at EPCC’s Northwest, Valle Verde and Mission del Paso campuses to include virtual services.    

UTEP helps student with car

UTEP’s Mark McGurk, vice president for Business Affairs, said the best use of the university’s HEERF money was the $70 million in direct student aid and various student aid programs paid for through institutional funds. Among the approximately 9,700 UTEP students who received direct aid from relief funds was Alec Corral, a second-year linguistics graduate student who expects to graduate in December. The Socorro resident, who uses they/them/their pronouns, also works as a graduate assistant.

Corral, 24, drove to campus daily during the spring 2023 semester until their 2006 Honda Civic broke down in March. Being without a vehicle was a hardship, but they had no savings to fix the car’s transmission. They recalled how representatives from the Dean of Students Office had talked about the availability of COVID emergency funds, so they submitted an application along with the mechanic’s repair estimate. They said the process was smooth and nonjudgmental. In about a week, the university deposited several hundred dollars into Corral’s bank account for the car repairs.

“I’m very thankful to UTEP for offering (direct student aid),” Corral said.

McGurk also praised how the university invested $12.1 million in technology infrastructure, and more than $8 million to install new heating, ventilation and air conditioning units to improve air circulation in buildings.    

One of the university’s more innovative uses of the COVID relief funds was the $1.2 million for an internship program led by UTEP’s University Career Center and Center for Community Engagement (CCE). They placed 190 undergraduate and graduate students with 77 nonprofits, small businesses, state and local public entities and educational institutions. Many of these internships, which operated virtually for the most part from January 2021 through May 2022, often would have been unpaid in the past.  

“We want our students to have the opportunities to learn so we went out to the businesses and solicited for internship positions,” McGurk said. “I think those were interesting ways to get students engaged in their career opportunities.”

The university also spent about $1.2 million of HEERF money on mental health services during and after the pandemic. The campus used the money to hire additional counselors and to buy technology for virtual sessions and programs during the COVID lockdown.

Brian Sneed, director of UTEP’s Counseling and Psychological Services, said students sought his team’s help to deal with anxieties such as remote learning, isolation during the lockdown, as well as the deadly virus and the government’s seeming inability to handle it.

As students returned to campus, CAPS used HEERF money to hire two temporary licensed professional counselors to help with the “tremendous” demand for mental health services based on the number and seriousness of the sessions. One of those counselors became a permanent hire. The other left and was replaced by a post-doctoral psychology intern who will work with CAPS through the end of June 2023.

Sneed said CAPS serves about 1,500 students annually. While the number of patients has remained the same, the number of sessions has increased by about 100 per month.

He said many students now prefer virtual sessions even if they are on campus. Mental health providers already had started to lean toward virtual sessions and the pandemic accelerated the push in that direction. Sneed called virtual sessions the new normal at UTEP.

“That kind of interaction is going to be something that’s going to be part of what we do here at the university from now on,” Sneed said.

As a result, the university plans to purchase five multi-use “privacy pods” with about $147,000 of its remaining HEERF money. These pods, four large ADA-accessible units and one slightly smaller pod, will be located around campus to provide students with a quiet, private place to meet with professors, counselors, or to take an exam.

McGurk said that UTEP will use any unspent HEERF money for direct student aid to include payments on student balances owed to the university during the pandemic.

“I just think (HEERF) has been a real help to UTEP,” McGurk said. “Had we not been able to receive HEERF money, it would have been devastating for our campus, absolutely devastating.”

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters in partnership with Open Campus.