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Emergency aid allows Cuesta College students to access benefits like gas cards, but some minority students face unexpected roadblocks 

Construction technology major J.P. Flores' daily drive to Cuesta College from Cambria costs him roughly $20 a day for gas. Luckily, the school was offering gas cards worth $300, and Flores thought help was on the way.

But first he had to power through some unexpected swerves.

"I was denied a gas card because I owed $40 to the school and was told I had to pay my fines to Cuesta in order to benefit from aid," Flores said. "While I was standing in line to receive my gas card, after paying the school fines, I saw many students are being denied these gas cards, which are paid for with the HEERFs."

click to enlarge COSTLY COMMUTE Even though students with less than $100 in outstanding account balances are eligible for Cuesta College gas cards, J.P. Flores said he had to pay off his $40 outstanding fine and purchase a parking permit for another $40 before he could get one. - PHOTO FROM CUESTA COLLEGE FACEBOOK PAGE
  • Photo From Cuesta College Facebook Page
  • COSTLY COMMUTE Even though students with less than $100 in outstanding account balances are eligible for Cuesta College gas cards, J.P. Flores said he had to pay off his $40 outstanding fine and purchase a parking permit for another $40 before he could get one.

HEERFs are Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds—an American Rescue Plan-authorized law that funneled almost $40 billion to assist struggling college students during the COVID-19 pandemic. HEERFs were activated in March 2021, and numerous higher education institutions benefited from the funding boost.

One such institution is Cuesta College. According to Cuesta Public Information Officer Ritchie Bermudez, the college received almost $27.9 million in HEERF money. That amount was split into two categories: the U.S. Department of Education required $10.8 million to be used for student financial assistance, and the remaining $17.1 million was to be used for institutional support. Cuesta's gas card program, among others, is funded using the institutional support allocation.

"The college has chosen to dedicate some institutional [support] funds to further enhance student financial assistance. For example, the college has provided free meals to students throughout the 2021-22 academic year," Bermudez told New Times.

About $1.4 million of the $17 million that makes up "institutional support" is a minority-serving institution grant because of Cuesta's status as a Hispanic-serving institution. Flores said that in spite of such branding, students from low-income and minority groups, like himself, feel that they've gotten shortchanged.

"Our school is given special consideration ... so you're [Cuesta] using that money as leverage to make students pay their fines, and that's not OK," he said.

Though Flores eventually received his gas card, he said he was still made to pay his $40 outstanding fine even though the college's website said that students with an account balance under $100 are eligible.

He added that paying fines isn't the only requirement impeding access to emergency aid. To get the gas cards, Cuesta students also have to purchase parking permits worth $40 and be enrolled in classes that total more than six units.

Flores isn't alone in his frustration. Elizabeth Montijo Mowrey, an addiction studies major at Cuesta, also feels the pinch. Montijo Mowrey juggles a brimming roster of extra-curricular activities with her full-time online class schedule. She is the main delegate director of the academic senate, the campus editor at the college-run news site The Cuestonian, the secretary for Cuesta's Chicano club called M.E.CH.A., and its delegate on the inter-council.

"I was told I'd be automatically denied because I don't have [a single] class on campus. But I still have to go back and forth to campus to make printouts and go to the library," she said. "I have all these titles, and it's kind of crucial for me to get more people involved in clubs."

At more than $5 a gallon, San Luis Obispo County had the most expensive gas in the nation during the first six days of March, according to Tribune reporting. With her commute to Cuesta from Grover Beach, Montijo Mowrey spends $45 to $50 a week on gas.

After Flores contacted Cuesta about his experience, citing documentation and requirements from the HEERFs website about how the funds should be used, Montijo Mowrey also reached out to college officials.

Both said they were told that gas cards were funded using money originally meant for institutional support, even though a pot of grant money for student aid exists.

"In all honesty, it made me feel I should be thankful to get money that wasn't supposed to go to students. What I liked about J.P's letter was that it had facts and documentation. The school couldn't do that for their argument," Montijo Mowrey said.

Cuesta PIO Bermudez told New Times that gas cards are an additional financial support for students over and above the amount of direct student aid they receive. He added that institutional support funds were originally intended to maintain college operations under the extraordinary circumstances of the global pandemic.

"Institutional funding was used to replace lost revenues, support extra efforts by faculty to provide remote instruction, improve air filtration in campus facilities, purchase PPE, fund COVID-19 testing, enhance technology to support remote and hybrid instruction, and to provide laptops and other equipment that allowed for remote work," Bermudez said.

Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria also qualified for HEERF and its minority-serving institution grant. But its PIO, Chris McGuinness, outlined different eligibility criteria.

In order to be eligible for funds through Hancock's Student Emergency Fund, students who are not on disciplinary leave must be currently enrolled in either credit or noncredit coursework. They must also have completed a FAFSA or California Dream Act application and have an unmet need. Those not eligible for FAFSA, like undocumented and international students, can also submit emergency aid requests.

"Unpaid parking fees, unpaid student fees, or the modality of a student's classes would not prevent a student at Hancock from receiving a gas card or other support from the Basic Needs Office," McGuinness said.

He added that Hancock also has the Bulldog Go program, which provides current students with free bus passes in partnership with the Santa Maria Regional Transit. A similar program exists for Cuesta students, too, but SLO County's public transportation system proves to be challenging.

"Cuesta College students can show their student ID card and ride the bus to campus free of charge. This is a great support for many students, but bus schedules and remote home locations make taking the bus a significant barrier for others," Bermudez said. "The gas cards are intended to assist students with the cost of transportation to campus. Cuesta College has followed, and continues to follow, the requirements of each type of federal and state emergency relief." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at brajagopal@newtimesslo.com.

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