Students First: Pandemic grant sets stage for student’s return to Elon

More than 300 donors contributed to a special fundraising effort as part of the Elon LEADS Campaign to increase financial aid for families impacted by COVID-19. Sage Albert ’23 is one of the many students grateful for the support.

Sage Albert ’23 loves the theater. She loves performing before an audience, singing and dancing. And she loves being around people. All of those things were immediately taken away by physical distancing as a safety precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic. It made a tough situation even tougher.

“I’m a giving-a-hug kind of person and you can’t do that now,” said Albert, a sophomore at Elon who is majoring in drama / theater studies and music with a minor in dance.

Concerns about flattening the curve of coronavirus cases shut down much of the United States in March, including schools, entertainment venues and restaurants. It also halted a lot of activity for Albert and her family in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Theater is a family interest. Albert’s mother is a professional performing artist who put her acting activities on hold due to COVID-19. Her father is also an actor. An older sister studied theater at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. The biggest economic blow came when her father, a self-employed designer of fire sprinkler systems, had jobs canceled due to the pandemic.

The spring and summer of 2020 was a trying time for people across the nation, many of them families with students enrolled or enrolling at Elon. During the height of the shutdown, unemployment in the U.S. hit a high of 14 percent in April. Sage’s family was among the millions of Americans taking a major financial loss due to lost contracts, layoffs, furloughs, shorter hours or business closures.

“My parents were worried about paying for me to come back to Elon, especially since I had a younger brother ready to go to college,” said Sage, who made Elon’s President’s List in the spring of 2020. “I was very worried that I was going to take a gap year, which would have meant losing other financial aid. I was afraid another student loan would be difficult to pay back. Graduating theater majors don’t make a whole lot.”

Enabling students to return to Elon despite financial hardship due to the pandemic inspired a fundraising initiative called Students First, said Patrick Murphy, senior associate dean and director of financial aid. Through the Office of University Advancement, donors were asked to contribute to a fund that would be specifically for students who needed grants to return to Elon or enroll as first-year students due to COVID-19. Students and parents began contacting Elon in April, asking for additional financial help. Murphy said 70 returning students estimated they would have had to take a year off if more aid was not available.

“I thought it was a great idea. By the time we started talking about it, we were at the end of our (financial aid) budget,” Murphy said. “Most of the requests came from parents who worked in some kind of service industry that basically got shut down for three to four months.”

Gifts to the Students First Fund will provide grants for the 2020-21 academic year. Murphy said to date, 94 students have been awarded grants, including Albert. Murphy anticipates the number rising above 100. In all, 300 donors contributed more than $360,000 to Students First.

“Having this extra aid really helped. We were afraid I would have to take out another student loan, but we didn’t have to do that because of the Students First grant,” Albert said. “I was happy to take away some of the burden on my family to help me go to college.”

The name of the fund embraces Elon’s long-standing tradition of keeping students at the center of everything the university does. All gifts to Students First count as part of the Elon LEADS Campaign, whose top priority is deepening scholarship funding. Sage said she chose Elon because she liked the performing arts program, but also fell in love with the environment on campus. She said there is a feeling that “everyone supports one another and wants each other to succeed.”

For theatre majors, the stage has changed due to the pandemic. All theatre is being recorded through Zoom, which is also the platform for voice and other classes. Professors are less hands-on in dance, drama and music.

“Theatre is very community-based,” Albert said. “It’s a struggle to find that community when you can’t physically meet in person.”

Albert looks forward to a career in performing when the pandemic crisis passes and more normal life returns.

“I grew up in a theatrical family. That’s how I would like to live my life someday,” she said. “After graduation, I would love to perform. Musical theatre was what I was originally drawn to. But I would love to do acting for the screen and do films, TV shows, movies or plays.”

About the Elon LEADS Campaign

With a $250 million goal, Elon LEADS is the largest fundraising campaign in the university’s history and will support four main funding priorities: scholarships for graduates the world needs, increase access to engaged learning opportunities such as study abroad, research and service learning, support for faculty and staff mentors who matter and Elon’s iconic campus. To date, donors have contributed $200 million toward the goal.

Every gift to the university—including annual, endowment, capital, estate and other planned gifts—for any designation counts as a gift to the campaign, which will support students and strengthen Elon for generations to come. To learn more about how you can make an impact, visit