Students First: Financial aid initiative enables first-year students to attend Elon

For Samuel Ramirez ’24, Students First removed a burden on his family during the COVID-19 pandemic. The special fundraising effort was created as part of the Elon LEADS Campaign to help new and returning students continue their education at Elon.

Samuel Ramirez ’24 saw the Elon University campus for the first time only a few weeks before starting classes in August. He was accepted and enrolled during the lockdown phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, when North Carolina and many other states were under stay-at-home mandates.

“I visited after I was accepted and enrolled, so it was a gamble,” said Samuel of Charlotte, North Carolina, who made a campus visit in July as Elon was planning for students to arrive for the realigned fall semester in early August.

The pandemic and its impacts played a role in Ramirez’s delayed campus tour. He is among 94 students thus far helped by additional financial aid made possible through the Students First program. The Students First Fund was created by Elon to provide one-time grants to current and incoming students whose families suffered financial hardships due to the pandemic.

Patrick Murphy, senior associate dean and director of Financial Aid, said 24 first-year students like Ramirez would probably have been financially unable to attend Elon in 2020-2021 without the additional aid provided by more than 300 generous donors through Students First.

Murphy said parents and students began to seek more financial aid due to the pandemic starting in April, when unemployment nationally hit 14 percent. Millions of Americans suffered major financial losses due to layoffs, furloughs, shorter hours and business closures. For Ramirez’s family of four, it was a combination of a layoff and fewer hours that created challenges. He was unable to attain more financial aid when he first made his request in the spring because it had already been distributed to students. That changed in the summer when he heard about grants available from the Students First Fund.

“I was ecstatic. It was a burden off our backs,” Ramirez said. “It was exciting that we were getting some aid, and we weren’t being ignored or overlooked. Every cent helps, and we were very grateful.”

Gifts to the Students First Fund will provide grants for the 2020-2021 academic year. Murphy anticipates the number of students awarded grants to rise above 100. In all, 300 donors contributed more than $360,000 to Students First.

Murphy said Students First was created with students like Samuel in mind. 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 hardships created by COVID-19. 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.

Ramirez, a biology major, decided to come to Elon because he liked the university’s commitment to student engagement and undergraduate research. He also wanted a smaller campus environment featuring a lot of interaction with professors.

“Whenever other students talked about what Elon is like for them, they talked about how close (relationships) are with their professors. When I compared it to another school I was looking at, that wasn’t what students were talking about,” Samuel said. “I also spoke to one of the professors who talked about his research experiences. He said Elon had a really good environment to pursue a career in research. That was exciting for me.”

A career in research appeals to Ramirez, who likes to work behind the scenes and discover new knowledge. “Things always change, but right now, biology is what fascinates me,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on university campuses around the nation and the world, and it led to a new kind of fall semester for students, but especially first-years who entered with different expectations. Ramirez has made the best of a challenging situation. Still, he misses the kind of traditional social interactions students experience in a university setting.

“It’s very different from what I expected, but I think it’s going really well. I’m enjoying it so far,” he said. “The teachers are doing a lot for us, and I’m enjoying my classes. I’ve always believed education is the most important thing, but the campus experience is also part of it. We’re all working through this together.”

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