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Charlotte's story – how Pūtea Tautoko hardship fund saved her master's

Thursday 14 May 2020 3:49pm

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Charlotte Bruce Kells

For master’s student Charlotte Bruce Kells, the recent launch of Pūtea Tautoko, the student hardship fund, comes just in time, providing her with the vital financial support she needs to be able to continue her studies.

Charlotte, whose first baby is due in early June, has studied at Otago since 2015. She completed her BA in English Literature 2017, followed by a first class honours degree in 2018 with the Department of Sociology, Gender Studies and Criminology. Last year she received a University of Otago Master’s Research Scholarship and she is currently finishing up her MA thesis, which has the very topical title of 'JacindaBabyMania': Media Representations & Women's Perceptions of the 'Working' Mother in New Zealand.

In September last year, when she and her partner received the “very welcome but surprise news” that that they were expecting their first baby, her department and supervisor helped her organise a new submission date for her thesis so she could hand it in at the end of May.

“Unfortunately, we didn't factor in COVID-19! I had to start isolating and staying away from campus before we even went into Alert Level 4, as I am in a high-risk category. So I was looking at eight weeks minimum not being able to access the on-campus resources I needed for the end of my study. This caused a lot of stress, because I felt I had to get my thesis done before I had my baby, and I didn't know how this would be possible in my new circumstances.“

Charlotte reached out to the University midway through Level 4, by taking up the welfare checks it had in place for students and staff during the lockdown.

“By this point I had started to get quite distressed about how to manage the rest of my study and the upcoming birth of my first child. My supervisor had suggested trying to find a way for me to come back for a few weeks to finish off my thesis after my maternity leave, but I didn't know how I would be able to afford to do this. There was no way I could study, look after a new baby, and work to support my family all at the same time.

“The hardship fund has made a massive difference to me and my family. It has relieved a huge amount of stress in the lead up to the birth of my baby, as well as ensured that one way or another I will get this thesis done.”

“The student welfare team was amazing, and took time to talk to the relevant staff at the University about my situation. They came back to me, and said I could apply for the student hardship fund, based on the fact that having to pay a second semester of fees due to COVID-related disruptions had put me into financial hardship.”

Charlotte’s application has been approved, and she has been offered a two-month extension to her scholarship, which she can take whenever she is ready to return to study after maternity leave. She will continue to do whatever she can on her thesis until her baby is born, and plans to return to finish things off in September-October.

“The hardship fund has made a massive difference to me and my family. It has relieved a huge amount of stress in the lead up to the birth of my baby, as well as ensured that one way or another I will get this thesis done.

“My family and I could not have afforded another semester worth of fees, so without this fund I would not have been able to extend my due date. Ensuring I complete my MA thesis to a high standard is extremely important, because I plan to move onto PhD study in 2021, and my scholarship to do so relies on my MA grade being as high as possible. Having to rush my work when I did not have the access I needed to resources would have impacted my grade, and therefore my ability to further my study and provide for my family in the future.”

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Pūtea Tautoko was announced in April with an initial investment of $1.5 million from the University. The fund is a way for the University community to support our students facing the greatest need in these extraordinary times.

Many students have experienced significantly changed personal circumstances, including loss of part-time work and changes to their family’s financial situation, which will negatively affect their ability to afford both study and living costs. 

Pūtea Tautoko is available to all University of Otago students, whether they are New Zealand or international students, full-time or part-time, undergraduate or postgraduate.

Applications will be considered by several panels, all of which will include student representation. The panels will robustly assess hardship, using tools the University already has to assess applications for existing hardship funds, and for our needs-based scholarships.

Applications for the fund opened this week, and applicants are asked to supply information about their financial circumstances, declare their current sources of income and financial assistance, and explain how COVID-19 is impacting on their ability to continue to study at Otago. They also need to nominate a referee who can attest to their situation.

Since the announcement of the fund, the extreme generosity of our alumni, friends, staff, parents and students has been heart-warming, with $171,505 donated to date. Please visit our website if you would like to support Pūtea Tautoko by making a donation.