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Rice Students Launch Mutual Aid Network Amidst Pandemic

Infographic by Anna Chung

By Ajay Kumar     10/6/20 10:44pm

As Rice students prepared to begin an unprecedented fall semester, a team of six undergraduates launched Rice Mutual Aid, a mutual aid network that compiles resources from among the Rice community for other students and offers financial support.

Neha Tallapragada, one of the network’s organizers, said the network provides resources for both financial and non-monetary support.

“We have a spreadsheet where students and alumni and other community members can offer non-monetary forms of aid,” Tallapragada, Jones College sophomore, said. “We also have some monetary forms of aid such as an emergency Venmo fund as well as a larger Facebook group intended to help with larger needs such as plane tickets or car repairs.”

Tallapragada said she helped start the organization to provide resources for students who were facing precarious situations. 

“The pandemic has taken away a lot of Rice collegiate experiences from us, but it’s also taken away a lot for student stability in a time that’s very pivotal for our self-growth as undergraduate students,” Tallapragada said. “This is particularly true for [first generation and/or low income] students who already face a number of challenges under normal circumstances, but they’ve lost a lot of equalizers that they used to have.” 

Tallapragada said she used the principles of mutual aid, which operates on a decentralized system where members of a community can give and receive aid equitably, in order to develop the network. 

“The idea of mutual aid is very appealing because it’s founded on the principle of solidarity, not charity,” Tallapragada said. “There’s no asymmetrical power dynamic between people who have a need and people trying to meet that need.”

Duncan College sophomore Anh Nguyen, a co-organizer of Rice Mutual Aid, said that the network is a great opportunity for those in need to get help without judgment. 

“Having friends who are in the FGLI and QuestBridge community, I thought it was a great way where you can get help from other students in a way that doesn’t really discriminate,” Nguyen said. “I think it’s a really special way to have a two-way street with health and support because people who need help can get it without needing to feel discriminated.”

According to Tallapragada, the state of uncertainty also extends to the broader Rice community.

“Students who may not necessarily identify as FGLI are struggling with different financial situations, housing instability or staying in hostile or unsafe situations,” Tallapragada said. “This is contextualized by the fact that students have dealt with numerous frustrations in regard to financial policies for this year, combined with the tuition increase, and on top of that Rice’s CARES Act Phase II payments have not been distributed yet.”

According to Tallapragada, Rice Mutual Aid strives to preserve anonymity with regard to financial assistance. Tallapragada said requests can be direct messaged to anyone connected to Rice Mutual Aid and will be posted anonymously, and that donation interest can be direct messaged as well.

While Rice Mutual Aid offers financial support, Nguyen said the primary objective of the platform is to enhance resources that already exist. 

“The purpose of Rice Mutual Aid is to amplify the resources that are available at Rice already,” Nguyen said. “We just want to provide an opportunity and safe space where students can freely help other students with this.”

Tallapragada said the organization has no intention of replacing the resources like the Access and Opportunity Portal offered by Rice but hopes to supplement their work. 

“We envision Rice Mutual Aid as a way to meet immediate needs that the Rice administration may not be able to address,” Tallapragada said. “Because of our structure — which is easy to modify and access as a mutual aid network — we’re able to have the flexibility to do that.”

The Linktree created by Rice Mutual Aid lists both resources organized by Rice Mutual Aid, such as the spreadsheet of resources, the emergency Venmo for monetary requests and the Facebook group for larger aid requests, and compiles others created by different departments on campus, including the guest swipe meal sharing program created last semester in a collaboration between the Student Association, Student Success Initiatives and Housing and Dining. Tallapragada said that Rice Mutual Aid is trying to publicize the guest swipe meal sharing program.

Tallapragada said she communicated with student leaders of mutual aid networks at other college campuses including Georgetown University, Duke University and Middlebury College for support in developing a network for Rice. 

“I asked for the student leaders’ advice and what they found or learned and what philosophies they were building their mutual aid network upon,” Tallapragada said. “There’s been a lot of cross-university communication about best practices, for example with regards to transparency, as well as the principles that we all want to adhere to as our organizations grow.

According to Nguyen, one of these initiatives is to organize a town hall for FGLI students.

“We’re trying to work on a town hall to present to FGLI students and potentially the Questbridge Scholars Chapter at Rice to see if we can get more input and more feedback from people who have gone through adversity and challenges during COVID-19,” Nguyen said. “We feel like that will best inform what we can do to help maintain a community.” 

According to Tallapragada, people have already benefited from the network’s resources and hopes greater awareness will allow more people to benefit. Within the first few days of its creation, the organization utilized its social media following to promote personal fundraisers for Rice students. 

“We really hope that we’re able to get our funds up and running via the donations from the community because we think that’s gonna be a very impactful way to help people in emergency situations.” 

Tallapragada said that she hopes to continue with the mutual aid network as a long-term resource even after the pandemic ends. The need the network aims to address is not unique to the pandemic, according to Tallapragada. 

“The effects of the pandemic are going to ripple outwards for a very long time in many individuals with regards to their families and situations and to our wider Rice community,” Tallapragada said.

Tallapragada said that Rice Mutual Aid organizers are happy with the organization’s growth so far.

“We’re quite pleased with how it’s going right now and we’re really enjoying support from the student body,” Tallapragada said. “We definitely would like to grow that support so that we can push forward with a lot of the initiatives that we’re excited about.”

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