Financially Distressed Students Benefit from Drexel Dean’s Comedy

College of Nursing and Health Professions Dean Gloria Donnelly during her first comedy performance in 2010.
College of Nursing and Health Professions Dean Gloria Donnelly during her first comedy performance in 2010.

Comedians often say that life’s most difficult moments yield the funniest bits. It’s fitting, then, that a comedy show would benefit the Drexel students struggling with the stress and anxiety of financial issues.

For the second time, Gloria Donnelly, PhD, dean of Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, will perform a comedy benefit show for the Dean’s Student Emergency Fund. The show will take place from 6–9 p.m. June 22 at the New College Building in Center City.

The fund was officially established roughly six years ago to financially support students with short-term emergencies.

“We have many situations where students need a little help,” Donnelly said. “It’s not for tuition, but it’s more about students whose fathers or mothers may have had a medical emergency and now the student can’t pay rent or for books. We even helped out one student who  resorted to living in her car.”

One particular student inspired the fund’s creation.

“I always used to see this student sitting in the library. He was a nursing student, a nice young man, and he was always there,” Donnelly recalled. “One day, I thought, ‘Why don’t I tell him how much I admire him for studying all the time?’”

When Donnelly talked to the student, she got a reaction she was not expecting.

“He got very teary and said, ‘I come here to the library because I can’t afford books.’ The required course texts were all in the reference section, so he couldn’t check them out and had to study them there,” Donnelly explained. “So I went back across the street to my office, got the desk copies and made sure they were delivered to the student.”

Immediately, Donnelly and Laura Valenti, then associate vice president of development and marketing at the college, came up with the idea for the emergency fund. The idea for a comedy show as a fundraiser came soon after.

That show, “The Quest for Physical Perfection,” was Donnelly’s first-ever stand-up appearance. A regular Saturday Night Live-viewer and fan of Borscht Belt comedians, Donnelly wrote all of her material for the show, which detailed the trials and tribulations of exercise and pursuing personal fitness. 

Donnelly during her first performance in 2010, "Quest for Physical Perfection."

This year, along with two skits featuring guest Drexel faculty and staff, Donnelly will perform a “sequel” to her first show, titled “The Quest for Psychic Perfection.”

“The most important thing is that we have the goal of raising as much money for the emergency fund as we can,” Donnelly said.

Her first appearance raised $65,000 for the fund. Of that, $30,000 went into an endowment to keep the fund viable for years to come, and the rest went toward students like the one Donnelly originally met in the library and a recent graduate, Alexis Burns.

A 2014 graduate of the registered nurse program, Burns, like most students who benefit from the fund, would never have raised any suspicion that she was struggling. 

“I was very involved and active on campus at a lot of different events,” Burns said. “I don’t think someone would think of me, being so active and on top of my school work, as having financial issues. But, nope, I totally did.”

Burns’ parents were limited in helping out. At the time, her mother worked three jobs and her father was unemployed. Burns worked two jobs — one in the University’s Student Life office, and the other waitressing at a local restaurant — in addition to her regular nursing schoolwork. On top of that, she worked with the Student Nurses’ Association of Pennsylvania (SNAP).

“It was my sophomore year, toward the end of my spring term, going into the summer term. I realized I wouldn’t have enough money for rent,” Burns said. “I wanted to continue my work at SNAP because I really loved it. But I would have to take another job waitressing to pay for rent and I wouldn’t be able to continue with SNAP.”

One of Burns’ professors, Alecia Fox, suggested that she look into the Dean’s Emergency Fund. Although Burns said she normally wouldn’t reach out like that, she tried. And not long later, she found out that she’d get the assistance she needed.

“I was unbelievably overwhelmed,” Burns remembered. “I remember calling my mom up on the phone. I was just so happy that I’d be able to continue my responsibilities at SNAP.”

Burns went on to become president of SNAP, graduate from Drexel and get a job at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, things she might not have been able to accomplish without help from the fund.

“Going into college, I heard that sometimes you’re just another number,” Burns said. “But this felt like somebody cared. They understand why you’re going to school, why you’re doing extracurricular activities. They understood, and it was just such a relief.” 

For full information on “Stand Up for Students” with Gloria Donnelly, check out the show’s page.