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So far, over 85 colleges and universities across the country have announced campus closures for the past two weeks, in a bid to limit the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. In some cases this has meant transitioning all classes into online learning. In other cases, it has meant a hard deadline for students to move out of their dorms. In many cases, forced evacuations are happening at the same time as finals. Students have had to deal with the chaos, sometimes with limited support from their administrators. We asked students from campuses across the country to weigh in on their experiences as the country shifts to accommodate what has been officially declared a national emergency.
Over the past two weeks at MIT, days have blurred together. It’s hard to remember a moment when I didn’t feel like I was constantly gasping for air. The university is sending a mass emergency text to all students every day, causing me to dread opening my phone. Will it just be a perfunctory reminder to stay off campus? Or will the pit in my stomach drop even further?
MIT’s response to COVID-19 started with a notice on March 5 that suspended international travel and canceled all events over 150 people in size. Some undergraduates tried to convince themselves that there was some wiggle room to this announcement, but it was clear that in the interest of public health, drastic action was needed, especially when we heard that the Cambridge-based biotech company Biogen had held a meeting that prompted an infection breakout. Biogen’s headquarters is just a few blocks from MIT’s campus. We all knew that it was only a matter of time before the coronavirus came to MIT.
On March 10, we woke up to the news that Harvard had closed and was kicking out all of its students. Combined with the discovery that a visitor to MIT’s business school had tested positive, everyone knew that it was inevitable that MIT would follow suit, and rumors spread. By 11 am, leaked conference calls and e-mails confirmed the closure. It was just a matter of waiting. In one conversation with a friend, she told me, “What am I supposed to do in that case? Move back to China?”
No one did any work in my lab. Instead, we tried to anticipate what would happen. If undergraduate dorms were evacuated, would graduate dorms? Would we still be allowed to do research? My undergraduate researcher came by to try and work because, she said, “It was better to freak out here than with the other undergrads right now.” Students, desperate for any sort of outlet for their fear and confusion, started an impromptu party on the main courtyard of campus. Meanwhile, we watched in horror as Massachusetts declared a state of emergency as the number of cases spiked, mostly from the Biogen meeting.
Finally, at 5 pm., the tension broke. I learned that MIT had sent its official e-mail out from the sounds of people in an undergraduate dorm yelling loud enough to be heard from my lab building. Undergrads must leave MIT by Tuesday, March 17. Classes were still on for the week. No one was happy, but, given the state of emergency, everyone understood that this was necessary. After all, the most vulnerable people would be allowed to stay on campus, right?
However, the next day, as I helped my friend move out, I saw that wasn’t the case. At the dorm, I saw chaos. Students were given only two boxes to pack their entire room, leaving them to scavenge boxes from janitorial closets or beg alumni to help buy more. The entire hallway was filled with clutter as people sadly passed rolls of packing tape between rooms. When I was leaving, a friend told me that her exemption had been denied—and she had told the administration that all of her family lived in China. I compiled more denied exemptions into a spreadsheet. Some people received exemptions for being from China or Hong Kong, but many more had not and didn’t know why. Others were denied, despite having immunocompromised or homophobic family members. The administrative response was also particularly cruel, telling people to “think creatively” or to hire a locksmith to break into their house with no gas or electricity.
In response, students planned a sit-in protest the next morning. Organizers cut 6-foot-long pieces of string to ensure CDC-recommended distancing between protesters. Masks and individually wrapped sandwiches were distributed, and many reporters came by to talk to us. Over the course of the eight-hour protest, 12 departments reached out to me, expressing their support for the students and assuring us that they would push back. Thanks to everyone’s combined efforts, we were able to convince the administration to go from a 50 percent denial rate to a 6 percent denial rate of exemptions.
Although the exemption situation is now mostly resolved, with many students’ now having moved out by the accelerated deadline, a distinct bitterness lingers in the air. MIT kept up its donation campaign throughout the moving-out process, claiming to be taking donations to support students, while literally evicting the most disadvantaged students. The chair of the Committee on Student Life claimed that the protest was “the first time we’ve heard about students being unhappy or having challenges” with the moving-out process, to which the entire crowd of protesters responded by laughing. As more colleges follow MIT’s lead, I and other MIT students desperately hope that those administrators show a greater amount of care and compassion than they did here.
—Lilly Chin, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
When I was a child, I dreamed of going to Harvard. Every poor kid did. It was such an unobtainable thing, like going to the moon, or becoming the president, that it seemed right to mix it in with the overly ambitious dreams that all children have. But then suddenly it wasn’t a dream anymore. I got the letter. I would be going to Harvard in the fall. Did it matter to me that the average Harvard student was depressed? No. Did it matter to me that I would be surrounded by kids of wealth and privilege, an outsider in a place that I was supposed to belong? No. Did it matter to me that the university notoriously doesn’t care for their undergraduate students? No. But it should have.
On Tuesday, March 10, at 8:29 am, Harvard students received an e-mail stating that we would soon be transitioning to online classes, and that students who leave for spring break would not be allowed to come back. Students who wanted to stay should be prepared for limited interactions. This was not shocking. Princeton and Columbia had made this same decision a few days before. Twenty-one minutes later, at 8:50 am, we received another e-mail, this one contradicting the first: now all students would be required to move out of the dorms by Sunday at 5 pm. There would be no subsidies for flights, shipping, or storage. Only students from countries with level-3 travel bans would be allowed to stay. No other exceptions would be made. On top of this, classes would continue as usual. Exams were still on.
If it sounds dramatic, that’s because it is. It is totally reasonable for Harvard to tell their students to leave. It might even be a good thing: As of March 11, two students have been quarantined and tested for coronavirus. If done in another way, it might even seem compassionate to send students home in such a time of fear. But this felt anything but compassionate.
I was in the center of campus when the announcement hit our inboxes. Everyone suddenly started walking very slowly, absorbed by the message on their phone. A girl to my left burst out in tears. Students started looking around at each other in disbelief. Had we been pranked? Why would they send an e-mail twenty minutes after another one with a different plan? Did we still have to go to class? Who would pay for all of this? I have never seen such hopeless panic on so many faces at once.
The e-mail said to call the financial aid office for assistance, but I received an automated message saying the office was on winter break. When they finally started answering, they told students that assistance with their flight would come out of next year’s financial aid. I had just enough money left from my stipend earlier in the year to pay for my ticket, which was more than $500. That hurt worse than the news that I would have to move out. On top of that, I’m losing my campus job. I won’t be making that money back for a while. I asked my mother if she could drive and come get me, but she lives so far away—there wasn’t enough time.
Not everyone at Harvard is rich. My mother lives in a homeless shelter. Never mind not knowing where to go, I now had a new question: How do I get there with all my stuff? Compared to most students, I don’t have a lot. I came with two suitcases and a box, but my possessions have gradually increased since then. You see, we were promised as incoming freshman that once we were sorted into upperclassmen housing, there would be storage for the summer. Instead, now we were being told that no one, not even among the upperclassmen, was allowed to use the storage. The only way to get to the nearest storage facility is by car, something that freshmen aren’t allowed to have. The nearest post office is more than half a mile away, which doesn’t seem like a lot until you have to walk it with a box carrying the weight of all your possessions. Even if you did want to store or ship something, every store near campus was sold out of boxes. The only students who would be able to take everything they owned had parents who could drive or fly up.
Maybe worst of all is that we still have classes this week. Not even just normal classes: it’s midterms week. Homework is still due on time. Classes are still to be attended. Not only are we supposed to go to class as normal, do our homework as usual; we’re also supposed to pack up everything we own—in five days.
Wednesday night, a new e-mail was sent out. Storage would now be available. Students on financial aid would receive $200 to either mail their items or leave them packed in boxes in their rooms, where they would be put in storage by a company that will pick them up from our dorms. For storage, $200 is about three boxes worth. This was the biggest relief yet. Three boxes doesn’t sound like a lot, but most of us were planning to just throw away everything we didn’t absolutely need.
They say that your true colors get displayed in times of crisis. Harvard really showed how little they care for their students that don’t have resources of their own, and it’s something we won’t forget soon.
—A student from Harvard University
who would prefer to remain anonymous,
fearing repercussions from administrators.
I’m originally from Turkey and have been studying in New York City since 2016. When the coronavirus first came about, I was worried about what the school was going to do. Every morning the number of cases rose, but every time I looked at the CUNY site it would say, “Don’t panic, the risk of New Yorkers getting the virus is very low.” This did not make me feel more comfortable. I e-mailed my professors, asking about their plans if classes were canceled. All of my professors responded quickly and effectively; they all had their plan set up and they were ready. I e-mailed them my concerns about having a grandma with health issues at home, and coming from Westchester County, which has one of the largest hot spots for the coronavirus in the country.
Meanwhile, CUNY advised us not to take the subway or public transportation. However, CUNY includes some the biggest commuter schools in the country, and it’s impossible not to take public transportation to schools. My daily train takes 40 minutes to the city then another 15-minute subway ride.
Waiting to get news from the school was frustrating. On a day I had class, the town next to me, New Rochelle, was declared a “contaminated zone.” Yet class attendance was mandatory. Though the school had yet to put out a unified statement, my professors individually were helpful, some telling me that if didn’t feel safe, then I shouldn’t have to come in. It wouldn’t affect my grade. My political science professor canceled two of his classes before CUNY did so for the whole campus. During this time, our professors really helped us by being transparent and communicative.
When we didn’t get any news from CUNY, we decided to take action on Twitter. This felt important—simply knowing our voices were being heard mattered a lot to us. So when private colleges started switching to online classes and the only response from CUNY was, more or less, that we should wash out hands, we students became angry. So we started to tweet the CUNY president. It went on for two days, until Governor Cuomo announced that we would be switching to online classes starting March 19 until the end of the spring semester. A lot of the students were worried when they heard “end of the spring semester.” As a student, I wanted it to be only until April 10, and then after spring break we would be able to return to school.
It’s unfortunate because I have many great professors in the school. I was learning so much from them. Switching to online classes is a big adjustment for us and for the professors as well. And while switching to online classes was necessary, the time it took to clearly communicate to students what was happening was was disappointing. We aren’t disappointed by the decision. But we do miss getting to see our professors and our classmates. This is my last semester at Hunter College, and I wouldn’t have wanted it to be this way. But we have no choice but to adjust. I’m sure our professors will do their best to make these online classes feel like a real class environment.
—Kaan Basyurt, CUNY Hunter College
On the night of Tuesday, March 10, Tufts University sent an e-mail to the student body saying that we would need to pack up and leave in six days due to the coronavirus. Panic ensued across campus. How were we supposed to continue classes, pack, process emotions and leave on such short notice? Even now, students petitioning to remain on campus won’t know their fates until two days before we are expected to leave.
I was shocked for the first day and unable to make decisions. I spent a lot of time crying. Although Tufts hasn’t officially cancelled commencement, I have tried to make all my decisions with the idea that I might not be back here in May. Every option felt like the wrong one. Storage units are pricey, shipping things home is pricier. I have a whole life here, and while friends are kind to offer storage, it’s too much to leave everything with one person but too hard to split my belongings up. I don’t even have a car on campus to move things with. Unlike many of my Northeastern peers, I cannot call my mom and dad to help me move out because they live in Florida.
Tufts students have really come together in this time of need. In the first few hours after the announcement, students set up a mutual aid spreadsheet so students and alumni could offer money, food and services to those in need. But everything is moving so quickly, and it’s easy to feel alone and paralyzed.
Tufts switched to online classes without thinking about differences in accessing them. Many of my friends, many of us low-income and first generation, are returning to homes that aren’t built for our university studies. Many of us are going back to small homes with too many people living in them, where we share rooms or sleep on couches. Our busy kitchens and living rooms aren’t ideal to listen to a lecture or take an exam, that’s why we went away to university. This campus is home for many of us. It gives us independence and stability.
As a senior, I am devastated. My goodbyes have been cut short and I’m not sure I’ll get to walk across the stage and collect my degree like I’ve always dreamed. I’ve spent four years building a life here; I didn’t expect it to end so soon.
—Kelsey Narvaez, Tufts University class of 2020
It feels like there are two big health concerns as a result of COVID-19: the coronavirus infection itself, and its impact on mental health and well-being.
Of course, social distancing and staying home are critical, especially for my generation. It is up to all young people to be responsible citizens and limit spreading the infection as much as possible. As such, Stanford’s decision to shift all classes and effectively move all of its work (including research) to be done remotely is wise and responsible. That being said, there are repercussions of this social isolation on our mental health.
Social distancing is harmful when the physical isolation leads to social isolation. Undergraduate students were advised not to come back to campus until further notice. Grad students, on the other hand? No one really knows. For now, we are told to remain on campus; for most of us, our campus residences are our only home. A lot of us have become socially isolated; those of us who live alone might be limited to small studio apartments where we don’t have much interaction with anyone else. The expectation that we would be able to work remotely at the same level of productivity is a big ask. Many of us find our mental health declining, our anxiety and depression exacerbated by the overwhelming news cycle and our own isolation. I wish that universities everywhere, in their efforts to limit the physical harm of COVID-19’s spread, also took students’ mental health just as seriously.
To make up for this lack of support, students on university campuses are self-organizing. At Stanford, a group of graduate students created a community mutual aid spreadsheet, where students offer (and request) financial, housing, health, academic, and emotional support.
Another concern is what will happen to the many Stanford employees—custodial staff, dining hall staff, and others—who are now unable to work. How will Stanford be supporting them, knowing that many of these employees are the main financial supporters of their families?
I am grateful that academic institutions have been stepping up and taking action when the federal government has not; and also, we still have a long way to go. I hope universities continue to rise to the challenge, by providing more support to students as well as staff.
—Leehi Yona, Stanford University
We are feeling overwhelmed and under-resourced. Brown’s administration has left the labor of supporting marginalized students to a small group of professional staff and student leaders. Because of this, it has been difficult to mobilize quickly and effectively around student needs. Immediately after students were given notice about the university shutting down, student leaders mobilized to create support networks and begin providing mutual aid.
For example, Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE) created a database where students are inputting housing, storage, and transportation availabilities that peers can take advantage of. One student is transforming their off-campus home into a soup kitchen and others are donating money, food, and cooking supplies to aid in lessening food insecurity as students make their new transitions. Currently, Project LETS (Let’s Erase the Stigma), a grassroots organization built by and for mentally ill, disabled, and/or neurodivergent students is facilitating a number of trauma-informed mutual aid efforts to ensure that vulnerable students are getting the resources and support that they need.
As of now, we are hosting daily open hours for students to identify needs and create safety plans, staffing a crisis response hotline to support folks who need urgent attention, and facilitating a webinar to discuss harm reduction in shared communities beyond Brown. Folks working within a disability justice framework have been doing this work for years and want to emphasize how important it is that we learn how to care for each other. We strongly believe that our communities can engage in meaningful and compassionate mutual aid in this time by listening to and learning from disability justice folks who have historically been isolated from state-sanctioned services and resources yet already have pathways forward. We would appreciate any and all of the support that you can give and so we encourage folks to donate to Project LETS at this link!
—Shivani Nishar, Xochi Cartland,
and Noell Cousin, Brown University
While universities across the nation scramble to move online, return their students from abroad, and keep their communities steadily informed about the coronavirus outbreak, international students remain dazed and confused.
International students from across the globe, who’ve left their worlds behind to reap the benefits of a US education, are often sidelined into obscurity when madness envelopes this nation—now, with the highly contagious and fatal COVID-19, obscurity is coupled with real-life danger.
I’ve been a Kuwaiti international student since December 16, 2012, with almost seven years in Colorado and now closing into my eighth in Washington, DC. I’ve seen what political, social and economic distress can do to this country and my counterparts alike.
From March 5 to March 12, I was visiting old friends still studying at my alma mater, the University of Colorado at Boulder. My first night there, over a hearty Lebanese dinner, we shared jokes, memes, and typical cynicism on what our universities would do if the outbreak ensued.
A few days later, on March 10, American University, where I’m a few months short of completing my master’s in journalism and public affairs, released a note by Sylvia M. Burwell, the university’s president: classes to move online after spring break for three weeks.
The next day, the three weeks were pushed until the end of the semester.
That same day, March 11, the International Student and Scholar Services, a university branch handling the community’s international members, which assumedly is a building block in every US university and college, released a special e-mail to us international students:
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is temporarily allowing international students under the circumstances to pursue on-line education while the university’s mode of delivery is online.
I read it aloud to my friends who were waiting on their school to send something similar. Sighs of relief were followed by phone calls to parents back home. Phone calls were followed by confusion; international students are mandated by the F-1 Visa and US immigration to maintain full enrollment—a full online enrollment is a violation worthy of a canceled visa and deportation.
Moreover, the e-mail also read, “The president also strongly encourages enrolled students to return to their homes (or stay if already there) for this period.”
This, in particular, was met with a medley of disappointment, laughter and several flying middle fingers aimed at my laptop where the e-mail was displayed.
“Yeah, sure thing. Just give me a few minutes while I casually cancel my apartment lease, sell my car and pack 6 years’ worth of life,” a friend said, scoffing at the suggestion to leave and calling it “insultingly simple.”
Whether they were my undergraduate Venezuelan friends, having their bank accounts frozen as Maduro and US sanctions made their country’s finances run amok in 2017, or my Muslim Arab kinfolk, who had to vacate their states and transfer when the 2016 presidential election inspired local hostility, international students are a severely neglected demographic.
To international students, the coronavirus is a special kind of ugly. The outbreak muddies the waters of our academic status and throws us off the cliffs of school-related uncertainty onto more dubious terrain: the immigration system.
One friend pointed to the recent deportation of Iranian students with valid student visas, adding, “They could do it to us all if they wanted to.”
“Imagine being sent back when you’re a semester away from graduating,” he said. “In that case, I might as well face this corona hell rather than the depression of spending all these years for nothing.”
—Yousef Alshammar, American University