On Tuesday morning, the president of Harvard University sent the community an email asking students to leave campus by this Sunday, March 15. Like a rapidly growing number of universities, Harvard is planning to hold classes online for the rest of the semester in order to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. Although no students or staff at the Cambridge, MA, school have tested positive for the disease, the pandemic has already affected over 100,000 worldwide, and at least 95 people in Massachusetts alone.
For Harvard attendees like Tania, a junior who is undocumented and a first-generation college student, packing up their lives and going home — if they even have a home — is not as easy as it is for their more privileged peers. Tania had $7 in her bank account when she saw the email from Harvard. “Essentially the school gave us five days to move out of our dorms without providing information of financial aid for flights, storage, or about what happens if people can’t go home because of tough circumstances,” Tania, who prefers not to give her last name, told Refinery29. “So having to deal with renewing my DACA, storing and shipping my stuff, and trying to make credit card and bill payments has been extremely difficult.”
Since the initial email, Harvard has offered more ways to help students who are struggling. “Please know the College is working hard to support you and respond to the needs of our community in the midst of this rapidly evolving situation,” the Dean wrote in an email last night, provided to Refinery29 by the school’s media-relations department. The school is offering students on financial aid a $200 credit toward shipping or storing their items, something that was not originally an option. On its coronavirus FAQ website, Harvard suggests students contact the financial aid office if they cannot afford a trip home. The school says it will pro-rate room and board charges for students who move out. Harvard senior Carrington Walsh recently told CNN that financial aid officers have been buying flights home for students who needed it.
Overall, however, there is still plenty of confusion and financial uncertainty, and definitely not just at Harvard. Many students around the country, including those who are homeless and who are LGBTQ+ and do not feel safe at home with their families, view their campus as a safe haven, and now they must leave. It’s a lot to deal with on top of already freaking out about a global pandemic. Many students have had no choice but to turn to crowdfunding and “Venmo-boosting” efforts on social media. Similar to how some people launch GoFundMes to pay their medical bills, these efforts feel, frankly, dystopian as fuck — particularly given the large endowments of some of the elite schools — but it's helping for the time being, a crowdfunding Band-Aid over one of society’s many bullet holes.
“Many people, mostly strangers, sent me money no questions asked, while the school continually showed that [first-generation, low-income] and international students are an afterthought to them,” Tania said. “Because of the crowdfunding, though, I’ve been able to make my bill payments, cover flight costs and storage costs. But looking toward the future and not knowing whether I will have a job, or be able to complete assignments because of lack of resources, is what’s weighing most heavily on my mind. I just hope we can all continue to help each other as a community.”
At Yale University, junior Meghanlata Gupta said she’s worried about losing the income from her campus jobs. While Yale has also provided students with an extensive “what if” FAQ, many situations aren’t on it. “It definitely feels stressful in the sense that I’m unsure of what my four campus jobs will look like,” Gupta, who says she gets substantial financial aid from the university, told Refinery29. “One of them I can do remotely, but I’m worried about losing the weekly payments from working on campus. I’m worried about the loss of income.”
Rather than going online for the rest of the semester, some schools are employing a wait-and-see method. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) has asked students to move out of residence halls and canceled or postponed all events until at least April 5. But campus buildings remain open, and there is a potential for students to come back to campus after two weeks of online instruction starting March 23. Maryland has 12 recorded cases of coronavirus, far fewer than Massachusetts. Anjali DasSarma, a junior and the opinions editor for The Retriever, UMBC’s student newspaper, sat with the school’s administration for over an hour last night trying to get answers to students’ most common questions. She also facilitated the release of the school’s coronavirus plan through a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request.
There is no information yet about refunding housing or meal plans, which is frustrating, DasSarma told Refinery29. “Everyone is very confused. One of the biggest questions is, if we’re going to be gone for two weeks, or even longer, why are we paying for housing and meal plans if we’re not living there? They weren’t able to give me an answer, and students are concerned.”
Politicians have taken notice of these problems, and are starting to help out. Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, responding to a Harvard student’s Twitter thread on the subject, said to contact her office for help. Julia Mejia, a Boston city councillor, after hearing from students who work in her office, posted a tweet asking those who are struggling to find housing to get in touch for help. She says her office is currently looking to assemble resources. She also offered a Google doc for students to record their experiences so she can better understand what they need.
“A lot of times, when you're 18 years old, many students are leaving homes that were never fit for them to be in, so having a roof over their head provides a level of comfort that coronavirus has completely disrupted,” Mejia told Refinery29. Her office is working on matching students with homes and volunteers.
There are many other ad hoc efforts underway that have sprung up in response to this stressful time. Harvard FGLI (first-generation, low-income) students have taken matters into their own hands and set up a detailed resource guide. Harvard and MIT alumni are crowdfunding for students’ needs. Activists and media personalities like Brittany Packnett are sending out tweets that have turned viral asking to gather resources for students. Venmo-boosting threads are everywhere, too.
These realities fly in the face of commonly held stereotypes that students at elite schools are all rich or upper-middle class. At Harvard, for example, 55% of students receive need-based aid and 20% of Harvard parents have total incomes of less than $65,000 a year, at which point the students get full scholarships. “Millions of college students were facing food and/or housing insecurity before COVID-19 hit,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, the founding director of the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University, who studies inequality and higher education, told The Washington Post. “Dropping out over a financial shortfall as small as $500 was already too common. This pandemic is making things far worse, and I’m deeply concerned that most campuses are utterly unprepared to address students’ basic needs.”
If there are any upsides to this confusing, stressful, and at times dehumanizing situation, it’s that it’s bringing communities together in ways that feel unfamiliar, but welcome, to our individualistic society.
“We're going back to the way things used to be, when people actually worked together, when community was real community, when people were opening up their hearts to others,” Mejia said. “This is the silver lining to it all.”
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the CDC website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.