After WU housing shutters for rest of semester, students struggle for answers, financial security
While many Washington University students were mourning lost time with friends and inaccessible personal belongings, others were frantically scrambling to find replacements for housing, food and other resources that had previously been provided by the University following the March 11 announcement that undergraduate students should complete the semester at their permanent residence.
For low-income students who relied on campus jobs to pay rent, students without any other residence to go to on such short notice and international students for whom going home was a great financial strain or logistical impossibility, many said the announcement caused panic and confusion.
The University’s COVID-19 FAQ page stated that students would receive a prorated reimbursement for housing and dining fees, but during the first several days after the initial announcement, the University provided very little guidance for those who could not afford last minute plane tickets or did not have safe and stable non-University housing to return to.
“For some of the people going home, their parents weren’t expecting to have another mouth to feed—they might not have room for them. Some people have to find new housing here. It’s putting a big burden on those of us coming from low income families,” senior Zoë Dickerson said.
The only “approved housing resources” listed on the FAQ page were Drury Inn and Chase Park Plaza, promoted as locations that were offering discounts to Washington University students.
A representative for Drury Inn’s Brentwood location confirmed that the discount was $10.00 per night, bringing the total cost for one adult to $119.99 per night, as of March 13.
A representative for Chase Park Plaza was unable to provide a discount on the nightly cost of $179 for one adult, but said that University students could receive $20 towards self-parking or valet.
“That’s just another example of Wash. U. putting policies in place that are for show rather than to adequately help those they are intended for…,” sophomore Helen Webley-Brown said. “Wash. U. housing is expensive as it is, so to take it away and give expensive alternatives just adds salt to the wound.”
In a phone call with Student Life, Dean of Students Rob Wild said that the March 15 move-out date had been selected to give students “ample time” to make travel plans. Many students—especially those without the financial means to leave their University housing—felt like it was nowhere near enough.
“Immediately with the announcement there were a lot of things uncertain. It seemed like a lot of ‘call this number to get an answer,’” junior Maddie Alburtus said. “But especially with [Student Financial Services (SFS)], they didn’t have those answers yet.”
This lack of answers proved to be a common theme among panicked students trying to figure out what to do.
“I do believe Wash. U. is taking effective measures to prevent the community spread of COVID-19,” sophomore Ramadan Ibrahim said. “But I also believe that it’s being extremely poorly executed. SFS has no idea what’s going on. [The Office for International Students and Scholars (OISS)] has no idea what’s going on… No one knows what’s going on.”
Beyond the initial pressure of moving out, the closing of campus put considerable strain on students who rely on income from on-campus jobs. Dickerson received an email from their supervisor at the Earth and Planetary Science Library saying that they would not be able to work for the remainder of the semester.
“That’s a problem, because that’s my main form of income to pay for bills, for food, for all that important stuff,” Dickerson said.
The FAQ page addresses the issue of lost income by directing students to call SFS, adding that University students “are always welcome to utilize the services provided by the career center.”
When Dickerson called SFS, they were told that the office would not have answers until the following week.
“We’re all very worried and we have questions and right now because no one knows anything we’re just sitting here, not knowing what to do,” Dickerson said. “And the people in the administration that we’re supposed to call to for help also don’t know what to do because they haven’t figured things out yet.”
Webley-Brown, who usually works on campus for 12 hours per week, also called the SFS hotline to ask what was in place to help her recover lost earnings.
“They kept repeating that they don’t know at this time,” she said. “I understand that this is a crazy, unique situation, but we’re talking about people’s lives, whether they have a roof over their head and food to eat. To not provide any emergency financial support or affordable housing puts already vulnerable [students] further at risk.”
The Office of Residential Life announced plans to ship essential items such as medication, travel documents and laptops to students “as close to March 23 as possible, ” though potentially later for international addresses. In the meantime, according to the COVID-19 FAQ page, students should contact their primary care providers for medical needs.
Van Horn pointed out that not all students have or can afford to go to a primary care provider to replace lost resources.
“There have been a lot of empty responses from the University regarding students from low income backgrounds,” she said. “They’ve claimed to commit to socioeconomic diversity, but honestly, committing to socioeconomic diversity is absolutely meaningless if your policies continue to be enacted at the expense of students from low income backgrounds…we need to understand that the lack of support for students from low income backgrounds in this situation is a small part of a larger problem.”
While the administration’s initial response was deemed by some to be insufficient, the response from students was swift and thorough. Alburtus posted on Facebook and Twitter offering to help students find housing and food, while sophomore Elizabeth Van Horn worked to coordinate transportation.
Working with Alburtus, Van Horn and others, recent graduate Luka Cai started a spreadsheet “in hopes of connecting students looking for resources with those who have the capacity to offer them, and also to encourage the Wash. U. community to come together in times of need and potential panic like this,” Cai said.
“A lot of my friends are personally struggling with the housing closures, especially queer and trans friends who don’t have a safe home to go back to,” they added.
Within hours of Chancellor Andrew Martin’s email, students and community members had compiled dozens of options for housing, food, transportation, storage, jobs, mental health resources and other forms of support.
“There’s been a very good amount of people responding and offering up resources, which is honestly amazing,” Van Horn said. “I truly believe that students supporting each other is the best way to build a strong community, especially when our University’s policies continue to threaten the safety of our own community.”
Several of the housing offers extend through the end of the semester, or as long as needed.
“I’ve talked to several students who are using resources from the spreadsheet, and a lot of them were just being overwhelmed and scared and anxious, because this is a big overwhelming situation,” Alburtus said. “While ideally we’d be looking to the University to handle the problems that are coming up, just knowing that that’s been there as a safety net has been important.”
As classes will continue online, tuition for the semester will not be reimbursed. Reimbursements for housing and dining fees will be issued beginning in April, and the University has not yet indicated whether or not things such as the student activities fee will be wholly or partially refunded.
“I’m hoping that the University will offer low income students some money to help offset the burden, and not just offer us more loans—I think that’s the biggest worry, that they’re just going to tell us to take out loans so we can live for the rest of the semester,” Dickerson said.
Graduate student Xan Stoddard said that he had already contacted the University to request a refund of his student activities fee, pointing out that many of the events it would’ve been used for, such as WILD, will no longer be happening.
“It’s just not fair for the University to collect those funds and not deliver,” Stoddard said. “There really should have been more details about the compensation and the way that students will be relieved financially, but very little has been said, and that’s appalling to me.”
The closure of campus housing put international students under the additional pressure of deciding whether or not to remain in the United States, a choice with major financial implications.
“I don’t have any home inside of America. I don’t have any relatives inside of America,” Ibrahim said. “[But] going back home is extremely hard because of the flight expenses—because of everything. Hearing the chancellor say ‘go back to your permanent residence’…did not acknowledge that international students are going to struggle through this and that we need extra support and that there are a lot of different problems that we’re going to face.”
If Ibrahim were to return to his home in Egypt, the eight hour time difference and lack of high speed internet access would be significant barriers to successfully completing online classes, he said.
Additionally, Ibrahim feared that leaving the United States would put him at risk of losing his F-1 visa, which requires full-time enrollment at an academic institution. Not only would getting a new visa be expensive and time consuming, Ibrahim said he could not even be certain that he would be able to obtain one.
In an email to international students on F-1 visa status, March 12, OISS Associate Director Martha Lynn Turner warned students of potential difficulties with reentering the country, highlighting the growing list of countries with travel restrictions.
“Please consider your choice to remain in the U.S. or travel to another country during this time,” she wrote.
Although his late stay request was ultimately approved, remaining on campus long term will not be without challenges for Ibrahim. Ibrahim said the University has provided very little information on what resources will be available to students on campus for the remainder of the semester.
“As a low-income international student, Wash. U.’s dining services are my only source of food,” Ibrahim said. “When Wash. U. says there are going to be limited to no food sources on campus for the rest of the semester, this is just me hearing ‘you’re not getting any food.’”
When he asked University officials about what the limited dining services would entail, Ibrahim was told that they were working on the problem but did not know what would happen.
“A lot of international students and a lot of low income students are facing the exact same problems that I’m facing right now,” Ibrahim said.
Whether they are on or off campus, sophomore Stephanie Ren pointed out that many students will have to grapple with a sudden lack of access to medical and mental health services, as well as losing a social support system. The loss of these resources will be felt especially keenly in a time of such great uncertainty.
“It’s isolating to be so far away from my parents in China, and while I am grateful to be staying with someone else, it has been really stressful trying to figure out where to go and what I’m going to do,” Ren said. “Not knowing what your life is about to look like can be really difficult, and at the same time we’re losing these fallback resources.”
Dickerson also emphasized the uncertainty surrounding their situation.
“Are we going to be able to use mental health services at the health center? I have medicine to pick up [from Habif]—am I still going to be able to get my medicine? And I’m one of the people who utilizes the Mental Health Fund through the Office of Student Success—is that still going to happen? There are a lot of unknowns,” Dickerson said.
The WashU Undergraduate and Graduate Workers Union (WUGWU) wrote a letter urging University administration to ensure that their policies supported low income students, students with precarious housing situations, international students and students with limited resources.
“Of course, the University needs to be engaging in the social distancing that the research says is what’s most effective in stopping the spread of the coronavirus right now,” WUGWU Executive Chair Trent McDonald said. “However, we always need to make sure that the most vulnerable people—our low income student population, student worker population, international student worker population—are being taken care of, and we didn’t see that in the responses that we were getting emailed.”
The letter called on the administration to provide outstanding work-study funds as grants, ensure that hourly workers receive unlimited paid sick time and fully cover the cost of COVID-19 testing, treatment and vaccination. It also asked the University to reimburse students for travel expenses, storage costs, school-specific activities fees and rent for those displaced from University housing. As of March 15, it had been signed by more than 800 students.
“If anyone was receiving mental health services and now they’re not, Wash. U. should be connecting them with a mental health services provider outside of Wash. U.,” Ibrahim said. “If a student is on a lot of medications, and they can’t pay for medications now because of the many expenses a lot of students will have to bear in the next month and a half, Wash. U. has the responsibility to help them with that.”