On March 11, President Michael Roth ’78 announced in an all-campus email that the University would be moving to remote learning to curb the spread of COVID-19. The announcement halted spring break plans, urging students to begin packing up their belongings to move out. But for many students, Wesleyan was not only a home away from home, but their only home. First generation and low-income (FGLI) students were especially concerned over campus’s closing, as their housing, means of income, and in-state insurance had suddenly slipped out from underneath them.
“I had been tracking other school closures, so at first, it wasn’t a huge surprise,” Melisa Olgun ’20 wrote in an email to The Argus. “I had been in contact with friends, as well as the Wesleying editors group, and we essentially knew that Wes was going to close. During the weird purgatory where I knew that Wes was closing before campus, I began calculating how much money I would have been making for the rest of the semester. It sucks to think of it like that, but I have loans to pay post-grad, and I’ve been saving money from my paychecks this year to go towards slowly paying them off. So, the first thing I thought was, ‘Well, it looks like I’m unemployed now.’”
“My reaction was just immediate anxiety because of all the responsibilities I have at home,” former 200 Church Resident Advisor Margarita Fuentes ’21 said in a message. When she’s not living on campus, Fuentes pays the bills using her ResLife income.
For other FGLI students, campus’s closing means losing a meaningful, supportive community. One of the leaders of SPECTRUM, a group for LGBTQ+ people of color, mourned the cancellation of their Pride Week in April.
“I am really sad that SPECTRUM will not be able to host Pride Week this year,” Ricardo Vega ’21 shared in a message. “We worked really hard to prepare for it all year and we were excited to bring together QPOC in community. Hopefully, we will be able to reschedule for early next year.”
Connor Barajas ’21, House Manager of Open House, pointed out that for many LGBTQ+ students, “home” can be a less welcoming space than Wesleyan.
“I became the HM of Open [House] this semester and I had so many plans for it, so it’s a shame it won’t be able to happen,” Barajas wrote in a message to The Argus. “The house is so close together so I know we’re all going to miss each other because we created like our own little family, which I know is a little cheesy and cliché but it is true. Most of us are just trying to be there for each other especially because during times like these, some of us don’t have homes to go to because of our sexualities or identities or even because financial reasons, so being removed from these communities we created is rough. We’re all just trying to cope in the best way we can.”
For Barajas, leaving campus would also jeopardize medical care, as he would need to find a new doctor to monitor and prescribe his ongoing hormone therapy.
The University also announced that students could petition to stay on campus, continuing their meal plan, but offered no guarantee as to how many students would be accepted. Even with this option, many students found the decision to stay on campus or go elsewhere increasingly fraught.
If they decided to leave, they would receive a potentially life-changing amount of money in the refund for the Residential Comprehensive Fee, more commonly known as room and board. Though the exact amount hasn’t been determined yet, administrators have suggested up to half of the second semester’s fee, which would be $4,450 for juniors and seniors. But moving off campus would also mean facing housing and work instability. Petitions are being approved on a rolling basis; Olgun’s petition has been approved, but she’s on the fence about whether to take the refund or stay.
“I have a lot of logistical things to handle if I’m home – like getting my own desk and dedicated study space – and I don’t want to be a financial burden right now especially when jobs are so uncertain,” Olgun wrote. “I’m trying to figure out what to do with my loans – they’re not a huge sum, but I’m perpetually worried about them.”
As the University continues to revise their policies to accommodate students and the ever-changing threat of COVID-19, several official and unofficial forms of aid have emerged for at-risk students. The University Finance Office has established a separate emergency fund with Dean Mike Whaley to help students with the costs that come with moving out, and the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) is creating its own relief fund of $80,000 for petitions that have been rejected by the office’s emergency fund. Campus group Wesleyan for Bernie publicized a mutual aid spreadsheet created by Anna Tjeltveit ’23 to provide vulnerable students, including international students unable to return home, with various immediate accommodations.
On March 14, the Resource Center also sent out an email calling for donations of food, clothing, toiletries, books, and kitchen supplies. Jessi Russell ’20 and Mya Valentin ’19 have also created a GoFundMe to support over 200 FGLI students who said that they needed relief. An advisory board of first-generation and low-income students will be distributing the first round of donations on March 23rd. As of Wednesday, March 18, the GoFundMe campaign has reached over $175,000 of its $950,000 goal, including $100,000 donated by the WSA, and are hoping to raise $200,000 by March 23rd.
“What the university is trying to provide is short term, immediate relief, and while that is absolutely necessary, it is also necessary to recognize that this is an emergency situation, and it’s a crisis situation, and it’s going to last past these two months for a lot of people, particularly our high-need students, and so it is our goal to kind of ameliorate the recurring costs,” Russell said during a WSA meeting on Tuesday night. “So people’s utility bills, people’s rent, people’s medicines, routine medical expenses—things that, in many ways, the University cannot provide, because they have the restrictions of being an institution, whereas we don’t. We are a community, and we come from a community.”
The GoFundMe came out of conversations between Russell, Valentin, and Resource Center Director Demetrius Colvin. Colvin expanded on the GoFundMe’s progress since its launch.
“There has been an outpouring of support through physical donations of the above resources and to the GoFundMe page,” Colvin wrote in an email to The Argus. “While I am encouraged by the support given thus far (largely from students who are leaving campus this week), I am more concerned about keeping that donating energy up a month from now when we are further along in this crisis. More than anything I believe most students are concerned about how they will live over the next couple of months and what kind of arrangements and sacrifices they may need to make in order to get by.”
Above all, many FGLI students have found support from each other in these uncertain times.
“Honestly, it’s been amazing how much the FGLI/international community at Wes has been supporting each other, whether it be through financial means or emotional support,” Vega said. “It’s a really tough time for a lot of us, so I’m really grateful for all the student care and support that is keeping a lot of us afloat right now. I encourage people (especially more financially privileged people) to continue reaching out to their FGLI/international peers.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that Wesleyan for Bernie created the mutual aid spreadsheet. WesforBernie publicized the sheet, but Anna Tjeltveit ’23 created it independently from any student groups.
Brooke Kushwaha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.