The Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) passed a resolution ensuring that all University students have the right to housing security on Sunday, Feb. 14. The resolution comes amid student demands to reform Residential Life (ResLife) policies to promote equity in the University’s housing policies. The resolution was introduced by WSA Senator Katelin Penner ’22 after ResLife denied a request for off-campus housing made by Heather Cassell ‘23, Jess Burks, ’23, and Mo Andres ’23—all first-generation, low-income (FGLI) and Questbridge scholars. In response to ResLife, who had said that housing insecurity was not a reason to approve the students’ petition, Cassell, Burks, and Andres organized a campaign entitled #reformResLife.
The WSA resolution acknowledges that students do not universally have access to stable and year-long housing due to housing insecurity, homelessness, lack of out-of-state healthcare access, challenging family situations, and unsafe travel conditions, in addition to the myriad of changing circumstances exacerbated by COVID-19. Furthermore, the resolution validates the trauma that housing instability and insecurity can cause for such students.
“These students should not have had to reveal their life stories to push the University to take any form of action on their cases,” the resolution read. “Wesleyan currently either does not have or is unwilling to utilize resources to provide these students with year-round, safe, dignified housing, and that opening off-campus housing to these students fulfills the dire need of ensuring that all Wesleyan students have access to long-term housing that truly meets all of their needs while also providing these students with a level of stability and security that on campus housing will never give them.”
Penner introduced the resolution to help students who face housing difficulties.
“I just want to specify that those students do not feel like their issues are being/have been resolved,” Penner said during the meeting. “So that’s why we’re introducing this resolution.”
Burks spoke in favor of the resolution at the meeting.
“The exception [to live off campus] that we’re asking for is truly that,” Burks said. “It’s an exception until Wesleyan’s campus residential policy is able to provide security that a typical home base is able to provide. If we’re talking about equity, what we want is to be able to have a home base that we are in control of, that we know the ins and outs of. We want to be able to have a hometown we can build our credit in, that we can have neighbors who don’t change every three months.”
At the meeting, Vice President for Student Affairs Mike Whaley explained ResLife’s efforts to accommodate undergraduates, citing improvements made in their assistance of FGLI and housing insecure students over the course of the pandemic.
“Given the diversity of our housing stock, really what we try to do is we try to accommodate all of our undergraduates to the extent that we are able to do so in on-campus housing,” Whaley said. “For me, this is really an equity issue. I think that being a part of the community, being on campus, is part of the educational experience at Wesleyan, and indeed that’s why Wesleyan has a four-year residency program for students.”
Burks emphasized that not all students are being accommodated by the current system, damaging their experience at the University. While the University provides a place where students can live and study, it is not as permanent as an off-campus residence that can be lived in year-round.
“We’re left between; do we sign a lease for a place where we can establish roots?” Burks said. “We can make this place for ourselves, somewhere that we may be housed, we may have food, but we won’t have a home base, because it’s something that an institution that is so much higher than us has control of? So it’s that autonomy that comes with having a home base that…we are looking for. It’s being able to find something that can’t be met under the current system.”
In response, Director of Residential Life and Associate Dean of Students Fran Koerting defended the University’s progressively independent residential experience as being integral to students’ experience at the University as a whole.
“Students can help shape the experience that they’re having by being residential,” Koerting said. “And the other part is the increasing independence of our housing. If we were to stick you in a residential hall for four years, I would not be comfortable saying that was truly a residential experience for four years. But because you’re allowed to experience…becoming more independent of the four years, I truly believe that the residential experience we offer to students is a real big part of the Wesleyan experience.”
Penner, however, expressed her hope that the resolution will help ResLife rethink some of their policies.
“I hope this resolution will remind ResLife that it is THEIR responsibility to provide housing for all students, and that housing is a basic human right,” Penner wrote in an email to The Argus. “Housing insecure students deserve dignity, not a disjointed process that forces them to recount their trauma to countless administrators.”
Andres argued that the four year residency program is not currently meeting the needs of some housing-insecure students.
“With a mostly fully residential campus, do you think it makes that big of a difference if three students of the 3000 students who go to Wesleyan do live off campus?” Andres asked at the meeting. “The residential experience is made up of just being on campus. I think it comes from the majority of the student body being on campus, and personally, I don’t think the educational experience changes given the distance of a couple blocks.”
Whaley further acknowledged that not all students’ experiences and needs are interchangeable. While a fully residential experience may be best for some students, different circumstances may render the current policy detrimental to others.
“I think that what we’re doing needs to provide support for students in various kinds of circumstances, and also understanding that each case is going to be a little bit different in terms of what the students would like to do,” Whaley said. “We’re going to try to do everything we can to find solutions that will be workable for the variety of solutions that will be presented to us by students based on their different needs.”
Assistant Director of ResLife Kieran Duffy expressed his confidence in the support ResLife extends to University students, specifically those facing housing insecurity.
“While I can’t speak to specific situations of other students, I am confident that opportunities exist on campus to help support students,” Duffy wrote in an email to The Argus. “ResLife is committed to working with and meeting the needs of students experiencing housing insecurity.”
Koerting also said at the meeting that ResLife makes adjustments to housing policy as necessary.
“We meet multiple times a year to make projections [about incoming students]…so we’re always looking at the numbers we need and how to accommodate students,” Koerting said. “We’ve got some flexibility in our housing stock; we’ve got some flexibility with triples and we use it all the time, and we’ve always managed to make it work.”
In this specific situation, however, Burks, Andres, and Cassell were left without the accommodations they requested. To emphasize this, Burks reiterated her point about providing housing security for all students.
“When we’re asking for equity, it’s exactly that,” Burks said. “It’s being able to find something that can’t be met under the current system.”
Duffy underscored that ResLife is working to enhance areas of the office’s operations that need improvement.
“We are always assessing our processes to make them more streamlined and accessible to students, and to improve equity throughout those processes,” Duffy wrote. “I would like to continue this practice, identify areas for improvement, and make strides towards enhancing existing processes…. I am always interested in feedback, especially around the processes that I work with to improve the ResLife experience for students.”
Burks, Andres, and Cassell created The Housing Injustice Mission, a document recording experiences with ResLife and their campaign for more inclusive residency policies. It also encourages students to give feedback to ResLife and the University administration, by contacting Whaley, Dean Jennifer Wood, and Koerting if they have any concerns.
If you have experienced inequality while interacting with ResLife or would like to comment on housing equity, you can reach out to Features Editor Annika Shiffer-Delegard at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Rachel Wachman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.