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Students respond to College COVID-19 plan with frustrations around lack of communication

Petition for “a more comprehensive and inclusive plan” circulates

March 12, 2020

When Lily Tedford ’22 received the news Wednesday morning that she would finish the spring semester remotely, taking her classes online to reduce the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on campus, her first instinct was to drive to Bowdoin with a few extra suitcases.

“I knew it was coming,” said Tedford on Wednesday. “It seemed inevitable, everywhere else was closing. It felt like we were the next domino to fall. I went to bed [on Tuesday] feeling like I would wake up to bad news.”

Tedford drove to campus from her home in South Portland. “I had a job interview this morning in Brunswick for a job that probably doesn’t make sense to have anymore, so I was already coming up, and I put a bunch of suitcases in my car just in case.”

She recognized that her home’s close proximity to campus, and the fact that she has a home to return to, made her fortunate, though she isn’t looking forward to sleeping on a couch for the rest of the semester, which she has to do when she is home.

“I am hoping that for students who don’t have a place to go, the College will figure something out,” she added. “I am very lucky.”

Wednesday morning the College asked students to vacate and empty their rooms by March 18. Just hours later, students began to organize support for more vulnerable members of the community, who face challenges, students claim, that the College hasn’t sufficiently considered in its policies. Since the initial announcement, Bowdoin has changed its policy to allow international students to stay on campus, but other students don’t think the College has done enough to address their concerns.

Concerns from first-generation and low-income students

Frustrated with the lack of support for first generation and low-income (FLI) students, Sulwan Ahmed ’22 and Kaprice Brathwaite ’22 drafted a petition Wednesday to alter Bowdoin’s current COVID-19 response plan. They have four main requests: students with “a more comprehensive range of reasons” be granted housing on campus so long as they don’t leave; travel funding for all who have to return home; financial security for work-study students; and a more transparent and inclusive decision-making process moving forward.

The petition asks for “a more comprehensive and inclusive plan on behalf of students who are negatively affected by the proposition,” including students without reliable or safe housing outside of Bowdoin’s campus, immunocompromised students, work-study students who rely on Bowdoin paychecks, international students and students who live in high-risk areas of transmitting COVID-19.

“This also applies to students who are disabled, students who are undocumented, students who are part of the LGBT community who don’t have safe places at home,” said Ahmed. “We realize that these requests could apply broadly to all these groups and that’s the point. The petition was really created to get the attention of the administration and the coronavirus response team.”

As of this morning, the petition has received over 1,000 signatures, though the two have not heard back from any administrators.

Ahmed and Brathwaite are particularly worried about the potential loss of healthcare services, counseling services and general protection for undocumented students.

Ahmed called the situation a significant financial setback for many students who rely on work-study and on-campus jobs.

“My only source of income was provided through Bowdoin College and if I can’t return back to campus to put in a certain amount of hours, then I’m not making any money,” she said. “I feel the additional stress of not having stable WiFi and a good place to study and do work and take online classes. Plus, there’s now the additional stress of having to go out and get a job.”

In this morning’s live-streamed town hall meeting, Senior Vice President and Dean for Student Affairs Janet Lohmann said that administrators will meet this afternoon to figure out finances around federal work-study programs. She and President Clayton Rose assured students that they will “get their allotment” for the semester. It is unclear at the moment if student contribution for financial aid will be decreased. As for Wi-Fi issues, the College is providing hot spots for all who need them.

“You are smart, you are intellectually creative, you are entrepreneurs in a whole host of ways,” said Lohmann in response to a question about stressful home environments that are not conducive to learning. “The biggest way in which the College is going to be working with you is through your faculty. Your faculty are going to be engaging with you and thinking about learning and the curriculum and thinking about how it is you can best grasp the disciplines you’re all in.”

In hopes of gaining more support and signatures, Brathwaite tried to email the petition to a group of faculty members Wednesday, but a moderator rejected the email. They were disappointed by this, but they are grateful for all of the emotional support they’ve received through emails and calls from club leaders, professors, alumni, siblings of students, Brunswick residents and other Bowdoin community members.

Anthony Jack, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Poor Students,” who spoke at Bowdoin last month, weighed in on the situation across the country with a post on Facebook and Twitter:

“As colleges respond to #COVID19 by going online & shutting down, we must remember that campus is a sanctuary for many students: the only place they have steady access to food, shelter, safe living quarters, and/or internet to take online classes. Please help those without exit strategies.”

As the College begins to shut down campus, students are working together to help one another find housing and vacate their dorms before the March 18 move out deadline.

Shortly after the College’s announcement on Wednesday, Maddie Hikida ’22 created a Google form asking students both about what help they need and what help they can provide as the College requires students to vacate. She plans to comb through the spreadsheet and connect students with resources (housing, storage space, transportation, travel funds) to students who need help.

The spreadsheet was modeled off of a similar form that first-generation and low-income students at Harvard College created and sent to alumni asking for help. Hikida is immunosuppressed and said that she “felt really bad when I saw the general email that was sent out explaining that this was partially to protect people like me.”

“The College is putting the responsibility on the students who need help the most to advocate for themselves the most, and that’s just not fair,” she added.

The endeavor is more complicated than Hikida initially expected. So far, over 100 people have responded to the survey and many have offered transportation, storage space and part-time housing. But many of these housing options are neither in the Brunswick area nor in New England at all.

Jack Shane ’22 answered the survey and offered housing in Los Angeles.

“I may not be the most useful right now, but I want to help however I can because I love Bowdoin,” he said. “We are a community that you can’t break.”

Concerns from international students

The Division of Student Affairs created a “help line” to address outstanding questions and concerns not addressed by an FAQ. According to Lohmann, the help line, which is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, received over 300 calls Wednesday afternoon, overwhelming the system. She assured students in an email Thursday morning that the situation had been remedied.

Among the calls received were students petitioning to remain on campus after the March 18 deadline to move out. Jingyi Zhou ’22, who is from Beijing, said she called the hotline to ask to stay and at the time was told she would not be allowed to. She was concerned not only with moving all of her stuff back to China, but with her visa status if she had to leave the country.

All international students received an email around 4 p.m. on Wednesday from Dean for Community Standards Kate O’Grady assuring students that their immigration status would not be endangered by the switch to remote learning. The F1 visa for international students requires students to maintain a full course load, to which O’Grady wrote, “It is Bowdoin’s position that international students will continue to make normal progress in a full course of study as required by federal regulations (i.e., your current course load) through the remote learning plan.”

O’Grady recommended that international students stay in the United States to apply for graduate school and jobs with their current visas, but O’Grady did not indicate that students would necessarily be able to stay on campus.

She sent a second email to all international students shortly after 8 p.m. Wednesday evening informing them that they would, in fact, be able to stay on campus. Lohmann addressed the change in College policy in an email to the student body Thursday morning, citing the threats to international students’ immigration status as well as the fact that the U.S. State Department had already issued a Level 3 Travel Warning to many international students’ home countries due to the virus.

But the initial response demonstrated a disconnect between students and administrators.

“I think the overwhelming sentiment among international students is a feeling of abandonment,” wrote Ural Mishra ’20, who is from Lalitpur, Nepal in a message to the Orient last night. Thursday afternoon he added, “it’s better now that we know we can stay. There are still lots of questions about other students who can’t go home and their needs and it does seem like a case by case basis now.”

Mishra is also President of BSG, which sent an email to the student body Wednesday afternoon echoing the concerns raised by Ahmed and Brathwaite and voicing support for their petition.

“The prevention of the spread of this disease for the safety of the various communities we live in should be our primary aim. But we want to bring to everyone’s attention that not everyone is able to vacate campus on this short notice—and as such we ask the administration to help quell the fears of many students who are struggling to understand how these policies will affect them,” reads the email, which is signed by members of the BSG Executive Team. The email included a link to the petition and encouraged students to sign it.

During the town hall, Rose said that “on the back of the decision [to move to remote learning], we have reached out to students.” He added that Lohmann has talked with the President and the Vice President of BSG and asked for their input.

Mishra said BSG had not been in contact with the administration about the College’s COVID-19 plan or policy “at all” before the Wednesday morning announcement. Administrators reached out to Mishra and BSG Vice President Arein Nguyen ’21 early Thursday morning to schedule a phone call for later that day.

The conversation with administrators demonstrated to Mishra the challenges the College is facing in accommodating all students’ requests.

“I think the struggle is Bowdoin can only take in so many students without drastically jeopardizing the health of the community,” Mishra wrote in a message to the Orient Thursday afternoon.

“They also acknowledged in our call that they’ve made mistakes, which I appreciated—but it was also, in my opinion, a massive oversight to not have had separate considerations for international and other students in need,” he added.

The longing for inclusive conversations that take into account such considerations is what drives Ahmed and Brathwaite’s petition. They hope that a larger diversity of students voices can be heard in the coming weeks.

“FLI students, international students, LGBT students or really any students from disadvantaged communities on campus do a lot for this institution,” said Ahmed. “What I want overall, is to make sure the Administration includes [these students] in their decision making process and makes it more of a community-based decision.”

Jaret Skonieczny and Andrew Bastone contributed to this report.

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