When Renske Kerkhofs ’24 left their home country of Belgium to go to Bowdoin this fall, they did not expect to return home until May.
“My plan was to stay all through winter break and then just go straight into the spring semester. I wasn’t planning on going home,” they said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
But, having applied for and been denied spring housing, Kerkhofs will be returning to Belgium this spring.
In President Clayton Rose’s email sent to the Bowdoin community on October 5 outlining the spring 2021 plan, he wrote: “We will bring seniors, juniors, and sophomores back to campus, plus first-year students for whom home is not a place where they can learn, including first-year international students. All other first-year students will study remotely.”
Kerkhofs is one of many first-year international students who were not approved for spring housing but who had hoped they would be able to remain on campus based on implications in Rose’s email.
“It seems from the email that President Rose sent that international students were going to be looked at with more flexibility. Just because there’s so many things, so many unknowns about the visa, there’s so many different circumstances at home, that it seems like [being an international student] was going to have a lot of weight to it when considering housing,” said Andrea Rodriguez ’24, who is from the Dominican Republic.
The Office of the Dean of Students could not provide the number of international students who were approved for on-campus housing for the spring semester.
Alexander Kozic ’24, who is from the United Kingdom, was not approved for housing. He said that in making the decision to come to Bowdoin, he did so thinking he would remain on campus in the spring.
“I actually contacted the deans and they even confirmed that I didn’t have a situation at home suitable for learning. And so I was pretty confident that I was going to get spring housing,” he said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
Lionel Weltz ’24, who chose to stay in his home country of Germany for the fall semester due to COVID-19, said in a Zoom interview with the Orient that he made the decision expecting to come to campus in the spring.
“I was really hoping that I could come to campus. I mean, just online I’ve connected with a bunch of people and it seems like they were able to connect, they were able to get acquainted to the campus and now that I’m going to come to campus [for the first time] in [the] summer, I’m going to be a sophomore and it’s going to be my first time being there,” he said.
Natacha Barampana Mutombo ’24, who is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was also surprised.
“When I knew the response I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a joke, but it wasn’t,” she said.
Dean of Students Kristina Bethea-Odejimi wrote in an email to the Orient that three general concerns went into the decision to allow some students to stay on campus: environmental, financial and health and safety.
“The committee considered things like mental health or food insecurity issues, whether a student needed to hold down a job or whether they were dealing with inadequate or crowded living conditions, and many other factors. These were comprehensive reviews and the decisions from the committee are final,” Odejimi wrote in the email to the Orient.
Mutombo added that the College did not offer much elaboration on their decision in the rejection email, adding to the students’ disappointment at the unexpected news.
“They didn’t even give an explanation or anything. So, it felt like they didn’t care,” she said. “If we had a more personal decision, maybe it wouldn’t be so disappointing and so heartbreaking.”
Kerkhofs agreed, adding that it would have been helpful if the College provided more transparency about the process.
“My main wish for the College would just be to communicate with international students more because I know logically that they’re doing everything they can and that everything has a good reason. It would just be nice if we could have an open conversation about it,” they said.
Rodriguez said that, from talking to the deans, it seems that space was the biggest issue.
“They just had to make some tough calls as to who could stay and who can leave and essentially whose situation was worse,” Rodriguez said.
In order to ensure that each student has a single bedroom, some students will reside in the Brunswick Hotel and Tavern in the spring.
“We have been fully prepared to make housing available to any student who meets the criteria established for securing campus housing. As part of this commitment, we secured additional housing through an agreement with the Brunswick Hotel and Tavern,” wrote Odejimi in an email to the Orient.
Bojana Drca ’24, who is from Serbia, said in a Zoom call with the Orient that it was difficult to get in contact with the College once she received her decision.
“I got in contact with the committee person who determined the decisions. I wanted to talk to her and they were like, ‘I’m very busy, I have other people waiting for my call. Go talk to your dean,’ and they didn’t want to discuss anything with me,” she said. “I contact[ed] her directly… and we met yesterday and I expected to get some information [on] you know, like why did this happen, but she didn’t have any information for me and she said that I should contact the committee who determined [spring housing].”
Now that the decisions have been made, Ugne Stasiukynaite ’24, who is from England, said that she wishes the school would give them more guidance.
“I’m not angry at the school, or the people that got it instead of me. I can understand that everyone deserves to be on campus and everyone’s extenuating circumstances are equal, but I think the[re] just could be a lot done to kind of buffer the transition, because I think it’s going to be hard either way,” she said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
Kozic said that he had talked to his dean, but little support was offered beyond advice to reduce his course load.
“[They] said, what they could do was provide the best kind of support so that we could be academically successful in a non-academically successful environment and suggested two kinds of things: one, take three courses instead of four, and then [focus on] the credits for classes and not [worry] so much about getting good grades as a method of balancing out not the best academic learning situation,” he said.
Rodriguez added that visa issues complicate options other students may have more easy access to. Taking a personal leave of absence, for instance, would require students to lose their visas and then go through the process of renewing them when they return. COVID-19 restrictions could make this process especially complicated.
“I’ve had friends who have been at home who couldn’t get their visas to leave in the fall. Their schools were accepting them but just because COVID[-19] has messed up embassies and consulates it’s harder to set up an interview and meet in person, especially when there’s high demand of people trying to get out of the country, and get their visas,” she said.
Kerkhofs said that overall the situation has been difficult, especially given the issues international students had over the summer.
“With all of the visa issues that a lot of international students, including myself, had to be able to get to the U.S. at the beginning of the school year, it’s really discouraging to not be welcomed back in the spring. I know the school is trying to help us, but sometimes I feel like we’re left to our own devices,” they said. “I just think it’s sad that I have to put my own health in danger just because I don’t have anywhere else to go.”