Band-aid on a bullet hole: the plight of the forgotten off-campus, low-income first years this semester
April 16, 2021
The committee has reviewed your application to live on campus for Spring 2021. Unfortunately, your application has been denied. Please be sure to reach out to campus resources to develop and reinforce strategies for success in your spring classes. Additionally, do not hesitate to reach out to your assigned dean if you need further assistance.
This is the email I received on Tuesday, November 17, four days before first years were leaving campus for the semester. Oh, I was angry, alright—not only because I was given such a life-upending decision just a few days before heading home, but also because of the impersonality of the email.
I felt like I was being mocked: Greetings! We dangled hope in front of you, and you bit the bait! I know that you thoroughly detailed the circumstances that strain your family, finances, academics and mental and emotional health, but you didn’t make the cut. Sorry! Your life seems pretty pitiable, but it seems like a Bowdoin hotspot and a pair of noise-canceling headphones will do the trick! We’re willing to fix that up and buy that for you, but that’s pretty much the extent of how much we’re going to help you! Oh, and I know that we said that you can reach out, but we virtually haven’t accepted any appeals, so good luck with next semester!
Despite this—and I am still grateful and amazed at the lengths to which someone could go to defend me—my Bowdoin Advising in Search of Excellence (BASE) advisor pushed on, advocating for me in the hopes that I’d be given a space on campus in the spring. This, unfortunately, was to no avail, as decisions were final, regardless of whether the request was coming from a professor or a student. Mentally, I accepted my fate, and I dreaded what the upcoming semester, at home, would look like. But, I was encouraged to be hopeful: “How about seeing if there are any people you can live in the area with?” I entertained this, but I remembered that I was poor and that paying for living expenses in addition to off-campus rent simply was not economically feasible. And thus all hope was quashed.
Don’t even get me started on the part about success strategies, as if I already don’t know what those are. Using Google Calendar and a paper planner, going to office hours, using the Writing Center: I know them like the back of my hand. But what about strategies at home where you don’t have your own quiet environment conducive to successful learning? That’s a whole different story. No one tells you that you’ll have to stay up until two or three a.m. to do work because that’s the only time in the day that your house has a semblance of peace. Also, your neighbor has a really loud baby that likes crying at that time, too, so have fun with that! If you’re lucky, you can take an evening nap, though! Oh yeah, and you’ll be recording Nani ‘sup videos and having phone interviews in the bathroom. Get used to it. Wanna participate in class? You can totally put on your resume that you have technical skills; after all, you have almost a year of experience with pressing the mute button quickly enough that your professors and classmates don’t hear your dad’s excessively loud WhatsApp calls and his daily shouting matches with your family members, as well as the people on MSNBC and CNN. Trying to keep up your GPA AND social life? Oh, you’re an ambitious one, aren’t you? How cute! Well, you can totally study with friends over Zoom, but your Wi-Fi will cut off halfway through the meeting, sometimes. And your sister, with whom you share a room, will forever be annoyed at you for keeping the light on and being “too loud.”
With this in mind, to my fellow off-campus, low-income students: I’m proud of us. On top of COVID-19, on top of sh*tty economies and parents returning home with even lower paychecks, on top of our socioeconomic statuses, on top of academics, on top of stress, on top of loneliness, on top of struggling with mental health, on top of parents who don’t understand stress, loneliness or mental health, on top of work, on top of extracurriculars, on top of taking care of siblings and on top of applying to jobs and internships and thinking about what our future looks like, we’ve been pushing through. Keep fighting—we’re almost at the end of the tunnel.
To Bowdoin: Yes, although I did end up actually getting the iPad hotspot and the headphones, you should:
(1) Understand that it’s a bigger issue than the insufficient assistance that I and other students have been given this semester. While I am, of course, grateful for this institution’s generous financial aid and the mentorship and support systems available to me through THRIVE, I was extremely disappointed by the negligence displayed in the administration’s handling of off-campus, low-income first-years. This, in fact, made me frequently question my relationship to the College and my sense of belonging at Bowdoin, and I’m sure that this is a statement that many others can attest to.
And (2), isn’t it sad that I went through mental gymnastics in plucking up the courage to ask for the noise-cancelling headphones in the first place? My advisor insisted that I do so, saying that rich students feel comfortable demanding whatever they see fit, whereas first-generation, low-income students are always hesitant in doing so, when they are the ones who need the resources the most. Well, I think that we know where this hesitation comes from. Because when we gather the courage to ask for help, we are not only shut down, but also cut off and left to our own devices.
Just know that at the end of it all, while my anger has subsided, my frustration has not. Neither my brain nor my heart will forget the ease with which I witnessed you disregard off-campus, low-income first years this semester.
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Afia, I completely agree with you here as someone facing the same circumstances. Bowdoin insists that we “reach out” but there are so many complications that it feels unwelcome to reach out for help, ESPECIALLY when we are first year students who do not yet see this campus as our home. I came into Bowdoin eager and enthusiastic and now, I don’t really know how to feel anymore. I feel out of place, unwelcome, and cast aside already. I can’t tell if this is just the “pandemic blues” or if it’s a taste of what the next four years will look like as an FGLI student. I’m scared to learn the answer. Either way, I am proud of you and proud of all of us that we have made it this far and continue to persevere and advocate for ourselves. Just because we have to doesn’t mean it’s easy, ever.
Thank you for this amazing article Afia, very glad to hear I’m not the only one who is quite frustrated with the college’s lack of thought about the impacts of this decision. From being told that Bowdoin counselors cannot help me when I’m at home to simply receiving constant emails about events I can’t attend, it sure has been a tough time. Sending my prayers and good vibes to you and everyone else in our class who’s in this very crappy situation.