At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, knowledge of the coronavirus pandemic has sparked campus anxiety. Dining halls once buzzing with activity are left sparsely filled. Previously bustling walkways are no more, as the remaining students, entranced by their phones, wait for e-mail updates from campus administration. The threat of the coronavirus extends beyond the virus itself for marginalized students. Some students must prepare to face housing, food, and job insecurity as universities close their doors. The university serves as a sanctuary for students without a stable or safe home who must rely on college resources to survive.
As a low-income student at UMass Amherst from a previously homeless family, I’m left with few options. Unable to return to my family, the closing of campus dormitories may leave me without a stable home to return to. My six younger siblings and parents now live in a small overcrowded apartment, supported by state programs after years of living in homeless shelters. Since I live at UMass, my parents have had to remove my name from their rental property. I’m not able to return without putting them in jeopardy of an eviction.
I depend on the university for food and income, serving as a resident assistant in a dormitory. The threat of removal from the university brings memories of eviction and poverty. For eight years, my family moved between various hotels and shelters in the Lowell area. We lived in one room with two beds and survived on microwavable chicken potpies and canned goods as our sole means of sustenance. My siblings and I lived isolated from our community, boxed in for hours each day with little space to relax or complete homework. Re-traumatized, I question whether I will have stable food or shelter in my last semester of college. The need to self-quarantine reminds me of the long-term isolation of hotel living; the way that limited space and access to food disrupted our sense of safety, community, and psychological stability.
University closures affect many low-income and disadvantaged students. A UMass sophomore anthropology student who identifies as nonbinary shared the impact of this residential and academic transition on their stability: “The last week has left me terrified, and in a state of uncertainty for myself and my peers,” they said. “My sole source of income is from two on-campus jobs. . . . I count on my paychecks in order to buy food, groceries, medication, alongside other necessities."
As the number of Covid-19 cases across the nation increases, the number of universities that have closed continues to rise. UMass Amherst announced that classes would take place in an online learning format between March 23 and April 3, providing housing to on-campus students “in special circumstances.” According to an e-mail from Residential Life, students who are not able to return home due to extenuating circumstances would also be able to request housing — but only with documentation. Universities across the nation have planned to transition to online classes, though not all are providing on-campus housing for students with no place to go during this period.
Students in marginalized situations, forced into online classes, may not be able to access the technology or living space needed to focus on their academics, beyond the ability to survive. Having lived in homeless shelters without Internet access, unable to afford a laptop, I would have been unable to complete the work for my online classes if forced to return to such a living situation. The overcrowded environment simply was not conducive for academic work, in combination with the limited food. I was forced to complete homework on the bathroom floor of hotel rooms, which served as the only quiet place in our shelters that I could use to study. Without the basic necessities for learning and the income lost from on-campus jobs, students in poor and disadvantaged environments lack the privilege of online learning — never mind the financial ability to prepare for the coronavirus.
Residential stability promotes academic, social, and psychological stability. Evicting students from universities in the name of disease prevention, as essential as social distancing is during a pandemic, needs to be done strategically; otherwise, it acts as a destabilizing force that reinforces college inequality and disrupts access for those most in need of a chance. As Covid-19 evolves, universities must understand not all students have a stable home to return to, a pantry stocked with weeks of provisions, and the ability to continue classes online. School administrators must understand that, for some of us, college has become our home.
Timothy Scalona is a senior at UMass Amherst, majoring in political science.
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