Some University of Connecticut residential students have reportedly struggled to live securely during the remote learning period and delayed campus move-in.
According to students like a fourth-semester sophomore who asked to remain anonymous, the university has not done enough to insure their wellbeing during the unanticipated changes to residential housing circumstances.
“The university makes calls, always at the last minute, leaving vulnerable students with no backup plan,” the student said over the phone. “It really breaks trust, and for many of us, jeopardizes our chances of safety, community and education.”
On Dec. 30, the university’s Interim President Andrew Agwunobi announced in an email that, due to health and safety precautions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the first two weeks of the spring semester would take place online. Students who planned to live on campus would not be allowed to do so for those two weeks unless they were approved to do otherwise. Students were allowed to submit requests to live on campus until Jan. 6. According to the university’s website, due to the “limited availability,” students had to demonstrate a valid need to live on campus.
The university wrote on the instructional webpage that students should consider a few restrictions before making a request. If permitted, they are not allowed to leave campus. Additionally, they have limited access to dining hall options and no access to the Recreation Center.
However, for students who are independent, the restrictions don’t affect their need to receive housing, according to UConn alumna and last year’s advisor for Creating Caring Communities Alexandra Katz. Katz went on to define in an email what it means to be an independent student.
“Independent students are students who are in foster care, have aged out of care, are facing family estrangement or escaping abuse, have lost parents due to death or deportation, or are experiencing homelessness,”Alexandra Katz, UConn alumna and former advisor for CCC
Creating Caring Communities (CCC) is a UConn organization which advocates and provides resources for students who are struggling with financial or familial issues. According to the communities’ website, most of these students identify as independent or are still in the foster care system. The center provides academic and social assistance, as well as a network of support from those who have gone through or are going through similar struggles.
During the pandemic, the organization has become particularly important for independent students, Katz said. According to her, they have worked to provide a sense of stability during a time when much of life is uncertain. Since March of 2020, the university has taken steps, often sudden and evolving, to insure the health and safety of the community.
According to Katz and current President of CCC Maria Kelley, a sixth-semester individualized law major, they have seen how the nature of the school’s action disproportionately affects the population of independent students.
“Students rely on these move-in times for their survival, so when these move-in times change or we’re stuck online and they’re stuck in an abusive household and they can’t get out, two more weeks could literally be the cost of their life,” Kelley said over the phone.
According to Katz, from her experience working with the center for the last three years, many of the students who are independent are predominantly those who also identify as BIPOC and LGBTQIA+.
“We’ve had a lot of independent students who are also within the queer community and especially when they are removed from their house for, essentially, fear of persecution,” she said.
Leaving a home means taking all their belongings with them. According to Kelley, these students struggle to find not just a place to live but also place to put their belongings.
The university does not provide storage space or moving assistance for these students unless they are paying for it, which, Kelley stated, most of the independent students cannot afford to.
“A student, an 18-year-old, isn’t going to have that. We usually see them start working, being a full time student and full time worker… it’s not easy in the slightest,” Kelley said.
However, abiding by the university protocol during the two weeks means students aren’t supposed to leave, even for a job.
During the two years that have passed since many colleges and universities began the shift to remote learning, the nation has gotten a small grip on unemployment and pandemic protocol, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the CDC. However, according to Kelley, nothing has improved for independent students at UConn who have made requests for help to CCC throughout the past two weeks.
“UConn has had two years of learning the unique ways students are struggling during COVID, and the impact it has had on their health and access to resources … I had hoped for better, but have learned not to expect it,” the anonymous student said.
According to Kelley, they have had many students that are requesting help from the university. Since CCC is a UConn initiated program, their only option typically ends up leading back to the same university departments such as Residential Life, the Dean of Students and the Office of Student Financial Aid Services.
“In these meetings, they are directed to self-advocate for why they need these resources, which is often re-traumatizing and not fostered in a trauma-informed environment,” Kelley said.
As she has watched students in her community struggle to get necessary support from the university, Kelley has become a direct resource herself. According to her, she dedicates much of her time to helping move students in and out, providing storage space and even a place to live with her. Alongside her, she has witnessed professors house or feed homeless students during times of need, she said.
One student who said they received help from Kelley, but not the university, was the anonymous fourth-semester student. They said previous choices made by UConn caused their decision to live off campus this semester.
“Last year’s unorganized approach to the pandemic and not being able to guarantee safety, food and stability hugely contributed to working so hard to get a lease (off-campus this semester). I learned that the UConn administration didn’t care about our safety and I wasn’t going to let myself be stuck in that scary place again,” the student said.
University protocol restricts on- and off-campus activities, affecting students currently permitted to live on campus.
According to Kelley, though the periods of remote learning at UConn have exacerbated the struggles she witnesses with CCC, the neglect of independent students is a pre-existing issue.
“This really is an institutional issue. It’s a structural and systemic issue as well,”Maria Kelley, President of CCC
An example of this, according to Kelley, is the process of declaring the status of “independent” at UConn. The process requires students to submit requests and, following approval, provide documentation from supporting sources. According to Kelley, many times students must turn to professors for signatures because they cannot get them from their family. She said this ordeal can take months that a student in an emergency situation does not have. Additionally, in cases like the Spring 2022 semester, students must suddenly prove they need to stay on campus within the span of a few days. had to suddenly prove they needed to be on campus within a few days of finding out the first two weeks were virtual?
Kelley believes that the issues students face is in part due to misrepresentation or oversight in the university’s quantitative evaluations, such as insufficient data collection practices and procedures. She said these methods are not holistic or empathetic to independent students.
Additionally, Kelley cites poor communication between departments on this particular population.
“University departments fail to maintain cohesion, thus resulting in many housing insecure students falling through these structural cracks … Staff are often unaware and knowledgeable in this area of independent students, and that’s not necessarily their fault. It’s just a result of the overall unawareness of this issue in our society, and especially this university,” Kelley said. “There is a large need. I think it’s important for staff and faculty to be trained on this issue and how they can help students in these circumstances.”