By Lily Mura, ’23
On July 29, 2020, the Student Life Office announced through email that Earlham students would be expected to find off-campus housing during winter break. The students that might be allowed to live on campus would incur “additional costs,” according to an email from the Student Life Office.
For the administration, there was concern about the fact that employees would be expected to work during the break. Bonita Washington-Lacey, Dean of Student Life, explained the extended winter break would stretch the resources of the Student Life Office too thin.
The Student Life Office, before the break, had been working nearly non-stop for 18 months, according to Washington-Lacey. At least one student life employee has to be available while students are still on campus.
The cost of operating the college during this time was also considered. The pandemic has put additional stress on the worsening financial situation of the college, according to Washington-Lacey. “There are some tremendous expenses that we have to incur in a year where the budget is already extended but we will do it because we must,” said Washington-Lacey. “This means we must not do something else like pay a heating bill in the heart of winter.”
One of the costs incurred by the college because of the COVID-19 pandemic is the testing given to all students for free. Washington-Lacey explains that the cost of just one round of testing was over $63,000.
This past fall, the college also provided free flu shots to all students and faculty, according to emails sent from Earlham Health Services to students, staff, and faculty.
Another consideration was concern for the worsening state of the pandemic. At the time of the interview with Washington-Lacey, during the Fall 2020 semester, she expressed that the CDC was already raising alarm about the unpredictable role the flu season would play in the spread of COVID-19. According to Washington-Lacey, the decision to not let students stay on campus was made to ensure everyone’s safety at the college and limit the spread of both the flu and COVID-19.
The Student Response
The pandemic has raised financial concerns for many Earlham students. Some felt that the charge for winter housing was unfair.
According to Washington-Lacey, students were told that the cost for staying over winter break would be $20 a night. However, International Student Senator Ahmed Deeb ‘23 claims that some students were given a discounted rate over the break to accommodate their financial situations.
In response to student concerns about housing costs, Washington-Lacey explained that the $20 charge, “does not even begin to touch the costs and it was never intended to cover all the costs.” She added, “Students have said, well, I can stay in a hotel for less than $20 a night. That’s a choice you can make.”
“I understand COVID is a big financial burden for the school but what about the students who now have to pay out of pocket to find housing or the students who are constantly struggling and worrying about if they will even have a place to stay for the few months?” said Kierra Dennis, ‘21.
Some of the pushback from students centered on the unique burdens international students face. “I think there is a big misconception in general that international students have money, and we don’t,” explained Rafaella Shima, ‘21, an international student from Brazil.
According to Shima, in a Facebook post, “Earlham loves to advertise its 30% international student diversity, however, when it comes to decision making, we are the last ones to be considered.”
Included in the student response to the winter housing charge were the efforts of Earlham Community Mutual Aid. According to the group’s website, this program was initially created in April 2020 to help give resources to Earlham community members who needed aid during the pandemic. This aid continued to help students last semester who were affected by the college’s winter housing decision.
According to the group, between the start of the fall semester and the end of Winter Break, $12,345 was requested. The majority of these requests, especially those that came in during the break, were for expenses like rent and groceries.
In addition to aid, a list of 37 no-to-low cost housing options was compiled for those in the Earlham community by Earlham Community Mutual Aid, according to Evan Feldberg-Bannatyne, ‘21.
Earlham Community Mutual Aid offers no specific numbers on how many housing options were offered or used. However, according to Feldberg-Bannatyne, the Winter Break Housing resource section of their website was viewed around 400 times.
Earlham Student Government’s Response
In early October, a winter housing working group was created. A working group is a subgroup of Earlham Student Government that is created to tackle specific issues. Referring to the housing decision, Earlham Student Government International Student Senator Prinshu Gautam, ‘23, claimed, “ESG as a whole body was against this decision.”
Gautam and fellow International Student Senator Deeb were able to meet with Washington-Lacey and be in contact with Anne Houtman, Earlham’s president, in October. Deeb and Gautam made recommendations to the administration about the housing exemption form and how much students should pay to stay on campus.
According to an email sent to the two senators from Houtman, the cabinet approved a process outlined by Washington-Lacey that would take into account an individual student’s financial situation at a meeting on October 26, 2020.
Overall, Deeb and Gautam felt the decision was not announced to students soon enough for them to make plans for other housing options.
The announcement made in July was about four months before the winter break began. ESG discussion on the subject and meetings with the administration took place in October, a little over a month before winter break.
Policy vs. Practice
Washington-Lacey repeatedly made clear that letting students stay on campus during break was a practice and not a policy of the college. The distinction between these two words created tension between students and the administration.
Some international students disliked the choice to charge for winter break housing. “We came to Earlham knowing that we were going to be able to stay at Earlham over winter break,” commented Shima. “International students decide to come to Earlham because of this kind of support.”
Others, however, acknowledge that Earlham has never officially promised to provide free housing to students. Not all students interviewed were sure that free winter break housing was guaranteed when they were admitted.
Two alums, ’94 and ’19, confirmed that during their time at Earlham, students were allowed to stay on campus for free.
Gwen Gosney Erikson, ‘94, stayed on campus over the 1992 and 1993 summer breaks and the 1993 winter break. Students were approved to stay over break if they had a campus job or some other specific reason for needing to stay. Students who stayed over the winter break were required to stay in OA. No food was provided to students over the break.
According to Erikson “Most students went home. The dorm was no where near full. I don’t remember folks really wanting to stay who weren’t able to do so.”
Gautam argued that the difference between the two words seemed inconsequential in the discussion around housing. Gautuam said, “Whether we call it a policy or a practice, for students with housing insecurity, the impact would remain the same.” Gautam continued, “To be repeatedly interjected with that distinction when all we were trying to do was raise concerns for students with housing insecurities was truly disheartening.”
Shruti Belikar, ‘23, faced a difficult decision before winter break. Last school year, Shruti relied on free winter break housing on campus because the cost of going back to her home country of India would be too much. During summer break, Shruti paid to stay on campus instead of returning home.
This winter break, Shruti could not stay on campus, so she found a place to stay and then returned to campus when the spring semester started. “Some of my international friends have relatives in the states that they can go to, like in the past. While others with a similar situation as me, struggle to look after the rent, a good job, and food.”
Other students experienced inconvenience in the face of this decision as well. In years past, Shima would return to Brazil when school was not in session. This past year, she planned on staying on campus over winter break to study for comps.
When Earlham made the decision to not let students stay on campus for free, the worsening state of the pandemic had already made it so Shima could not return to Brazil. She also no longer had a financially viable place to stay on campus. After staying with friends, Shima was able to find a virtual internship and use EPIC funding to pay to rent her own place to stay and to buy her own food.
Peter Nelson, ‘21, had stayed on campus in previous years over break to work locally. This year, Nelson decided to not request to stay on campus. “I did not want to fill out the petition to stay which required me to explain my situation to the school,” explained Nelson. “That is a very invasive requirement, and it is completely inappropriate that they would require us to divulge such personal information.”
Nelson was able to find housing through the EC Mutual Aid housing spreadsheet. However, for Nelson, “the process was not easy.” He continued, “Finding a place that could accommodate me and fit my needs and budget was hard.”
According to Thato Ts’olo, ‘22, students who were allowed to stay on campus were required to move into the third floor of OA since these rooms were already empty to be used as quarantine space. Students were not provided food from SAGA, nor was the food pantry operational during this time.
Washington-Lacey claimed it would not be reasonable for Metz to continue operating for only 10 or 20 students living on campus. “When we had 50 or 60 students on campus in the summer that made sense to try to provide meals,” said Washington-Lacey.
The International Student Office did provide certain food items on request to students living on campus and in Richmond, according to multiple students.
In early January, student athletes were able to come back and live on campus, according to multiple students. The athletes were able to stay in their own rooms, and after they moved in, students already living on campus were told they could do the same.