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‘Anything to not go home’: Forced out by COVID-19, some students face unsafe conditions

<h5>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h5>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

On March 11, Dean of the College Jill Dolan notified undergraduates that they had eight days to pack up their dorm rooms, return home, and stay there. Only students who met the “strictest criteria” of need would be exempt.

Quoting a message President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 had sent two days prior, Dolan stressed that the University would care for those who could not return home.

“Princeton University has always been a community that cares for one another,” the email read. “And we will need that spirit now more than ever.”

According to Dolan’s email, among those who could stay were seniors conducting thesis lab work; international students who faced travel restrictions, had limited internet, or were from countries designated “at [CDC] Warning Levels 2 & 3 and USDOS Levels 3 & 4 for COVID-19”; students who faced financial insecurity; and students who faced housing insecurity — defined by Dolan as “homelessness” or, more obliquely, “a precarious living situation.”

But absent from Dolan’s email was any mention of students who may not meet the technical definition of “housing insecure,” yet come from emotionally traumatic households that pose threats to their safety and well-being. 

In a statement to The Daily Princetonian, Deputy University Spokesperson Mike Hotchkiss wrote that in reviewing applications to stay, the administration prioritized two groups: international students and students with “the highest financial need.”

“Other requests were evaluated on a case-by-case basis,“ wrote Hotchkiss. “The committee provided an appeal process for students who had other extenuating circumstances; appeals were reviewed in collaboration with staff from the residential colleges.”

One sophomore, who spoke to the ‘Prince’ anonymously, lives in a home environment that poses a threat to their well-being. The student immediately applied to remain on campus, hoping to qualify in light of their “precarious living situation.”

Applicants were told they would hear back by 9 p.m. on Friday, March 13. That morning, wracked with worry, the student asked their Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) counselor for a letter of support.

Their counselor responded, with regret, that “CPS has a policy that prohibits us from intervening in decanal matters.”

Letter-less, they asked Dolan if emotional distress and unsafe home conditions would qualify a student to remain on campus. Returning home, the student said, would endanger their physical health. 

Dolan wrote back with heartfelt warm wishes and encouraged the student to be in touch with CPS — but no permission to stay. The student replied to Dolan immediately, begging to remain.

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They would not leave their room for months if need be. They would, they wrote, “do anything to not go home.”

After two days, to the student’s surprise and great relief, they received an email notifying them that they would be permitted to remain on campus.

Not all applicants were so fortunate. While nearly a thousand students requested to remain on campus, under 500 were granted the permission to stay. As requests came flooding in, the administration began to refuse students who explicitly met previously listed criteria.

As statewide restrictions entered into effect and campus’ non-essential operations shut down, science departments began shuttering their labs, and students approved to remain on campus for research had their acceptances revoked as recently as March 20 — the day after the move-out deadline.

“Seniors who had originally been allowed to stay for research reasons, but who also met another criterion (i.e. international status or financial precarity), were allowed to stay,” wrote Hotchkiss.

Prior to March 20, one senior in the Chemistry department, who spoke to the ‘Prince’ anonymously, was certain that they would be able to stay on campus. They fulfilled three of the criteria listed by Dean Dolan: thesis lab work, housing insecurity, and financial insecurity. 

After the Chemistry department’s March 18 announcement that thesis work no longer qualified students to remain, the senior began to panic.

“I felt backed into a corner,” the senior said. “I really can’t go home.”

They reached out to their department representative, their thesis advisor, and Senior Associate Dean Claire Fowler to explain their additional justifications for staying. Delving into explicit details of trauma and abuse, the student told the administrators: “I would feel unsafe at the only place where I could find a bed.”

They were, they said, deeply uncomfortable disclosing such personal and painful information. Fowler assured the student that they would not be forced to leave. 

Two days later, the senior received a notice from the administration, urging them to report their “extremely concerning” home situation to law enforcement, but informing them that they had three days to vacate campus.

“Some students who had originally requested to stay on campus for senior thesis research subsequently asked to stay for other reasons. Each of those requests was fully considered by the committee using the stated criteria,” Hotchkiss wrote to the ‘Prince.’ 

The University provided all students who left campus with $2,838 in refund for room charges and, for those with a University or club meal plan, additional refunds.

The Deans of Student Life, according to Hotchkiss, were “available to provide guidance on how to secure appropriate housing with these funds, if students chose not to return to a family home. Students in this position were also eligible for the hardship fund.”

“Nothing has felt real since the eviction notices came out,” said the sophomore who received permission to remain on campus. “No one is safe. Someone needs to tell us that they’re done with revocations.” As the COVID-19 crisis worsens and circumstances change, students worry the University may again change its criteria for allowing them to stay on campus. 

“Students currently on campus who have been approved to stay will be allowed to remain for the duration of the semester as long as they adhere to Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities and follow all social distancing guidelines,” wrote Hotchkiss. 

As for those off-campus? “We remain committed to supporting students, both in their search for off-campus housing and their broader needs,” Hotchkiss continued. “If students are having difficulty while away from campus, either with housing or another issue, they should contact their director of student life or Dean Mell Thompson.”

Some students, though, in response to what they view as a “lack of transparency and support” from the administration, have opted instead to turn to each other. Several students, including Santiago Guiran ’22, President of the Class of 2022, USG Undergraduate Student Life Chair Aaron Leung ’23, and Anna Macknick ’21, who serves on the First-Generation Low Income Council (FLIC), shared mutual aid spreadsheets on social media.

The spreadsheets feature offers of food, supplies, storage space, and emotional support. On Tuesday, March 17, FLIC organized a distribution drive, allocating food and supplies to around 50 students who remained in the Princeton area. 

“All this support, solidarity, and community care — without it, we would be in the dark,” said Macknick. Although she said that she was grateful that the University was giving room and board refunds and had allowed some students to stay on campus, she emphasized that many students have “slipped through the cracks.”

Macknick noted that resource-sharing group chats and spreadsheets have also been helping to find alternative housing options for dozens of students whose applications to stay on campus were rejected, or accepted and then revoked. Scouring TigerTrade, listservs, and contacts from mutual aid spreadsheets, students have relied on each other to find solutions, from leases to sublets to offers of free hosting from members of the community. 

“So many people have been stepping up to support each other,” Macknick said, “because Princeton won’t.”

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