‘It’s a nightmare:’ International students forced to leave campus due to coronavirus

Many universities asked students to leave campus housing to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. But what if students can’t afford it?

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Locust Walk on the University of Pennsylvania campus. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Locust Walk on the University of Pennsylvania campus. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Last Thursday, the University of Pennsylvania told all of its students they would have to leave campus by Sunday night to mitigate the spread of the new coronavirus. Anyone who could not go home because of travel restrictions or other reasons would have to apply for campus housing.

“I was really stressed. I went to the office and I cried,” said one first-year graduate student from China, who lives on the Philadelphia campus in a graduate housing complex.

She and her boyfriend, a fellow graduate student from India, did not have the money to fly back to their home countries. China is still in the middle of its own outbreak of the new coronavirus. They could not afford a hotel either. WHYY agreed to withhold both of their names because they fear repercussions for speaking out about their situations.

“I’m a graduate student and while I do receive a stipend … by this time of the month, I usually have spent most of my money,” said the graduate student from India. “It’s like I live month-to-month.”

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They both applied for on-campus housing.

Penn denied both their applications on Sunday afternoon, with an email saying, in part, that “honoring all requests was neither feasible nor medically wise given the global guidance to practice social distancing.” The move-out deadline was extended to Tuesday.

They now had two days to pack up all their belongings and find new places to live.

“It’s really rushed for the university to give me an update … saying that I’m going to get kicked out and expect me to find housing … pack, and move out, all in the span of less than two days,” he said.

“I started panicking,” she said. “[Sunday] afternoon, I talked with so many people and I felt that I was very overwhelmed … I was really angry and disappointed and also helpless.”

They started packing on Monday night. She had a lot of library books for her research that she couldn’t return because the library was closed. She’d have to bring those with her. She might have to abandon her fridge and microwave.

He had far too many clothes to pack in two days. He planned to put them in old grocery bags and leave them in his on-campus apartment, hoping they would still be there when — or if — he could return.

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She was in touch with her faculty advisors, who were fighting for her.

Four hours after she got the email rejecting her housing application, relief came in the form of an email from Penn Residential Services, who wrote again saying, “We’re very sorry you received the previous email in error.”

Now she could live on campus. But she would most likely still have to move to a different building for social distancing, so she still had to pack.

As of Monday evening, he still had nowhere to go. He packed, planning to decide on Tuesday morning what to do.

He was also trying to practice social distancing to try and limit the spread of COVID-19.

“But now all of a sudden, I might have to go talk to other friends, move some of my luggage to friend A’s place, go and stay with friend B, after that, go and potentially talk to people to see whether I can sublet an apartment,” he said. “It’s a nightmare at this point.”

The University of Pennsylvania declined to comment for this story. A university spokesperson referred to the announcements posted online.

Students at other universities are dealing with similar problems as institutions grapple with how to help mitigate the pandemic, shut down campuses and move courses online. A Harvard student compared such policies to “an eviction notice” in a New York Times story.

“It’s an absolute mess,” said Douglas Jerolmack, a professor of geophysics at the University of Pennsylvania. “I am not in the position of an administrator, and if I was, I imagine there are no good decisions.”

On March 9, Jerolmack had left on a spring break research trip to study sand dunes in New Mexico with graduate and undergraduate students. They were in a desert, next to a military missile range, so there was no cell reception during the day, when they were doing arduous field work, “mostly blissfully unaware of what was happening on the outside.”

In the evenings, they would go to the nearest town to eat and return to their motel.

“We would get dinner and then everybody’s inbox would start to get flooded with messages from the university or also messages from their families,” Jerolmack said.

He said he understood why the university was asking students to leave. But he does not understand two decisions:

First, the university initially emailed all international students separately, saying any students who were not from China, Iran, Italy or South Korea “are expected to return home.” The university later sent another email asking international students to “strongly consider returning home.”

Second, the university contacted faculty about moving their classes online. Jerolmack said considering many students are left with no place to live, class should not be the priority.

“They’re spending so much resources in moving courses online and training all of these faculty to turn around and do this immediately, while it’s not even clear that many of our students will have a secure shelter, let alone a secure internet connection,” he said.

On Monday, Jerolmack got in touch with other faculty members, people in his research group, and every student in the earth sciences department, trying to connect people who desperately needed housing to people who could host them. Other students were doing the same, with a crowd-sourced Google spreadsheet of people who would host or at least store belongings. As of Monday, almost 200 people had offered to host.

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