As many undergraduates cleared out their dorm rooms in the aftermath of the University’s March 12 decision to vacate on-campus and other Brown-owned housing, Kahini Mehta ’21 packed up her belongings and prepared to hand them off to a moving company.
But the company canceled just hours before Mehta’s flight out of Providence. “I felt bad for (the movers), but also it was just really stressful,” said Mehta, who is also a staff writer for The Herald’s weekend magazine post-.
Mehta turned to a public spreadsheet where members of the University community had been sharing their contact information to help with moving, storage, housing and other needs. She reached out to Min Tunkel ’19, who lives in Providence.
“She just kind of described that there was an emergency,” Tunkel said. “We had to take maybe, like, 10 to 12 boxes from the third floor of King House down to my car, so there was a lot of throwing boxes down the steps.”
With another friend’s help, Mehta was able to take some items to a friend’s basement in an Uber before she had to leave for the airport. Tunkel’s car wouldn’t start, so Tunkel waited for their dad to provide a jump and delivered the remaining items after Mehta’s departure.
“They just moved all my stuff for me,” Mehta said. “It was the nicest thing ever.”
The spreadsheet Mehta used, entitled “COVID-19 Assistance Doc,” represents one of several ways members of the University community have worked to support each other and supplement official resources in the days following the March 12 announcement that dorms would close to most undergraduates and classes would move online in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus. In the last days of in-person classes and throughout the rapid move-out process, some members of the community worked to make this disruption less painful and more manageable for everyone.
“I know this is a terrible situation, but just seeing everybody come together is really raising my spirits,” Tunkel said.
Many community members have made use of online forums to reach out. Before the University’s announcement, students had already set up the spreadsheet and a Facebook group called "Brown University Shared Resources (Housing, Transportation, Storage)." Those students, who are members of Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, hoped to have resources in place in case of an announcement.
“We're not the only ones who tried to put this idea into action,” said Will Gomberg ’20, who added that Nick Granato ’20 created the spreadsheet and Facebook group, and approached him and Michael Gold ’20 with the idea. “It's been a team effort and so many people have had so many similar ideas.”
The group has grown to over 1,700 members, and features requests to split Ubers to the airport, information about donating food, offers to foster plants and much more.
“It was pretty clear I think that people were looking for a resource like this,” Gomberg said. “The group was really nice, to have it all consolidated in one place.”
To accommodate students who may not have had a place to stay following dorm closures, some members of the University community offered housing options on the spreadsheet.
“We already had a spare bedroom that I had been trying to fill at the turn of the semester,” said David Tersegno GS, who offered to take in up to two people on the assistance spreadsheet. “When I saw that people were volunteering, it just occurred to me immediately that sure, we can make that space available to anyone who needs it.”
Brown’s chapter of Project Let’s Erase the Stigma, which works in mental health education, peer support services and policy advocacy, had also prepared measures to support students in advance of the University's announcement.
“We didn't know what support network would be available to students, so we decided that we would be it,” said chapter co-coordinator Shivani Nishar ’20.
The services Project LETS organized included a crisis phone line and emergency response open hours. Students — who were trained in safety planning and harm reduction by Project LETS chapter co-coordinator Xochi Cartland ’21 — helped run the open hours.
Staffers assisted with tasks including writing appeals to stay on campus, applying for emergency funds from the University and developing safety plans with students who “were going home to abusive households or households where they weren’t accepted for who they were,” Nishar said.
Nishar staffed hours at the Undocumented, First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center, the Global Brown Center for International Students and the Brown Center for Students of Color, and saw “quite a few” students, she said.
“I was really sad at how many students desperately needed a resource like this and wouldn't have otherwise gotten it if students weren't there to help,” Nishar said. “I will also say, though, it was beautiful to see the student body come together, even though it shouldn't have been our jobs.”
As students cleared off campus, Project LETS also helped set up food drop-off locations where students could place “any supplies that they were leaving behind” to donate to local organizations, Nishar said.
Christy Mo ’21 also independently started to collect food and, later, other items from departing students, accumulating so much that she eventually had to rearrange the set-up in her suite’s lounge in Vartan Gregorian Quad to create walking space.
“It was just very unsustainable, in my opinion, to have people throw out perfectly good stuff and then have people who needed it have to go out and buy more,” Mo said, adding that it was also important to gather items so “there would be more stuff to go around in Rhode Island.”
For some items, Mo began to work with students at the Warren Alpert Medical School who organized a spreadsheet to collect pick-up requests and recruit drivers to gather household goods and furniture that students could not take with them.
“My garage, which was empty, now looks like the donation center of a Salvation Army,” said Katie Chung MD’20 on Thursday. “On the driver's side, we probably have 10 to 15 drivers who signed up and of them probably like five active drivers who've helped out a lot.”
Chung decided to help after a friend mentioned an influx of posts on Brown University Buying and Selling, a Facebook group where students frequently post items to sell or give away.
“I hadn't heard of the page but I decided to check it out, and then I saw so many posts,” she said. “There was a lot of urgency on the page.”
After reaching out to her classmates for support organizing, Chung posted the spreadsheet in the buying-and-selling and resource-sharing Facebook groups.
Volunteers plan to donate the items they collected to local organizations.
“There's already been responses from undergraduate as well as graduate students to help with organizing and things like that, so the enthusiasm is great,” Chung said.
Having attended a college across the country from home herself, Chung said she could imagine a situation like this one being overwhelming.
“It just so happened that I am available, I live just on the East Side and I have a car,” she said. “If anything, now's the time to build community and try to be hopeful and help people out.”
Some students were also able to look to their instructors for assistance and words of support in the days following the University’s announcement.
Lecturer in Economics Brad Gibbs ’93 MAT’18 offered temporary storage, assistance with moving and aid connecting students with people who might be able to help during his last in-person class sessions.
“It was just the raw emotion of the significance of leaving campus,” Gibbs said. “There is a need to build community during these times, and I feel it's kind of incumbent upon us to maintain if not seek ways to enhance the connections amongst us even though we're not living in the same place.”
Associate Professor of Sociology Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve sent a letter to students enrolled in her PhD seminar on March 15, encouraging them to use coursework as a temporary escape from anxiety. Gonzalez Van Cleve also posted the letter on Twitter, where it attracted thousands of likes and retweets.
“The sense of kindness and grace that I was trying to give to my students, I feel like that's the antivirus, which in some ways was traveling almost as exponentially as the virus itself,” she said.
With students dispersed around the world, Gonzalez Van Cleve emphasized professors’ responsibility to represent Brown.
“If we don't have a quad, if we don't have arches to walk under and gates to celebrate under and all those things, then the faculty members have an enormous responsibility in that we represent the institution to all of these students across the globe who are at home feeling scared and sad and are grieving,” Gonzalez Van Cleve said. “The best that we can do as faculty members is to be that anchor.”
In the midst of a chaotic period, students expressed the value of seeing community members support one another.
“This has just been another wonderful way especially to see how the Brown community has just come together,” Gomberg said. “It's such a special place, and I think this really evidences that.”