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‘When we’re not on campus, we’re not equal to other students’: Challenges of COVID-19 for low-income students

Low-income students confront financial strains leaving campus, face unstable family incomes; U-FLi Center, E-Gap funds work to address struggles

When they first found out that the University was asking undergraduates to vacate dorms in response to COVID-19, many students from low-income backgrounds faced immediate challenges.

"How am I going to pay for this?" Adrianna Maxwell ’22, a student staffer at the Undocumented, First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center, who also identifies as a U-FLi student, wondered. "In the moment, I was stressed. I've got to get home and I've got to pack my stuff. … How am I going to pay for storage?" 

Hannah Ponce ’22, who is also a U-FLi student, said that as soon as she heard the University was sending students home, she had to figure out how to make ends meet without her two jobs in Providence as an intern for Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and as a student cashier for Brown Dining Services. 

“I can’t afford my bills without working, so before even thinking about how I was going to get off campus, I was already calling … to get my job back” in her home state of California. “We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and I was like ‘I need to make money,’ but that’s just the experience of being a U-FLi student.” 

Many students in the U-FLi community shared Maxwell and Ponce’s concerns. "I was hearing a lot of those things from students" in the days following the University's March 12 announcement of its decision, said Julio Reyes ’12, the program director of the U-FLi Center, who has been providing individualized support for students facing the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Now, a month after the University first announced its transition to online learning,many U-FLi students have returned to financially challenging situations at home and are facing a different kind of struggle. "What end(s) up coming up … (are) all the issues related to being at home and being a student at home," Reyes said.

"I was worried about income": Financial instability and household responsibilities

After applying for emergency funding to cover the costs of moving out and changing her flight home to an earlier date, Maxwell eventually made it back to Broadview, Illinois, a town just outside Chicago where she lives with her father and brother.

But "when I got home, the worries kind of changed," she said. Her father works in the automobile industry, and his plant initially closed down in response to the pandemic. 

Lacking paid leave benefits, he had to file for unemployment. Even though her 21-year-old brother, who works at a call center, was able to keep his job, "I was worried about income," Maxwell said.

After two weeks of uncertainty, Maxwell's father's plant opened up again, and he was able to return to work. "I guess the automobile industry was seen as essential workers," Maxwell said, but added, "it still kind of worries me because … he could be exposed to the virus at any point."

Concentrating on academics back home has been tough. "I had a lot of anxiety when my dad was let go without paid leave, so it's just stuff like that that you're worried about and you're not focused," Maxwell said. 

Other students are looking to juggle supporting their families with their academic obligations. Ponce’s two jobs in Providence have continued to pay her temporarily — her position at BuDS will pay her for her scheduled hours through May 4. But now that she’s home, Ponce is taking on more responsibility in maintaining her household because her mother is an essential worker and her father is at elevated risk of contracting the virus. “Even though I’m not working, it’s still really hard to manage my home life and school work,” she said. 

Some students whose parents have been laid off are "saying that they now want to take on what's considered an essential job in their city in order to support family," said Reyes.

That situation can be particularly hard on students who are U.S. citizens but who come from mixed-status families. 

Undocumented working parents who are laid off from their jobs or choose not to work because of health risks might not have access to federal support services. In that case, "the students now feel like they have to support their families," Reyes said. "It's been tough."

"It's not an equal playing field": Challenges to academics at home

Direct pressure to provide income and household support is not the only challenge afflicting students; with remote learning comes inevitable technical roadblocks. A couple weeks ago, a power line in Maxwell's neighborhood went out, abruptly cutting off her Wi-Fi access. The power stayed out for about eight to 12 hours, Maxwell added, forcing her to miss one of her classes via Zoom.

The loss of power didn't come as a "big surprise," Maxwell said. While not a regular occurrence, "it's not out of the blue that the power could go out" in her neighborhood. Her house is older and the power infrastructure isn’t very efficient or new. 

Remote classwork has proven to be difficult to manage at home for Ponce as well. While she believes she can still do well in her courses, she supported the Universal Pass campaign because she understands “what it’s like to have to make sacrifices for your academics that you shouldn’t have to.” 

Various proposals concerning temporary modifications to the University's grading system this semester have been widely and intensely debated. Dean of the College Rashid Zia ’01 acknowledged some students’ desire for Universal Pass in a March 30 email, but upheld the University's decision not to adopt either Universal Pass or mandatory Satisfactory/No Credit system. In this email, Dean Zia wrote that for certain students who had overcome challenges after struggling academically earlier in their time at the University, "letter grades this semester – even if only in one class – could showcase their resilience in the face of adversity." Instead, the University opted to extend the deadline for students to elect to take classes S/NC; students now have until May 1 to change their grade options. 

Ponce said that many of the administration’s public statements about UPass have been “really inconsiderate of the experiences that U-FLi students are having. Saying that this is a time when we can display our resilience is ridiculous.” 

“When we’re not on campus, we’re not equal to other students,” she said. Without equal access to libraries, computer labs and other resources, and with the added stress of family life, U-FLi students face challenges that students with more at-home resources do not. “There are so many more things that affect U-FLi students that make it more difficult to just focus on your academics,” she said. 

Associate Dean for International Students Asabe Poloma works alongside Reyes on the team that coordinates the COVID-19 Transition E-Gap Fund. She and the rest of the E-Gap team have been working to support students, but they are aware that the situation is complex and ridden with inequalities beyond their control. "In a context of structural poverty and an infrastructure that exceeds Brown's campus, how do we manage that and account for that?"

With college campuses closing across the country, forcing many low-income students to continue school work from home, the pandemic has revealed the class inequities that run deep in the student bodies of many colleges and universities across the U.S., according to the New York Times

For Maxwell, who also supports UPass, the pandemic has only made more evident a reality that already exists on campus. "Even at Brown, you see class differences and struggles," she said. "But when people go home, those are exacerbated, and it's not an equal playing field." 



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