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Graduate students worry about safety as fall semester begins, more students return

Graduate students balance concerns of undergraduate return to campus, need for student support

Graduate students entering the fall semester are concerned about access to campus resources and safety, especially with the looming return of some of the undergraduate population.

Kelsey Babcock GS, a third-year neuroscience student, has been working in a wet lab on campus since June. In light of the pandemic, her workplace has had to make several changes under University guidelines, including a new schedule to create a limit of five people working in-person at a time to de-densify the lab.

Babcock’s lab was among the first to return to in-person work as part of Brown’s preliminary phased lab reopening plan. In late August, she told The Herald that she “felt fortunate” she was able to return early and “get tested, see how their system works (and) see that they’re planning to increase the rate of testing.”

Last month, the University announced that graduate students who are on campus three or more days per week will be tested twice per week, and that those who are on campus two or fewer days per week will be tested once per week, according to the Healthy at Brown website. First and second year medical students will be tested twice per week and third and fourth year medical students will follow the guidelines and restrictions of their clinical or laboratory settings.

Now, however, Babcock is uncertain about what the coming months will look like on campus as more students return, and what that influx in numbers will mean for her safety.

At a faculty meeting Tuesday Sept. 9, Christina Paxson P’19 said that the University estimates that there are approximately 4,100 students currently in Providence, including about 1,600 graduate and medical students and 2,000 juniors and seniors residing off campus.

Paxson also said that about 500 undergraduate students who applied to live in dorms moved on-campus before Labor day.

Babcock also described concern about the increase in population density on-campus with the return of undergraduates, and students’ observance of safe practices. “I know that the buildings on campus are going to go from a pretty stable group of people,” she said, “and suddenly that’s going to drastically increase.”

If the University does move into the second phase of campus reopening, an estimated 900 additional students would move into residence halls, while "perhaps a couple hundred" more students would move into off-campus housing, Paxson said at the Tuesday faculty meeting.

Students who could return to campus for phase two and those who have already returned to Providence have been mandated to adhere to quarantining and social distancing measures. Any undergraduates will only be able to enter labs with approval. The first two phases of reopening also limit library use and permit only grab-and-go dining options.

To advocate for graduate student needs during this time, the Graduate Student Council “has been in contact with the University since the onset of the coronavirus,” said GSC President Kathryn Thompson GS in an Aug. 19 interview. Throughout the summer, the GSC has talked with administrators to highlight “concerns that are very unique to graduate students, especially when it comes to research, being on campus (and the) graduate student experience.”

Thompson has discussed concerns with administration surrounding access to resources away from campus for graduate students, including reliable wifi and food security, especially considering many graduate students are supporting partners and families.

Thompson also wants to support graduate students’ mental health during this time. “The graduate student experience is very unique in the way that it’s already isolating. You can already distance yourself so much from other individuals,” Thompson said. Access to mental health support is important during this time, as circumstances surrounding the pandemic can “make it worse, and that is not what we want to do,” she said.

According to Beenish Pervaiz GS, GSC chair of international advocacy, international graduate students face several logistical issues entering the fall semester.

As was explained in an Aug. 11 email from Dean of the Graduate School Andrew G. Campbell, “incoming students in ‘initial’ status must be enrolled in at least one hybrid course to be in compliance with SEVP rules,” requiring international graduate students entering their first semester at Brown to participate in a hybrid or in-person class for visa purposes. While the Department of Homeland Security rolled back the regulations announced July 6 that would require all international students to enroll in in-person courses in order to retain their visa status, the provision for newly matriculated students remains.

“We’ve been talking to a lot of the deans who are working on these issues specifically for international students to make sure that departments are coordinating with students right now,” Pervaiz said. The email noted that when possible, students would be enrolled in a hybrid course required for their program, and that the School of Professional Studies will offer a half-credit, tuition-free hybrid course in professional development to masters students.

Pervaiz also emphasized the emotional and mental impacts the pandemic has on international students. “If people have relatives all over the world who are also facing this pandemic, this is a pretty stressful situation to be feeling so isolated,” she said. “If you’re an international student, the amount of support you have in the U.S. to rely on is pretty reduced.”

Thompson’s biggest concern for the fall is the well-being of the Brown community. “Honestly, I hope everybody stays safe. That’s my number one concern,” she said. “I want everyone to be healthy, I want everyone to thrive given the circumstances and I want everyone, undergraduate and graduate students, to have that rich college experience that comes with being … part of the University community.”

“It’s really sad, it really is, that we aren’t able to offer the new incoming graduate students the type of experience and welcome into Brown that we received when we arrived on campus,” she said. Thompson aims to support graduate students in this time, with the hope that they will still grow professionally and academically and also come to know their community, she said.

“I have grown to know and love Providence,” Thompson said. “This city has really become my home for the past three years, so I really want to be able to take these horrible circumstances and really, really make the best of it.”


Jack Walker

Jack Walker served as senior editor of multimedia, social media and post- magazine for The Herald’s 132nd Editorial Board. Jack is an archaeology and literary arts concentrator from Thurmont, Maryland who previously covered the Grad School and staff and student labor beats.

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