At a time when UVA should be flush with life, Tianxiao Yao (Col ’23) is living a mostly solitary existence in her room in the International Residential College as the first-year wraps up her spring semester with online classes because of the coronavirus pandemic.
One of 300 students left in on-Grounds housing in late March because they have no other place to go, Yao, of Nanjing, China, spends her days studying, relaxing in the hammock behind the IRC and taking solo afternoon walks, sometimes looking for the gray striped cat that once wandered around Bonnycastle.
Yao is sticking it out in Charlottesville because it’s her safest option. Flying home would have required her to travel through coronavirus hot spots and spend 14 days in quarantine in a hotel or hospital once she arrived in China—where she wasn’t sure she’d be able to continue her online coursework.
She has a ticket to go home in May when online classes end, but as China dramatically limits flights into the country, it could be canceled, and she may need to find summer housing in Charlottesville. “I do worry about it,” she says. “Having an optimistic mindset is really important.”
UVA’s decision in March to move to virtual classes forced most students back home, mourning canceled year-end traditions and time with friends. But for students without financial resources, a safe way to leave Charlottesville or a comfortable home to return to, the decision triggered an avalanche of worries, questions and hardships.
Ivan Khvatik (Col ’20), who supports himself, lost his job as a University Transit Service bus driver when UVA moved to distance learning and remote work. He also saw his food delivery and Uber gigs dry up. Wondering how he’d pay for food or rent for his Charlottesville apartment, he contemplated taking a job at a grocery store, where he fears he’d likely be exposed to the coronavirus. “It’s better than getting evicted,” he says.
And some students like Kalea Obermeyer (Educ ’20) remain in Charlottesville because there is no comfortable home to return to. “This is the most secure housing I have right now,” says Obermeyer, who lives on the Lawn and founded FLIP at UVA, which supports first-generation and low-income students. Soon after UVA’s announcement, she heard from other students worried about housing and job security, too. “It was just a lot of fear,” she says.
Students take action
As they came to terms with the unprecedented end of their spring semester, students scrambled to help one another. Within hours of UVA’s March 11 announcement, Student Council members launched Hoos Helping Hoos. In just a couple of weeks, they raised $15,000, connecting students in need with donors, which included parents, faculty and alumni.
“We’ve been really overwhelmed by the generosity,” says Ellen Yates (Col ’21), incoming Student Council president.
Meanwhile, students made sure UVA’s student-run food pantry was stocked. Visits to the 2-year-old pantry had already skyrocketed during the abbreviated spring semester after its move from Runk Dining Hall to the more central Newcomb Hall in January.
But, from March 15 to March 19, students flocked to the pantry for essentials, almost clearing the shelves. In the spring of 2020, students made 276 separate visits to the pantry, up from 55 in the fall of 2019, says Mairin Shea (Batten ’20), executive director of the group that runs the pantry. The pantry ultimately had to close when UVA shuttered buildings, including Newcomb.
Student activists also created a petition, listing demands that ranged from helping students financially to providing them with a pass/fail option for their courses. In just a couple of weeks, it received more than 860 signatures from students and faculty.
“It felt a lot like we were trying to take care of each other, which is good and nice, but it would have been better to have more administrative backing and support throughout the process,” says JaVori Warren (Col ’21), who was involved in the petition and is president of the Black Student Alliance. “It was unprecedented for us, too, not knowing how to handle this.”
UVA responds quickly
UVA did take action, answering many of the students’ demands in announcements rolled out through early April. Federal work-study students would be paid through the end of the semester, and UVA extended remote work options for some student employees. Portions of students’ dining and on-Grounds housing costs were refunded. A pass/fail option was approved.
Administrators also provided emergency funding for students who needed a reliable computer and internet access for schoolwork; assistance traveling home; and food, medication or other supplies. By late March, UVA had distributed more than $250,000 and was continuing to take requests.
“My focus has been on trying to provide the individual student support as best we can,” says Nicole Eramo (Col ’97, Educ ’03, ’10), UVA’s assistant vice president for student affairs.
And, on April 6, President James E. Ryan (Law ’92) announced a $2 million emergency fund to help employees and furloughed contractor workers who lost paychecks, including dining hall employees who have worked at UVA for decades. UVA also pledged to help workers apply for state and federal unemployment benefits. Khvatik, however, says it’s unclear whether those efforts will help student employees like him.
“This is such a fluid situation, and we’ve been doing the best we can on changing information every minute,” Eramo says. “I appreciate people giving everybody a little space and grace in these times, because there is no right answer a lot of the time. We’re just doing the best we can.”
As the number of UVA students in need was growing even before the pandemic, Eramo says administrators already were talking about being part of a national survey this fall to better understand how many regularly go hungry or struggle to find adequate housing. She was surprised by the number of UVA students who had no reliable computer and requested help through the technology fund.
Shea, with the food pantry, is hopeful that as the pandemic highlights student needs, administrators will find better ways to support them even when there isn’t a crisis.
“We’re not a solution to the problem, we’re a Band-Aid on a larger issue, and that’s something the UVA administration needs to take responsibility for,” she says. “The fact there were 276 separate visits in such a shortened semester speaks to the fact that students are facing these issues whether or not the University has specific data on that.”
As March turned to April, Yao was making do, stretching out her online grocery orders, and cooking her meals in the kitchen on her floor where she can chat with a handful of other students who remain on the Grounds.
For his part, Khvatik is frustrated, but he’s less worried about his own situation than about the livelihoods of longtime UVA contractors who have been out of work. “The University will not be able to go back to ‘everything’s fine and normal’ next semester,” he says. “There will be really serious issues that will have to be addressed.”
Whatever comes next, Obermeyer is hopeful students will be included in the conversations. “We’ve never faced this situation before, so any action we take, we don’t know what the consequences are going to be,” she says. “It’s a matter of having the right people at the table.”
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