Students and Faculty Set Out to Make Sense of Recent COVID-19 Changes

In the wake of the college’s announcement of a shift to remote learning, community members from across the board struggle to find their footing amid a seemingly surreal announcement and mandate for departure. Exceedingly high flight costs, the prospect of returning to unstable home situations and uncertainties around visas have all created cause for concern among students, while faculty face challenges in adapting their courses for remote learning. 

Low-income students particularly face much of the brunt of the college’s quick departure turnaround. Hailing from California, Sikkiim Hamilton ’23 emailed the financial aid office upon learning about the college’s decision, hoping to obtain funds to compensate for the high prices associated with buying a plane ticket only days before the travel date, along with the additional cost of bringing multiple suitcases. Because travel is factored into students’ financial aid packages, she assumed that financial aid would cover the expenses this time around. Instead, the office offered Hamilton the option of taking out a federal loan; the deadline to apply for the loan was 30 minutes after the email was sent. 

“Your travel is built into your budget but is not paid for by the college,” the financial aid office wrote to Hamilton in an email exchange shared with The Student. “The travel costs are estimated into your budget and used in determining your financial aid award. You have to pay the travel expenses yourself. The college does not pay transportation costs.”

“I just have a really hard time with the fact that they just told me to take out a loan within the next hour and they didn’t even really offer to help me out in any way. I was just really disheartening, and it just felt like a copy-paste message, you know?” Hamilton said in a phone interview. 

She added that the financial aid office’s response only escalates the stress that low-income students are facing in arranging their departure from campus. “I just feel like there’s so much exhaustion and hurt from the students on campus, especially low-income students, and to be kind of disregarded by the financial aid office and kind of feel like we’re just pushed aside or another number,” she said. 

Flights are not the only worry low-income students have in the departure process. The college set in place a petition process for students to request to remain on campus, noting that it will prioritize international students, homeless students and others with extenuating circumstances. Despite these policies, low-income students still fear that they will have nowhere to go if their petition is not approved.  

“I am personally terrified,” Isiaha Price ’21 wrote to The Student. “I have lived on my own since I was 16. I have implied emancipation and gave up my apartment to come and live here at Amherst. I have no home. I have no family to go back to. And the sad part is I am not the exception, many Amherst students are in similar situations.” 

“The administration seems to be operating on the assumption that most of these logistical nuances can simply be ‘figured out.’ Which is not the case. How do I figure out how to get a home in less than a week? How do we figure out how our family will afford food with an extra mouth to feed? How do I figure out a $600  plane ticket bought last minute? And let me be clear, loans are not the answer,” Price added.

“If things just continue to get worse, like Massachusetts just declared a state of emergency, pretty soon there will be travel bans, and I would rather be at home than here to be stuck so that I can spend as much time with my family as possible.” 

The stress surrounding how to get home and how to afford it also carries over to international students faced with decisions of where to go in the wake of the administration’s announcement of the need for students to depart campus. For Riddhi Sampat ’21, an international student from Mumbai, India, funding flights less than a week out is a primary concern. “Whether we are on financial aid or not, I feel like booking a ticket last minute is expensive for everyone, so I feel like the [college] should try to compensate more people for the flights, because flights to India, flights to anywhere are not going to be cheap if you expect us to buy them in a few days. I think that’s one thing that [the administration has] not really told us clearly, whether they’re going to help us fund our flights. So that’s a sticky situation for some people to decide whether to go home or to stay here for such a reason,” she said. 

Sampat worries also that even if she were able to make it home, the prospects of being let back into the U.S. worry her. “It is kind of scary to go back home because if some of us international students are going to be doing internships here in the summer and we are not really sure whether if we go back home, if the US is going to say ‘we don’t want people from so-and-so country to come back in because it’s a threat,’ so that’s a big decision that I’m making right now, whether I can go back home safely or whether I go back home and they won’t allow me to come back later on.” 

Wavering visa statuses resulting from the administration’s decision also leaves international students in limbo. All full-time international students are on an F-1 visa, which generally prohibits students from taking online classes, raising the question of whether remote learning falls under this category. Graduating seniors looking to obtain Optional Practical Training (OPT) status — which allows them to obtain an employment authorization card for post-grad work — must leave the country until their OPT is approved unless their F-1 visa has not yet expired, raising concerns about reentry; the OPT process can take upwards of five months due to delays in processing, and students are not allowed to apply for OPT until 90 days prior to graduation. And for students seeking to participate in the Curricular Practical Training (CPT) program for summer employment, students share similar concerns about reentry into the country if they leave, especially if travel bans take effect in the future. 

“That is also a concern for their status … we have students from countries like Syria, who waited 18 months to get their visa in the first place. So they can’t leave the country. Otherwise, they won’t be able to get a visa. If something happens to their visa, they won’t be able to get another one,” said Arzoo Rajpur ’22, president-elect of the International Students’ Association and an international student from Tanzania. 

For international students who are allowed to remain on campus, Rajpur expressed that she hoped the administration would allow for international students to be housed together, citing the mental health of students as a primary reason to take this into consideration. “There’s a huge risk of this impacting the mental health of a lot of students, and feeling very isolated and kind of confined [while] they’re away from their families,” she said. She added that because many international students’ families are impacted by the virus in their home countries, placing international students together would prove beneficial “because we already have that community … [and we could] support each other in that way by being close to one another.” 

In the face of all this upheaval, students quickly compiled and circulated a letter to the administration voicing student concerns, signed by over 300 students — 200 of whom signed it in the first two hours. Julian Brubaker ’20 was one of the students who helped write that letter, and he explained that it came out of the conversation students held during the impromptu sit-in in Frost Library on Monday evening, March 9. “I liked that event a lot,” said Brubaker. “It ended up being really powerful. Everyone sat in a circle sharing thoughts and emotions, then it broke up into small groups to discuss. It felt very democratic, very liberal arts, and we came up with a list of things, and that’s what the letter came out of.”

A whiteboard in the lobby of Frost exhibited some of these concerns voiced by students at the sit-in and again in the letter, and these points have since begun to shift the administration’s response on certain logistical details regarding students’ removal. 

The closing remarks of the letter reads: “Amherst College once welcomed us with open arms. Yesterday, you asked us to leave. You did this in what you believed was our best interest, but you did not ask for our voice. Rejecting us from our home, with a week’s notice, is painful. Amherst College has a responsibility to its students, one that does not translate to dispersing us without any discussion.  Please listen to us. This is our home. Let us stay.”

In an emergency faculty meeting on Tuesday, March 10, Brubaker, Charissa Doerr ’20 and Samantha Schriger ’20, two other student authors, read parts of the letter and spoke off-the-cuff about the upset they felt surrounding the need to leave campus. However, President Biddy Martin reaffirmed faculty that now was a time when she and faculty needed to take decisive action and lead the way, rather than letting students’ recent emotions lead the way. 

For Brubaker, the  emotion that resonates with him most is “just the pain of it all.” He added that “it only really hit me at the faculty meeting that this has never happened before in Amherst College history as far as I know… It is still coming to me in waves and I’m still shocked.” 

“There are no easy answers, and I know that [the administration] is making the best out of a bad situation, but it hurts; it just hurts students to be asked to leave their home, what they consider to be home to them, for people who don’t have other homes to go to, and to leave lifelong friendships. You can’t really quantify that.”

It’s a sadness that seniors feel across the board. “I imagine, as seniors, we’re going to leave here feeling in some ways our college career was always unfinished,” said McLean Cozine ’21 who during the Frost sit-in voiced his sadness about realizing he had gone from half a semester’s worth of senior-spring bucket list items and relationship building to a few short days’ worth, on top of the logistical and emotional nightmare of figuring out what to do next and where to go.

For Cozine, the thought of leaving the school for the last time before tying up all commitments  is particularly jarring and adds “a lot of stress to a situation that is already stressful,” he said. “I anticipate it being hard to say goodbye and feeling like I’ve made my peace with Amherst, and then like now I have to go back and focus on doing work from afar.” 

”Work really is our last priority right now,” he said of the seniors he knows. He added his hope for faculty understanding of these complex, uncharted emotional dilemmas and that they adjust for that by pushing back looming assignments before and after spring break.   

Faculty themselves are also trying to grapple with the ramifications of moving their courses to an online platform. Especially for professors who teach courses with components that are difficult to replicate in an internet setting — like science labs, for example — learning how to navigate online pedagogy proves difficult. 

“I’m teaching a class on the essay film this semester, and it’s discussion-based, so I think it’s very important that we show up in person,” said Assistant Professor of Art and Film and Media Studies Adam Levine. “But that translation is easier than my other class, which is a skills class in video production and is dependent on equipment, dependent on software, on collaboration — it’s embodied learning in real space with real people. I’m attempting to recreate that kind of spirit for the rest of the semester, but there’s simply no way it could be taught as planned.”

Associate Professor of Physics David Hanneke echoed similar sentiments about his lab courses, noting while there are some alternatives — like allowing students to bring home lab materials or creating simulations  — there is no exact solution to mimic the lab experience.

“I think there are a lot of things that you would do in person in the lab that cannot be replicated with the simulation. You’re just learning how to use the equipment. You know, we use some electronic equipment like an oscilloscope and I think that it’s unlikely we’d be able to give each student their own oscilloscope to take home with them — but that’s an important part of it,” Hanneke said. 

As students have expressed and Martin  echoed in a faculty meeting, there has been such a short window of time for community members to grasp what these changes mean for themselves and the rest of the semester, and with time some clarity or semblance of sense will break through amid the instability. 

Ryan Yu ’22 contributed reporting to this article.