Penn Pandemic Diary Penn Pandemic Diary, Entry #23: Looking Towards the Fall

May 8, 2020
By Florence Madenga | Penn Pandemic Diary

Florence Madenga is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication, a Perry World House Graduate Associate, and fellow at the Center for Research in Global Communication.

As the spring semester comes to an end, and summer rolls in, I am thinking about how long it will be until I can return to Philadelphia, and whether it is wise to even envision a fall semester on campus. Next school year, I will hopefully be a returning graduate associate (GA) in one of Penn’s high rise dorms, which houses over 700 upperclassmen. When I left the dorm on Sunday March 14 for Virginia to be with family, I departed for the Amtrak with one suitcase – a week’s worth of clothes, books to finish up my final class papers, my MacBook, and some skincare products. At the time, even after many emails, and amendments to those emails, about who could stay and who should leave the dorms, I had packed like someone who was coming back, and soon. I had no idea that two days after I left, the University would cancel GA contracts and strongly encourage students not to return to campus.

When I first received an email on March 11 stating that international students from countries “other than the ones designated Level 3 by the CDC” were encouraged to leave the United States, my chat groups of international students and those living on campus erupted in what felt like panic to me. While International Student and Scholar Services sent a corrected version clarifying that those who needed to stay could apply to do so, my own anxiety levels went up with each email. Some residents in my dorm asked me what to do, but I was unprepared to offer answers or adequate emotional support.

Additionally, I entered COVID-19 with some pessimism based on my years-long experience of being an international student in the United States. I have been caught by surprise in a crisis before. As an undergraduate student at NYU, I felt like I often got lost in the bureaucracy and shuffle of school communication structures and emails. When hurricane Sandy hit, and as my roommates in the dorm quickly fled to their family homes, it took a while for the school to clearly communicate where I should go. I was in the dorm for days, could not get in contact with family since I had no phone connectivity, and eventually had no electricity and no water. I ended up walking to a friend’s place at the other side of the Brooklyn bridge, who I had finally managed to contact via payphone.

When I arrived at Penn, I felt caught in the bureaucracy once again due to delays in receiving my stipend. But things looked up last year when I signed a contract to be a GA in a dorm. I joined a community of undergraduate and graduate student leadership, many of whom are international students from all over the world, committed to serving their floors. Though we were not paid an additional stipend, we received free housing, something essential to many low-income and international students trying to save money due to the precarious nature of the academic job market that awaits us. So, when the wave of emails came telling us that undergraduate students and undergraduate resident assistants were to leave the dorm during spring break, most of us were present to see the collateral damage. We saw our fellow RAs being told that they needed to plead their cases to stay. Our GA contracts had provided some sense of security on housing being available as long as our contracts were valid, and now there is a great deal of uncertainty about what our responsibilities will be if there are no residents in the dorms.

I have been very lucky. My own department and school reached out to me after learning of my situation in the dorms – from my advisor, to my dean, to other faculty members and staff. They offered housing options, groceries, storage spaces in their homes, and/or to advocate and intervene for me and the other international students. My college house dean has also been a source of information and comfort, checking in on me even after I left the dorm. I am incredibly grateful for these people, but they are only individuals within the large and complicated web of higher education, where things tend to get lost in translation.

The university’s approach to the “eviction” of undergrads from dorms has been criticized by people like Councilmember Helen Gym. The Philadelphia Inquirer has also published stories on how the policies of Penn and other colleges have affected vulnerable students. Penn is trying to help, both in terms of funding and listening to student concerns. But there is still significant uncertainty about when we will be able to come back on campus, and what university policies about housing will look like at that point.

Universities across the country are now grappling with the “how long” question and what the fall will look like. For many institutions, there are no easy or clear answers, mostly more uncertainty. And for some, there are moves to open up for the next school year; Brown University President Christina Paxson penned an Op-Ed in the New York Times arguing that colleges should open in the fall, and Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont called on Yale and other universities in his state opening in the fall “if it is safe to do so.”

Penn is now deciding what will become of the fall semester, how to ensure the safety of students in this crisis and beyond, and what those plans may look like logistically. I urge the administration to consider how they may anticipate needs of international students like me, who may sometimes fall through the cracks.

In the meantime, I am thinking about how my own student visa expires soon, and though I am protected by my I-20 document and can stay, what happens if I cannot return home to renew it. I am also thinking of those who left. With travel restrictions now in place, and with consulates closed, what does this mean for their scholarship in the fall? How can allowances be made for these students across the university? Or closer to “home” here, what would better solidarity, collaboration and communication look like with GAs if and when we return?

The views expressed in the Penn Pandemic Diary are solely the author’s and not those of Penn or Perry World House.