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For Many Students, Campus is the Holiday Home They Need

December 22, 2020

Filed in: Learning & Education

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Author: Allyson Nesmith is a senior at Vanderbilt University and the Center’s Digital Communications and Social Media Intern.

As a current senior at Vanderbilt University, I have witnessed firsthand the ways in which colleges and universities are adapting to life in a pandemic. I have had to adapt as well, taking all of my courses online for the first time (nice to meet you Zoom Fatigue), as well as spending a lot more time focusing on organization now that I have both asynchronous and synchronous classes. Though my enhanced time-management skills have helped me tremendously, this semester has also been more difficult because of the changes to our holiday break schedule.

In order to reduce travel to and from campus, Vanderbilt decided to completely eliminate the fall and spring break, and I got my first taste at working nearly four months straight without a single school day off. In order to account for this time off that we’re missing, Vanderbilt has given us an extended two-and-a-half month break from Thanksgiving to the end of January.

For me, this extended holiday break means that I get to spend my birthday at home for the first time in four years, and I get to spend some (much-needed) time with my dog, Maddy. With that being said, it also means that my dad will be working from home at the same time that my sister and I are doing online school, raising concerns regarding privacy and Wi-Fi.

For other students, the consequences of this shutdown are more severe. In this study done by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, 56 percent of students (out of 86,000) reported housing insecurity and 17 percent reported being homeless in the previous year. For many of these students, living in their dorm provides them with a stable, affordable living situation with access to clean water, food, a bed to sleep in, and more, making it crucial for them to be allowed to remain on campus throughout the holiday break.

While these statistics show the necessity of remaining on campus for many students, several schools and universities (including Vanderbilt University) have failed to take into account the needs of low income students, homeless students, and students on financial aid by charging a daily fee to those who want to remain on campus. In my personal experience, this is the first time this has ever happened (ironic considering this is the longest break we’ve ever had), and it is a drastic change from the typical procedure where students who want to stay just have to notify the Housing Department. While Vanderbilt has since released a statement clarifying that homeless students will not be charged this rate, obstacles remain such as the fact that these students must be legally homeless, “as defined in and required by Tennessee Code, Title 49, Chapter 7, Part 1.

A closed campus can also create challenges for some members of the LGBTQ+ community, for whom staying at home may mean staying in the closet or staying in an unsafe environment. In a poll conducted by the Trevor Project, it was found that since the start of COVID-19, one-third of transgender and nonbinary youth report feeling unsafe in their living situation, and a similar number of all LGBTQ+ youth said they were unable to be themselves at home. Some have been kicked out by their parents and end up in a homeless shelter or on the streets. By forcing students to stay home (especially for such a long period of time), colleges and universities may be placing their students in unsafe situations.

Finally, by forcing students to go home, college and universities are also taking away their access to affinity spaces, which can be beneficial because they provide a supportive space for these students who may not receive support elsewhere. Vanderbilt University specifically has many affinity spaces on campus including the LGBTQI Life Cultural Center as well as the Black Cultural Center (one of my favorite spaces on campus). Both of these centers serve as safe spaces for self-expression, community, and camaraderie and provide students with valuable resources such as career information and managing relationships.

From Vanderbilt’s perspective, sending us home is a way for the campus to remain safe throughout this pandemic. While it is important to remain as safe as possible during these times, it is also important for colleges and universities to acknowledge the complexities regarding going “home for the holidays.” For many adolescents, going home poses a threat to their housing stability, safety, or their livelihood, at a time when these young people are establishing their identities and social support networks. Schools and universities everywhere should work to create equitable solutions that consider all of their students including: creating alternative isolation plans, providing housing assistance and meal services, and more. With these necessary adjustments, every college student can be in the safest and happiest home for them throughout the holidays.

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