When students at the University of Chicago learned last Wednesday they had to move off campus from the student newspaper — and not from the university administration — it caused panic.
Students had questions about the basics, like housing and food. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they said there was a lot of uncertainty, especially among international students, low-income students and students who might not have a safe home to return to.
“I don’t know if everyone outside the university knows how much people are dependent on the dorms, the dining halls,” said Bruno Petrucci, a senior at UChicago. “And now they’re suddenly, on one day’s notice, they’re dropped into the real world. They have to find a place to stay, they have to buy groceries.”
Their classmates understood and sprung into action. On Friday, 24 hours after the university confirmed the school was shifting courses online and requiring students to leave residence halls, they created a Facebook group called UChicago Mutual Aid. They spent the day creating request forms for needs like housing or a laptop and donations forms for students who had extra food or furniture to share.
“Instead of reading books, writing final essays, studying for final exams, they decided to be outside in the day, collecting resources for people they don’t know,” said sophomore Yuri Sugano, one of the dozens of students who jumped in to help.
The group now has more than 4,500 members. Students post about things they need, but also about organizing carpools home to places across the country, a student-run emergency fund and offers to help others move into new apartments. Parents and alumni also have pitched in.
Students said the university provided regular academic updates, like pushing back finals. But they criticize the administration for being slow on providing immediate steps to help students navigate the move off campus.
“Their response has been tone-deaf emails,” said senior Christina Stebbins. “In one case, [they were] talking about the adventures of the Peloponnesian war and trying to relate it to our current state of chaos, and another one about the origin of the university and its academic integrity.”
Students said many needed practical resources to find new housing, transportation home or a new job. Some students had never signed a lease or searched for an apartment on their own.
In an email statement, UChicago provided a list of actions it has taken to support students in unprecedented times, which included delaying finals, moving to remote learning, helping students move out of dorms and helping those who remained on campus if they could not return home due to travel restrictions or other circumstances.
“The situation is moving quickly, and we know some answers are not available immediately,” said spokesperson Jeremy Manier.
On Thursday, the university announced Ph.D. students will be paid through the end of the school year. Students with work study jobs also will still get paid, even if they can’t work remotely.
Stebbins credits UChicago Mutual Aid with pushing the university to do more..
“Quite a bit of success of [UChicago Mutual Aid] was not only just getting people paired up with housing, and offering supplies for people who can’t really afford it right now, but a big part of it was a lot of contacting administration,” Stebbins said. “[It] has resulted in better conditions for students.”
For instance, students on financial aid who were forced to move off campus were originally classified under a new financial aid designation called a “distance learner,” rather than as an “off-campus” student. For students getting full financing aid that meant $2,300 less in their stipend than off-campus students.
After Block Club Chicago first reported on the issue, the university changed course. They announced all students moving off campus will receive a financial aid package that covers rent, including students who are moving home.
“The previous distance learning financial aid package had been calculated with the assumption that students leaving campus would move home,” Manier said to WBEZ.
Students said that assumption is a key example of how UChicago doesn’t seem to know how to successfully care for the needs of low-income students, “and anyone who is not rich and privileged,” said Petrucci.
Overall, Petrucci says the way students came together in the past week has changed the way he thinks of his campus community.
“The student body is very powerful in what it can do, and it’s just really inspiring to see how much we can do as a community of people who care about each other,” he said.
Once students are settled in for the rest of the school year, Petrucci hopes the mutual aid group can use leftover donations to help the rest of the neighboring South Side community.