On Wednesday, I got an email from my university that classes would be moving online as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. The email felt inevitable. Classes had started up again on Monday after spring break, but rumors had been flying that online instruction was coming since we’d gotten back, and a dozen other schools had already made the call.

The Boston Globe is keeping a running tally of nearby schools canceling classes because of the pandemic. Thirty-six, as of this writing.

I’ve been keeping track of these changes anxiously. Northeastern didn’t close its dorms to students, and I’m fortunate to have a place to stay in the city and a means to get home if I needed to, but a lot of my peers weren’t so lucky. When I read that colleges like Amherst and Harvard were asking that students be moved out of residence halls by the end of the week my mind jumped immediately the questions that come obviously to a first-generation, low-income student.

How can you leave campus if you can’t afford to? What if you have no place to go? If you did leave, would you be reimbursed for the money you’d already paid for the semester? What would happen to the work-study jobs many students depend on for living expenses?

How was all this going to work?

This past week we’ve all seen the consequences of colleges not having robust support systems in place for first-generation and low-income students. As I read Twitter threads and spoke to students on other campuses, I was reminded of the uncomfortable truth that students like us have to contend with: we’re an afterthought at our institutions.

Colleges have said they’ll make exceptions for students who can present a case for staying on campus, but what’s happened in the confusion of the last week is the worst kind of college shuffle. Questions are left unanswered, and as a result, students suffer.

“In situations like this, you’re only as good as what you’re doing for your most vulnerable people,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University and founder of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, told the Chronicle of Education.

What should’ve been the job of the institutions fell to concerned peers and alumni. Harvard alum set up a form to crowdsource housing and storage options for displaced students, and the same is happening at MIT. Primus, the first-generation low-income student group on Harvard’s campus, created a guide for students whose questions about housing, storage, commencement, and more weren’t being addressed by the college.

One student at Amherst told me they’d asked the financial aid office for housing assistance and was told to take out a loan and turned instead to crowdfunding the money on Twitter. Another at Harvard faces homelessness because of the school’s sudden closure.

With endowments in billions, I can’t see this as much else but a failure of these institutions.

As a first-generation student looking on, this past week has been extremely disheartening. In a time of uncertainty and confusion, colleges have failed students like me. It’s hard to believe they’ve considered our well-being when the organization to help us isn’t in place when we need it the most.

When Northeastern announced that classes would move online, they made a point to say that campus life would resume as normal. I’d been following the stories from Harvard and others, and thought immediately of my work-study. So I called student employment and was told work-study jobs wouldn’t be affected. A day later I learned all labs would be closed, and anyone who worked in them — like myself — wouldn’t be able to work. Despite this, I’m one of the best-case scenarios.

This whole ordeal has revealed real fractures in the infrastructure of support that should exist for first-generation and low-income students. At best, this will be a wake-up call to institutions that more thought needs to be put into serving vulnerable populations. At worst, it’ll lead to thousands of students slipping through the cracks.

Thanks for reading,


Good reads

As the weeks go on, and we approach graduation season, coronavirus will undoubtedly continue to impact higher education. If you’re a first-generation college student who has thoughts on this issue and would like to talk please email me at zipporahosei@firstgennews.com.

A journalist and first-generation college student originally from Yonkers, N.Y., Zipporah is in her last year at Northeastern University. She has reported for The Boston Globe, The Chronicle of Higher Education,...