The Washington Post

Guest post: Should St. Mary’s compensate ship-bound students?

Students at St. Mary’s College of Maryland were given leis as they boarded the Sea Voyager as temporary quarters. Does the college owe them something more? (Alexandra Garcia/The Washington Post)

Hundreds of students at St. Mary’s College of Maryland spent part of the fall semester living on a cruise ship after a mold outbreak drove them from their residence halls. The novel solution brought a wave of happy publicity to the public liberal arts college. But in this guest post, Julie Durbin, a 19-year-old sophomore from Crofton, writes that many of her shipmates were not amused.

At midnight on the 23rd of December, students at my college, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, received their grades for the fall 2011 academic semester. Mere moments later, my Facebook began lighting up with status updates from my college friends and acquaintances. Some students rejoiced in their impossibly good grades. Others heaved desperate sobs of despair. Still others accepted the mere decency of their academics this semester.

I expect more of my Facebook friends to be sobbing than rejoicing. After all, around 300 students at my college had quite the rough semester — one with the potential to wreak havoc on any student’s GPA.

It all started with Hurricane Irene, before most of the upperclassmen had even moved into their dorms. The moisture from the storm aggravated mold in two of the residence halls, transforming it into a force to be reckoned with. Eventually, the mold problem got so bad that students living in the two buildings had to be relocated to three different hotels, one located a full half-hour away from campus. Students had to pack up all of their belongings and move. Then they had to commute to campus on shuttles that sometimes arrived an hour and a half late.

The president of our college, Joe Urgo, realized that it was problematic to have so many students so far away from such a small, community-centered campus. And so, about a week after the first move, the president announced that students were to move again, this time back to campus. We were all flabbergasted when we found where we would be moving: onto the Sea Voyager, a cruise ship that would be docked on the St. Mary’s River for the rest of the semester.

Two moves in such a short span would be a lot for anybody to handle, but as students, we endured an extra layer of stress. Not only did we have to worry about where we lived, but he had to complete work and attend classes as well. Although we were able, finally, to get reasonably settled once we were aboard the Sea Voyager, all the moving seemed like an act of academic murder. For two weeks, were forced to focus on moving instead of on our work. To make matters worse, all of this occurred around midterms. Two weeks’ worth of assignments piled up while we moved and packed. Many students were forced to miss classes.

All the stress, distraction, incomplete assignments and missed material would haunt us for the rest of the semester. Some students managed to stay afloat academically, despite their hardships. A message from one of my Facebook friends showed her surprise: “‎3.7 GPA out of all that craziness last semester? HELL YEAH :D”.

Personally, while I certainly felt I was straining to catch up with my work in the face of all the problems, in the end I saw no real repercussions on my grades.

Many students were not so lucky. While I’ve yet to see any of my Facebook friends despair in public, I know from discussion on campus that declining grades have been a real issue for some of the students displaced by the mold. Many are upset, even enraged, that the college is not providing students with financial compensation for all of the distractions and inconveniences. Some students could be in danger of losing their scholarships because of slipping grades. Some have even proposed (only half-jokingly) that everyone affected by the mold should have their GPA’s raised.

While that proposal is impractical and cannot really be taken seriously, it does invite the question of what can be done about the academic repercussions of the mold drama. Some students feel this is a loose end that the college has yet to tie up. On such a small and centered campus, our college administrators do have an obligation to create an environment that is conducive to learning. Some students blame the hurricane and others blame the college. Whoever is to blame, the fact is that around 300 students were not consistently provided a learning-conducive environment this semester. Many students feel cheated by this and, as a result, want the college to repay them somehow for the damage done to their academic records.

But really, what can the college do? Getting rid of the mold and placing students in alternative housing has already used up most of the funds reserved for this kind of situation. My roommate and I calculated (and also heard from the grapevine) that if the college were to hand over the remainder of its rainy-day fund to students for compensation, students would receive a measly $13 each, a sum hardly proportionate to the stresses of this semester. And, of course, raising everyone’s GPA would cause grade inflation, and it would ultimately fail to solve students’ problems.

The truth is, at this point, not much can be done for the students affected by the displacement. However, I propose that the experience may bring its own reward. When students return from winter break and move into their new rooms to begin a semester so much less stressful than the last, they will probably be grateful. Although nearly every student will have hated the academic repercussions caused by the mold, they will look back now and realize that the experience has made them stronger. After a fall term marked by disruptive living arrangements and backed-up coursework, a “regular” semester will feel positively easy.

So, while some of my Facebook friends may be posting bleak status updates on this winter break, a few weeks into the spring semester, perhaps their outlook will change. Maybe their posts will voice thanks for the life experience gained from mold and moving, instead of despairing over bad luck and unfortunate circumstances. I know mine will.


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