“I just can’t imagine how I would be feeling if I was one of those students being asked to pack up and go home,” said Yolanda Lau, a Honolulu native who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2002. “I know how expensive it was for me to come home when I was in college.”
After hearing that her alma mater had asked students not to return to campus after spring break, Lau created an online form for students to request emergency housing and transportation. Volunteers can use the form to offer help.
Lau’s crowdsourcing efforts are just part of many helping students who were given just a few days’ notice to pack all their belongings and arrange travel as universities grapple with keeping the novel coronavirus off campuses. Universities have responded to growing concerns by canceling events, clearing dorms and banning face-to-face teaching — measures that will affect more than 1 million students.
Katharine Ruegger, a 21-year-old studying geography and nonfiction literature at Bennington College in Vermont, found out Monday that she will not be allowed to stay on campus. She plans to pack up her belongings and leave her dorm room within 24 hours but doesn’t know where to go.
“I’m from Indiana, but my parents are both in their mid-60s, and my dad is immunocompromised,” Ruegger said. “I don’t have a bedroom there. I want to be near them, but I can’t go back to my house.”
The junior will rely on an online, collaborative spreadsheet she created to find housing. Dozens of others — including students, faculty and staff — are using it to search for child care and money to pay for short-term expenses.
When Ruegger created the spreadsheet, she was turning her anxiety into action, she said.
“It’s also really thrilling to be on video calls, not with other classmates, but with students all over the country who are organizing in this way,” Ruegger said.
At Middlebury College in Vermont, Leif Taranta, 22, a senior studying environmental justice and social movements, created a similar tool. Ami Fürgang, 23, a senior and film major, is keeping the spreadsheet organized. Hundreds of people have offered beds, rides, help finding health care and emotional support.
“I live near Wright Park and have an Australian terrier who is always available for visits and comfort,” a college staff member wrote.
“It’s very self-run,” Taranta said about the spreadsheet filled with contact information so people can facilitate their own meetings. “People are actually getting rides home.”
Lau said she will spend the coming days manually matching requests to offers in the online form she created. More than 700 people have committed to providing help.
“If someone says, ‘I need help with a plane ticket,’ I will go through the list and see who can pay,” she said.
If someone needs housing for two weeks, Lau will look through the data she has collected and see who can provide it.
“This is a grass-roots effort and not an official effort by MIT,” Lau said. “I think alums are very concerned that every student is taken care of.”
Lau expects to field more requests now that students know whether they will be granted an exception from moving off-campus. The school and many others are permitting students with special circumstances to stay in dorms.
Grass-roots efforts to crowdsource resources for students provide an important safety net for people with few options, said Abigail Morris, 19, a sophomore studying anthropology and gender studies at American University. Morris created an online form to share with schools across the District.
“I saw all this organizing happening, and I was waiting for something to pop up in the D.C. area,” said Morris, who plans to finish the semester in an off-campus apartment. American is “doing as best they can with the situation. But I think it’s going to be comforting for folks to know that this is here, just in case.”
For a student from a low-income family, a $200 flight home might be financially out of reach. For an LGBTQ student, leaving campus can mean returning to an unsafe home where family members are not supportive, Morris said.
“For a lot of folks, this can be really scary,” Morris wrote in a Facebook post.
“There continues to be uncertainty over how low-income students will be able to afford both their transportation home and the storage costs that the college has so far only offered to partially subsidize,” organizers from Harvard wrote.
Lau, who runs a consulting firm, said she has been overwhelmed by the response.
“I feel like at MIT, we all feel we have a shared bond of having gone through the same curriculum, and more,” she said. “And so I think that there’s been a strong outpouring of support because of that.”
Some schools that have urged students to leave campus have been criticized for not using more of their resources to assist students — Harvard’s almost $40 billion endowment is the largest in the country.
Fürgang said the community has a responsibility to care for one another.
People have offered “small things like, ‘I have three boxes of tissues’ to ‘I can deliver meals to your door.’ I think it’s really beautiful and exciting,” Fürgang said. “We really do have a lot of power when we can come together and support each other.”