Confusion, anger rife as low-income international students among those forced off campus

A Tufts student unloads their luggage from a school bus shuttle, one of many the university organized to evacuate students from campus, in Terminal C of Boston Logan International Airport on March 13. Alexander Thompson / The Tufts Daily

Students from countries hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as several low-income international students, are frustrated that Tufts rejected their housing extension requests, sending them scrambling for plane tickets or a bed to sleep in.

In his March 10 email to the Tufts community, University President Anthony Monaco announced that students would need to depart residence halls by March 16, but assured that students with extenuating circumstances would be able to remain on campus.

The Office of Residential Life and Learning (ORLL) began accepting housing extension applications via an online form on March 10 and announced its decisions by the evening of March 13. Numerous students who had their applications rejected say it has thrown their finances, academics or both in jeopardy.

University administrators said the campus closure was imperative for public health but that Tufts sought to grant an extension to every student whose well-being or academic outlook depended on it.

Dean of Student Life and Engagement Chris Rossi said his office received 590 applications for housing extensions and initially granted 301. Since then, 95 students cancelled their requests, leaving 206 students permitted to stay on campus.

Students from a country for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a Level 3 travel health notice, such as China and Italy, or a country impacted by travel restrictions, such as Jordan and Peru, were eligible for an extension. Extensions were also granted to students with “extenuating financial or personal circumstances,” according to Rossi.

Dean of Student Affairs and Chief Student Affairs Officer ad interim Nancy Thompson said the university made the right call in a Facebook Live town hall on Monday. She stressed that every application was read over by a ORLL staff member, but admitted that the process was “imperfect.”

“Because it was done in a compressed time frame and through written word, it was difficult, and there were probably cases where we didn’t get the nuances,” Thompson said.

More than half a dozen students told the Daily they felt they were unfairly denied an extension.

Xiaokun Dong, a sophomore, and Ou Li, a junior, were the among the first to voice outrage over the extension request denials, in respective Facebook posts on March 14.

Both students live in China and have few relatives in the United States. However, as Li is a U.S. permanent resident and Dong is a U.S. citizen, Tufts rejected their requests. The posts together received hundreds of reactions and dozens of comments from other students expressing anger and offering similar stories.

Dong told the Daily he was shocked that Tufts rejected his request. He lives with his parents in Shanghai, China, but his American citizenship disqualified him from a housing extension, he said.

“I am too stressed to even be angry about the university’s decision,” he said. “For the last few days my mind has been on what my strategy should be and where my stuff should go and where do I sleep at night.”

Dong says he received an outpouring of support from Tufts students following his post. 

“They’ve handled this situation better than the Tufts administration — better than anyone. It really surprised me, and I’m really glad to see it,” he said.

Over the weekend the university ended up granting him an extension until March 22, but he said he chose to live with a friend in New Hampshire until he can find somewhere to rent closer to campus.

Megan Kang, a senior, found herself in a similar situation as Dong and Li

Kang holds a green card in the United States, but her parents live in South Korea, a CDC Level 3 country which saw a surge in COVID-19 cases in late February and early March, leading to widespread quarantines. Kang’s housing extension request was also rejected on March 13.

“When I got the email, I was just so angry, furious, just frustrated and disappointed especially at Tufts,” she said.

Kang is living in a friend’s room until she can find a better solution.

Low-income international students are also disappointed by Tufts’ policies.

The rejection email put sophomore Dominic Ndondo, who is from Zimbabwe and receives financial aid, in a bind. 

“There were only two decisions I could’ve made,” Ndondo said. “The first decision was to basically go back home [and] suffer the risk of not being able to catch up on anything in class because I don’t have internet, or stay here and become homeless.”

Ndondo said he was devastated by the decision but that he understands Tufts officials had to take drastic measures to combat the pandemic.

He immediately contacted friends to see if they could take him in, who in turn contacted friends of their own. Ndondo will be staying with another Tufts student and their family for the rest of the semester.

Others have been less fortunate.

Sophomore Sevara Nasritdinova requested a housing extension because of the unreliable internet connection available in her home country of Uzbekistan and because the income from her on-campus jobs in the Tisch Library and as a teaching assistant supports her family, which runs an Airbnb for tourists. With tourism on pause due to the pandemic, their business faces grim prospects, she said.

“I’m the primary contributor in my family, given the exchange rate in Uzbekistan and in America,” Nasritdinova said. “The $200 I can send to my family is literally half of the family budget.”

Her housing request was rejected, however. Nasritdinova managed to get a seat on a midnight Turkish Airlines flight from Boston to Istanbul on March 15. By the time she landed the next day the Uzbek government had sealed land borders and grounded flights; Turkish Airlines canceled Nasritdinova’s flight to Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent.

Nasritdinova was stranded. She explained that there were no more flights to Uzbekistan, she had no money to buy one if there were and she had no way to return to the U.S. because her visa had expired.

After a couple of frantic hours in the airport, Nasritdinova’s parents were able to locate some relatives who live in Istanbul who took her in. She stayed in their tiny apartment for two days, sleeping in their toddler’s room.

Late on March 16, Nasritdinova emailed Tufts with an urgent appeal for help, copying the FIRST Resource Center, the International Center and a handful of deans. The next day she got a response from the FIRST Center. The administration, having rejected her housing extension just days earlier, moved swiftly to get her back.

Tufts bought her a hotel room the next day, on Wednesday, March 18; on Thursday, she had a special appointment at the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul for a visa, which was approved on Friday.

Nasritdinova departed Istanbul early Saturday morning, returning to Boston later that day.

Tufts granted Nasritdinova her housing extension, but she said she found off-campus housing instead.

Rossi said the university is doing its best to support low-income students. The FIRST Center paid for 117 students’ trips home, including Nasritindova’s, bought or loaned personal computers for students who do not have their own and arranged Wi-Fi access for others.

An undergraduate student from India, who wished to remain anonymous because they are employed by ORLL, acknowledged the university was making an effort to help vulnerable students but said they themselves feel left behind.

The student applied for a housing extension in order to continue working as a teaching assistant in the math department and because they were afraid of returning to India, where the health infrastructure is much weaker than in the U.S.

When Tufts rejected their application, they broke down and cried.

“Honestly I didn’t even want to fight to stay here. I didn’t try to beg [ORLL] to stay here because I feel like at this point they don’t care about the international students,” they said. “Once you lose your trust in the organization, it’s really hard to believe that they’re going to take care of you.”

Robert Kaplan contributed reporting to this article.


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