In response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, Tufts announced its transition to online learning, sending shockwaves through the community as students grappled with the new reality of leaving campus. We believe that the decision to get as many students off campus as possible was absolutely necessary. For many students, the decision felt rash and unnecessary; but as cities enter lockdown, the United States leads as a country with the most reported COVID-19 cases, and the death toll rises globally, we stand even more by this public health decision.
Be that as it may, we feel like the execution of student reallocation was not well-thought out by the administration and could have been better. It is important to note the distinction of what we mean by administration; this refers to Tufts University’s primary decision makers: senior administration in Ballou and the Board of Trustees. The faults in the execution of those decisions have affected first-generation low-income (FGLI) students the most. In a time like this, the Tufts community came together to support each other.
Within 24 hours of the announcement of eviction, Tufts Mutual Aid (TMA), the student-run group, was formed, and the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate transferred $50,000 to the FIRST Center’s Unexpected Hardship Fund. We are writing to acknowledge the tremendous effort of the FIRST Resource Center, which played a central role in the aftermath of this decision and started assisting students the night of the announcement. At Tufts, the FIRST Center was founded through the mobilization of FGLI on campus. Margot Cardamone and Jared Smith, FIRST Center director and program director for Bridge to Liberal Arts Success (BLAST), respectively, are trusted members of our community who represent us and go bat for us every single day. FIRST is by us, for us.
One of the biggest concerns for the student body was the sudden news of having to move off campus in less than seven days, which drove waves of stress for many on-campus residents who had to change the course of their semester, but for marginalized groups on campus, it was not just a matter of “moving-out;” for it included stressors others may not consider like finding somewhere to go, worrying about the extra cost of storage or juggling the impact of COVID-19 with the family at home. FIRST, alongside the efforts of other organizations, addressed these issues head-on and attended to student needs as quickly and as best as they could. The kindness, compassion, empathy and support we received from Margot, Jared and Florence was incredible and powerful in such a dire situation. Besides these three, many students who are part of the FIRST community offered to help the center manage all these requests and three students, Lidya Woldeyesus, Seble Yigletu and Ashley Gomez, spent the five days after the announcement in the center with the professional staff helping triage questions to receive the help actually needed.
FIRST booked your flight if you needed to get home—no questions asked. Money went quickly, and TCU Senate transferred another $50,000 to the Unexpected Hardship Fund. This 100k and the donations from alumni, students and faculty, allowed FIRST to buy flights for every single student who reached out and needed aid to fly home in this short notice. On the other hand, for many, there was no option to go ‘home’ because Tufts was their home. Still, after applying to stay on campus, several students were rejected. The Office of Residential Life and Learning consulted with people like Margot, so if additional circumstances were brought to light, their application was reassessed. Many students who had grievances about their denials were directed to speak to FIRST, who held office hours and let students express their concerns before either advocating for their stay on campus, or addressing concerns that students had about going back home. In some extraneous cases, some students have even been able to advocate for coming back to campus after going home. Margot’s approach to her work, which she used during and before this crisis, is what makes FIRST’s work essential to us; it is more than just adding money to the problem. She, as well as Jared, listen. Although it may feel like a thankless job, especially when their work is overlooked, Margot and Jared are the unsung heroes of our community. We see them and acknowledge them — just like they see us.
Our directors in FIRST have also gone beyond what their job titles demand, working over 80 hours weekly to ensure students’ needs are met. Because of their advocacy and the collaboration with the financial aid office, low income students received free storage with UPS, and the Associate Dean of Financial Aid worked with the budget team to ensure that students will still receive the rest of their work-study grants, even if they are not able to work remotely. Some students who were not getting a refund for room and board because they were fully aided or who had an extremely low refund were awarded the $250 hardship grant from the Office of Financial Aid, and low income students who have exhausted their work-study reward will receive an additional $450 stipend. In addition, students who did not have adequate WiFi or a working computer to take home were loaned a computer or could use their unexpected hardship money to have FIRST purchase one for them.
Additionally, the work done by other centers and the Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion Nandi Bynoe has been overlooked. Directors of all centers were quick to extend support to their communities directly and refer them to FIRST when appropriate. To alleviate food insecurity, the Asian American Center (AAC) organized a food pantry and encouraged students to drop off food items and take whatever they needed. Because the AAC only accepted non-perishable food donations, the Women’s Center also opened its doors to accept perishable food items by offering fridge space for storage. Because of the work initiated by the AAC and followed by the Women’s Center, students who stayed on campus had access to food up until the centers had to close. After that, Food Rescue took over and transferred all donated food items to the Mayer Campus Center. However, since the food pantry has been shifted, there has been no mention of the work initiated by the AAC or the Women’s Center in TMA’s promotions or the recent Tufts Daily editorial.
Sometimes, groups looking to help others, take matters into their own hands without asking the communities of interests what exactly their needs are, and by doing so they make assumptions that may produce misinformed work. If your intention is to help a community, be aware that you don’t speak for them; instead, uplift their voices to ensure your work centers them and their needs.
We highlight the work of FIRST alongside other identity based centers, student groups (such as Tufts Labor Coalition who fought for regular wages and benefits for all dining hall workers through May 9) and the overall Tufts community to show that, in tough times, our community is united in support. Although the COVID-19 pandemic is a rare occurrence, it teaches us lessons on how to better move forward in organizing and supporting one another in the future. We ask all Tufts student groups doing work for the uplifting of others on campus to look at your leadership and consider if your actions are for the betterment or detriment of marginalized students on this campus.
Respectfully submitted by: Lidya Woldeyesus (A’22), Ashley Gomez (A’22), Rabiya Ismail (A’22), Rossiel Reyes (A’22), Carolina Olea Lezama (A’22), Carolina Espinal (A’21), Ivette Rodriguez Borja (A’21), Seblewongel Yigletu (A’20), Priscila Rincon (A’21)