“This article was written by Sophie Schoenbrun and James Grosjean on behalf of Vassar Challah for Hunger.”
We can all agree that COVID-19 has messed up the college experience we all dreamed of when we were younger, and not just socially. Many of us were stranded at school or at friends’ houses when President Elizabeth Bradley announced that the remainder of the 2020 Spring semester would be virtual, and we had to book expensive plane tickets home. Some of us stayed on campus and quarantined here through the summer. Even now, many of us still can’t find campus jobs due to their scarcity. Wherever we were, problems inevitably arose.
Last fall, we heard from students who stayed on campus during the COVID-19 closure through our second annual Food Security Survey, and we found that after the semester had finished, the college did not provide adequate resources to meet students’ basic dietary needs. Because it was unsafe to leave campus to grocery shop, students had to rely on expensive grocery delivery services to eat. Some reported that the college gave out $100 food stipends near the end of the summer, but by then it was too late. One student told us:
“Meal offerings—especially during a pandemic, when leaving campus to buy groceries is dangerous—are not a luxury, and should not be treated as optional. I thought Vassar was better than to treat its most vulnerable students like this, but I suppose I was wrong.”
It is not okay to neglect vulnerable students like this. The summer was hectic, as we all know, but there should have been a plan in place to feed students on campus. Thinking back, we assume that much of the time between March and July was used to plan for our safe return in the fall, but that should not have eclipsed the needs of the students who were already there.
It is nearly impossible to get even basic necessities from an administration that fails to communicate with students, and it is most definitely impossible for said administration to plan for students’ well-being when students are not present at the negotiating table. That’s why students have, historically and currently, taken matters into their own hands, organizing each other and getting loud about their concerns.
Vassar Student Association (VSA) Class of 2023 Senator Joe Mangan has been working on reforming the VSA to make it more representative of the student body and have more power to address issues that students face on campus. Their vision is to increase students’ say in college planning and the implementation of programs, as well as to increase oversight of the administration on behalf of their peers.
“What few people seem to realize is that those in VSA experience the exact same problems with administration as the broader student body,” Mangan explained. “We have asked nicely for free laundry service numerous times, we have made more than one statement calling for Universal Pass or Double A grading policies, and we have held multiple divestment referendums. All our calls have gone ignored.”
Because the current model of the VSA provides that the administration has the final say on most decisions regarding student well-being, according to Mangan and other VSA members to whom we have talked, the body is prone to being ignored. Thus, a larger-scale student organizing project beyond the scope of the VSA is necessary to bring students’ voices to the table on these issues in a timely manner. This is entirely different from the many forums and town halls put on by various school administrators, most facilitated through webinars where students cannot speak but instead ask questions through a digital Q&A. In these types of meetings, the “resolutions” to problems typically come from the top down, and in turn, they are often poorly communicated, confusing and inefficient.
Growing our collective power won’t come without opposition. “I anticipate that administration won’t be readily willing to work together. This will undoubtedly create tension that I hope to minimize,” Mangan said.
A recent example of mobilizing our collective power arose on the question of food insecurity. A group of 30 student organizations sent a sign-on letter to the administration in early March demanding that the administration involve students in the meal planning process for the break. A small group of students have been meeting with Deans of the college, and we are in the process of creating a joint group of students and administrators to address basic needs insecurity over breaks, but this did not come without a great deal of planning and organizing, as well as a great deal of time.
“Finding the time to consistently organize, even for a cause we deeply support, is always tricky as a college student,” Mangan admitted.
Their comments are painfully relatable. This year has been difficult to get through academically, let alone in regards to student advocacy.
In addition, some of the proposed administrative attendees of the meeting did not show up, and it made us wonder whether or not this project was actually a priority.
We talked to Capria Berry, the director of the Transitions program, about how students were able to gain an audience with administrators in the past: “In many ways I owe my position to students,” they explained. “Students started the Transitions Program and literally sat with President Bradley to advocate for a full-time professional position. That doesn’t just happen everywhere.”
While this is very true—after the letter, we were able to sit down with administrators in a timely manner—we had a very tough time getting all administrators on board with the meeting in the first place. While some administrators like Berry focus a great amount of energy on fighting for students’ needs, other administrators are more interested in rebutting our demands than actually listening to what they are. We are frequently referred down the ladder of bureaucracy, to offices where we have been repeatedly dismissed in the past. It is exhausting.
It is clear that the College will only entertain student-led initiatives that it can co-opt into its own agenda, like adding an administrative position for the Transitions program, which the college leverages to present an inclusive institutional image. But when it comes to initiatives that hinder the top-down implementation of that agenda, such as increasing student representation in college planning meetings, the College tends to ignore us or push us away. If we are going to create a truly communicative and productive environment here, the administration needs to defer to students when it comes to making decisions about our own well-being. We have already seen that refusing (or forgetting) to include student input has caused great harm, especially during this pandemic.
All we are asking for is a seat at the table and consistent communication. Is that too much to ask?