Defining Safe: Living in Limbo

Madison Smith, Reporter

First-generation and/or low-income (FGLI) sophomores speak on their experiences with housing this fall. From Evans Scholars losing their on-campus housing to work study job insecurity, many FGLI students believe that the University’s last minute housing cancellation was inequitable.

ALEX HARRISON: I do have one thing to say to our dear friends who aren’t on financial aid, or are relying on parents to pay for their rent, or just, you know, come from wealthier backgrounds. I want you to recognize that you hold a much larger amount of comfort, stability and privilege in the wealth that your family has, and your housing situation that a lot of your peers do not hold. So keep that in mind when talking about things like financial aid refunds, and, “Oh, this is actually hurting us more as wealthier students.” I don’t want to hear it. Because your parents might need to pay more, but it’s your parents paying more. And at the end of the day, you’re not going to get evicted, you’re not going to not be able to afford food.

MADISON SMITH: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Madison Smith. This is Defining Safe, a podcast looking at the intersection of identity and student life at Northwestern. With 66 percent of students from the top 20 percent and 14 percent of students from the top 1 percent, the wealth gap at Northwestern is hard to miss. First-generation and/or low-income students can often feel out of place surrounded by peers from wealthy, privileged backgrounds. And after the University cancelled Fall Quarter on-campus housing for most freshmen and sophomores, the wealth gap has only been made more clear. The last-minute decision left many FGLI students scrambling to secure Fall Quarter housing.

MADISON SMITH: Nine days. That’s how much time there was between Northwestern making the decision to not bring back underclassmen to campus and the day Northwestern was going to begin the Wildcat Wellness period. That meant many students had just over a week to figure out their Fall Quarter housing plans. For some FGLI sophomores, it just wasn’t worth it to come back to Evanston at all this quarter. That was the case for Medill sophomore Freedom Gobel.

FREEDOM GOBEL: If I were to get a place in Evanston, it would have to be with at least four other people. It’s just so expensive there, and my refund from Northwestern wouldn’t have covered it, I’m sure. So the apartment I’m living in now is insanely cheap. It’s in my hometown in Milwaukee. And it was honestly a no-brainer.

MADISON SMITH: Freedom was able to secure housing in an apartment with her high school friend about 48 hours after the housing announcement was released.

FREEDOM GOBEL: Living in this apartment with my friend meant that I would be in the same space as someone that was also doing online school. And I kind of needed that productive energy around. So I know living at home with my brothers who don’t go to school wouldn’t be the best option for me.

MADISON SMITH: Like many other FGLI students, she is able to afford her rent with her financial aid refund. So how do refunds work? Let’s say, hypothetically, the cost of tuition and fees is $50,000, the cost of on-campus housing is $25,000, and a student receives $60,000 in aid. That’s $75,000 in costs minus $60,000 in aid, leaving a bill of $15,000 the student owes to the University. If they lived on-campus, they would need to pay the $15,000. But if they opt out of on-campus housing, the housing fees get subtracted from their total bill, and their financial aid package stays the same, leaving them with an extra $10,000 in financial aid, which is then refunded to them in thirds each quarter.

However, even with the financial aid refund, Freedom wouldn’t have been able to afford an apartment in Evanston by herself, where rent prices are much higher than the national average. And now, she doesn’t know what will happen with her housing in the Winter Quarter.

FREEDOM GOBEL: Honestly, it’s really hard because no one can see a month ahead of them. So I have no idea if I’ll be living in Milwaukee, still in this apartment. I have no idea if I’ll be on campus, if I’ll be looking for an apartment in Evanston. My friend, she goes to University of Minnesota Twin Cities — she has no clue she’s going back either. I couldn’t afford to live here on my own. So there is a possibility she leaves this apartment, and then I’m stuck with nowhere to go.

MADISON SMITH: The University’s last-minute decision to cancel first- and second-year undergraduate housing this August left many FGLI students without many realistic housing options. Freedom believes that the best way the University could help students is to make more timely decisions. The University has announced that they will be making their decision regarding Winter Quarter housing by early November, after giving just over a week’s notice this fall.

FREEDOM GOBEL: FGLI students don’t really have the luxury to wait around and make a decision last minute, you know, plane tickets cost money. We can’t just afford to drop a lease at any point in time. So I think even if it means disappointing people with the decision, the University needs to keep in mind that a timely decision is very important. And you know, two months in advance would be great, even if it means saying Winter Quarter won’t be in person. It’s a luxury that we don’t have to just make a decision on the fly and have it work out.

MADISON SMITH: Not all FGLI sophomores decided to live away from Evanston this quarter. SESP sophomore Nala Bishop worried that staying at home would actually be harder on her family.

NALA BISHOP: My main thing was just like food insecurity, just making sure that I had enough to eat. So I come from a big family. I’m the oldest of five, and both my parents are in the house. But we are low-income. I think what I was worried about was just being a burden on my parents. We did plan for me to go to school in the fall, and I just hate feeling like I’m just like another additional cost to take care of. I know like, I’m their child, but it just doesn’t make me feel good. Especially when we have a lot going on, like with the pandemic and stuff.

MADISON SMITH: Nala is a recipient of the Evans Scholarship, which is supposed to cover her full tuition and housing for four years. But, because the Evans Scholars residential house is technically considered a frat house by the University, it was closed to first- and second-year undergraduate students when Greek life houses were shut down for the quarter. For weeks, she wasn’t sure if she was going to be able to secure off-campus housing in Evanston.

NALA BISHOP: Yeah, we just got lucky. But I’m just thinking what would happen if we didn’t find this, like, the rent is pretty cheap. I don’t even want to think what would happen if we didn’t find it.

MADISON SMITH: Despite guaranteeing four years of housing, the Evans Scholars Foundation did not help students with housing this quarter, and didn’t push back against Northwestern shutting their housing down. Many had to work with the Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid to get the aid they needed.

NALA BISHOP: The most stressful part was just making sure I had enough money for rent because my parents did not help me out at all. I have all the money myself. I had to talk to financial aid because I needed my package to be changed because I wouldn’t be staying on campus. The Evans Scholarship kind of refused to fight with Northwestern with that policy. So I think us as Evans Scholars, we’re kind of pissed about that, like, wow, y’all can’t even help us out. Like, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, we’re trying to figure stuff out with school, and just where we’re gonna stay. This has been a scholarship that I’ve been involved with since I was, what, 14, 15 and you can’t even help me find a place to stay if I do get sick or if I needed to go back home for any reason, you wouldn’t help me so it was really like, wow — just kind of hurt.

MADISON SMITH: During the school year, Evans Scholars can work in the kitchens of Greek houses for food and sometimes, depending on the house, money. But with Greek housing shut down and without the possibility of work-study, many Evans Scholars felt stranded.

NALA BISHOP: A majority of the scholars are low-income or facing housing insecurity. We have no way of getting food, we have no way of making money. The Evans Scholarship was not trying to help us out with that either. Very, very, very frustrating process.

MADISON SMITH: While there was no perfect solution to this fall’s housing crisis, Nala thought that the University should’ve supported the Evans Scholars more.

NALA BISHOP: They definitely should have kept the house open for us, because we are low-income students. There’s a lot of people here who face food issues, mental health issues, family issues, it would have just been so much better for all of us to have something, at least, stable. I just feel like the least the University could have done is consider talking to us about our housing situations and kind of like, cared a little bit more about keeping the house open and stuff.

MADISON SMITH: Meanwhile, other sophomores had secured off-campus housing before the University announcement on August 28. Medill sophomore Alex Harrison signed his lease in late July so that the University wouldn’t be able to control his housing situation for the year.

ALEX HARRISON: So back when COVID first started after the first cancellation of housing contracts, my plan was “OK, I’ll re-register my housing contract and I’ll probably try and get a single just to stay safe.” But as the summer wore on, and it became just very clear that, no, COVID is here to stay, we’re not going to get to a safer situation, my attitude shifted, and I was, like, look, I’ve experienced housing insecurity. In the past, I’ve experienced eviction. And I didn’t want that at all. I wanted to completely negate the possibility of that. And I figured, OK, best option time to get a lease because they can’t kick me out for that.

MADISON SMITH: Many students, Alex included, were relying on the money from their work-study jobs to help pay for rent, food and the other expenses that come with living away from home in an apartment for the first time. Money that students earn from a work-study job is not included in their refund, since it’s paid through the federal government, not directly from the University. But many work-study eligible students had no idea if they would be able to get a job for the Fall Quarter — in fact, the University didn’t mention anything about work-study in their housing announcement. Alex attempted to contact the director of undergraduate financial aid trying to figure out what was happening with the work-study program, but felt he didn’t receive any substantial response. He was hoping that the University would pay first- and second-year undergraduate students the amount they were promised through work-study, whether or not they were able to find a work-study job. But that wasn’t the case.

ALEX HARRISON: So essentially, what he was saying is that because there are already third- and fourth-year students working jobs — it wouldn’t be fair to them if we were to give payouts of work-study allotments to first- and second-years who can’t find jobs. My response to that, of course, is, “Hey, there’s a job shortage for everyone right now.” We are still going through a recession, and we’re still going through a time when most of the University’s operations are either limited or just not functioning right now because of COVID. Equitability for these third- and fourth-year students who are already working be damned because there’s just not enough jobs. If you’ve got 100 people who need jobs and there’s only 10 jobs available, it’s far more unfair to the 90 who can’t find work than the 10 who are working. Just say, screw it, we’re gonna pay all 100 what we owe them.

MADISON SMITH: Alex ended up being one of the few able to secure a work-study job for the quarter, but, for him, this doesn’t excuse the University’s lack of communication. He believes that, especially under the circumstances of a global pandemic, the money promised in each student’s financial aid package should be guaranteed and included in their refund checks.

ALEX HARRISON: Shut up. It’s financial aid. Like, there’s no reason that this should not be included in the refund check. Because it’s financial aid that you can’t access because nobody can work right now. It’s a very, very bizarre, irrational and inequitable system. Here’s what I really, really take umbrage with, with the way that the director of (undergraduate) financial aid responded to me on this issue. He says that of all the people in the work-study program, who are eligible to do work-study, not everyone uses it. So why should we be paying out everyone? I don’t know, maybe because you don’t know people’s financial situations. I am dependent on it, like I am factoring it into my ability to afford rent and food and everything else. So why is it that just because a few people have the privilege and luxury of not needing to use the work-study, no one else can get aid either?

MADISON SMITH: Before the University announcement, Northwestern had waived the two-year housing requirement and gave sophomores the option to find off-campus living arrangements in Evanston. However, in their email on August 28, the University discouraged sophomores from coming back to Evanston. But, by that point, many sophomores had already signed leases in Evanston and were relying on the financial aid refund check and work-study from the University to pay that rent.

ALEX HARRISON: It is money that the University says that they were going to give me and it’s money that I, since I signed my lease, was relying on in my financial decisions. So before I knew that I was even going to be able to get a job, it was incredibly worrying, like, this is several thousand dollars that I’m relying on that I don’t know if they’re going to give me access to. So I am very reliant on any kind of stable income that I can have. Because my parents don’t pay for my apartment, they don’t pay for my rent, my food, my car insurance, my gas, my anything. I am completely funding myself right now. So, that refund check is very important to me.

MADISON SMITH: With higher-income sophomores securing last minute Airbnbs, getting nice apartments with their friends, and even having their families buy them condos in the Evanston area, the extreme wealth gap at Northwestern has only been made more clear.

ALEX HARRISON: I want to stress that this situation, while it disproportionately affects FGLI students, it does affect everyone, like, even the most wealthy student at Northwestern would have been affected by this. But to look at students who were able to find condos last minute and find apartments in (The) Link (Evanston) or E2 or Evanston Place, like these luxury places with studios and one bedrooms, and to know that a lot of other FGLI students were just kind of left by the wayside? Good luck. It’s deeply frustrating.

MADISON SMITH: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Madison Smith. Thanks for listening to another episode of Defining Safe. This episode was reported and produced by me, Madison Smith. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Alex Chun, the digital managing editors are Molly Lubbers and Jacob Ohara, and the editor in chief is Marissa Martinez.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @madisonlorsmith

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