Can't Go Home for Holiday Break? Prove It, Demands 'Demeaning' Barnard College

Can't Go Home for Holiday Break? Prove It, Demands 'Demeaning' Barnard College
Image courtesy of the Coalition for Barnard Housing

Update: December 7, 6:26 p.m.

Ame Diarietou Fall didn’t get the email she was hoping for on Monday. The Barnard student was rejected for winter break housing after college officials released final decisions on which students would be able to remain on campus after December 24, when the dorms will close for the holidays. Fall, a junior from Senegal, had hoped to remain on campus — she works two jobs and cannot afford to fly home to be with her family over the break. But, as with several students in similar situations, Fall's request was denied.

Barnard College says it wants to attract more students from disadvantaged backgrounds — people from communities of color, low-income families, and developing countries. They promise to support these students to ensure they thrive at the elite women's college affiliated with Columbia University. But increasingly, some students like Fall face a problem each year during winter break: They can't go home, and they're prohibited from staying on campus. This year, to save money, Barnard is closing the dorms between December 24 and January 16, with all students being ordered to vacate their rooms for the duration of the break. Only so-called "mission critical" students — varsity athletes and tour guides — will be guaranteed housing, administration officials have said. Students with financial, educational, or other personal reasons for needing to stay on campus over the holidays must submit to a process that feels "like an interrogation," as Fall says. Even then, they're far from guaranteed to be allowed to stay.

Fall says she was in her architecture studio class when she received the rejection notice. It read:

Thank you for taking the time to meet with me regarding winter break housing. After careful consideration, it has been determined that your particular circumstance does not qualify for an exception to College policy. I know that this is not the response that you were hoping for and I appreciate how stressful this can be, but unfortunately our decision is final.

If you need assistance finalizing other plans, I am certainly available to you.
Sincerely,

Dean Tollinchi-Michel


Fall says she was angry and frustrated, though not surprised. "From the impression that I got meeting with the dean, she kind of made it clear to me that she didn’t believe that I needed housing," Fall says. "I told her that I was asking employers if I could stay at their place in exchange for work and even that fell through, so I didn't have a place. Her response was, 'Well, plans fall through and that’s not our responsibility.' " 

The school, according to student activists, is going backwards — making it more and more difficult with each passing year for students to appeal to college officials to remain on campus. Beginning in 2009, the university became stricter about which students would be housed during winter break. Some students who have been denied housing simply couldn't afford to go home. Others may not have a family to go home to — or may not be welcomed by the family they do have. 

"A lot of the people who need housing, their family has shunned them because they’re gay or queer," says Toni Airaksinen, nineteen, a Barnard sophomore and the lead organizer for the Coalition for Barnard Housing, a group that has gathered 1,800 signatures to change the policy. Other students come from broken families, are struggling financially, or were homeless before they came to the school. Many students have expressed concern about a lack of support from administrators surrounding their individual circumstances. In November, Barnard's administration wrote an email to students saying those who could prove "financial or personal" need could stay. So far, about a dozen students have applied, according to college officials. At press time, it was unclear how many students' cases had been resolved.

Update: December 9, 3:12 p.m.

A Barnard spokeswoman offered this statement:

"Because student privacy concerns are paramount, we are unable to report specific numbers or information regarding the individual students who have come forward. However, most students who applied for winter break housing were approved. Every student’s circumstances were different, and often complicated, but in general, those who were approved included those with no homes to go to, international students on aid, students from unsafe or abusive households, or those truly without resources to travel home. Those who were denied had resources or alternative housing for the break."

Airaksinen says that even the application process was onerous. Students applying for exemptions are interviewed by administrators and asked to provide a convincing explanation for things impossible to prove — such as being rejected by their families or enduring financial hardship. And students who do get approved for housing must take it upon themselves to find a resident in Plimpton Hall — the only dorm available to students approved to stay over winter break — and gain permission to use their room. 

Fall, who had initially asked that her name not be used because she didn't want to jeopardize her chances at an exemption, told the Voice last week that each year she must go through what she called a demeaning process. (An earlier version of this story quoted Fall anonymously. She has since agreed to let us use her name.)

"We’re making our desperate pleas to show how needy we are so we can stay out of the cold," she said last week. Fall says her parents are separated and her father is jobless in her home country. While preparing for upcoming final exams and between working two jobs, she said, she'd been looking on Craigslist for housing in exchange for services like nannying or cleaning. "You don't know if it’s safe," she said. "I support myself completely and there’s no way I can move without working. There’s nowhere else that I can go."

Two years ago, when her parents could afford to fly her to a relative's home, her flight was canceled. To get temporary housing, "I had to interview with a resident life housing officer for 45 minutes. She said, 'Show me proof you missed the flight' as if I was trying to sneak into housing. It felt very demeaning. You have to make this plea every year."

Fall is now disillusioned with Barnard. Across Broadway, Columbia University is much more accommodating to students in her situation, she said. Students are allowed to remain in their dorms.

"I do feel like if I had known this was the way I would’ve been treated, I would’ve applied somewhere else," she said.

Dean Avis E. Hinkson did not return calls or emails for comment. A Barnard spokeswoman said: "Limited resources played a role in the decision to decrease the availability of winter housing...the bottom line is safety here. We’re not going to put a student in an unsafe situation. We try to assist students through thinking through options." The spokeswoman agreed to speak with the Voice about the housing issue but spoke mostly off the record, ultimately offering a prepared statement. 

"Barnard, like most other small residential liberal arts colleges across the country, is closed over winter break," the statement read. "However, it has always been our policy to grant exceptions for students truly in need of housing over the break, and that did not change this year. To date, all students who have demonstrated true need have been approved to stay at no cost to them."

A first-generation college student, Airaksinen says she got involved because she grew up living on welfare and feels the need to help other students who face being homeless over the break.

"I heard so many stories about people being afraid about what they were going to do during the winter," she says. "Homelessness doesn’t stop affecting you once you get to college."


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