At Vassar, a Commitment to Diversity and Affordability Take a Back Seat Over Breaks

Illustration and Image by Isabel Marvel

As summer temperatures recede in the Hudson Valley and students settle into the semester, this article and its living document counterpart become increasingly relevant to the Vassar community: the beginning of fall marks the countdown to winter break. While most students go home for the holidays, every year displaced peoples get left behind at Vassar with little to no resources or support systems. As a community, this issue affects a relatively small number of us but still directly pertains to us all more or less — students, alumni, faculty, and administrators — it’s our responsibility to find solutions within an educational system that continually marginalizes those already pushed to the edges. Attached you will find a “living” google document, modeled primarily after, “Concrete Suggestions in Preparation for January 2017’s change in American Government,” which was created immediately in response to the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. While that document’s public editing features are deactivated, this document’s are not. Its purpose is, “to provide Vassar-specific resources as well as draw attention to institutional negligence towards students staying at Vassar over intersession breaks,” by pooling knowledges and resources. I urge you all to read it, share it, edit it and challenge its content. By commenting and suggesting edits, we have the potential as a community to directly support more folks within a student body whose complex lives and issues are so often institutionally obscured. UPDATE: As a recent graduate, it no longer makes sense to moderate a living document that affects a community I’m not directly apart of anymore. If you are an organization, group of people, or a person willing to take over this project, please email boilerplatemagazine@gmail.com

Living Document: Vassar Intersession Break Community Resources

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Earning a degree from Vassar College is a major accomplishment for anyone privileged enough to be afforded the opportunity.  But for some folks — those who are low-income, disabled, people of color, queer/trans, and economically independent, to name but a few — the road to graduation is an exceptionally laborious one. Vassar is a long-standing, selective liberal arts institution whose “eliteness” rests atop the subsequent exclusion of certain identities and backgrounds. This is largely missed, however, when Vassar bolsters its demographically diverse student body and its top-ranked nationwide financial aid packages in the New York Times while denying these same students the support and resources they need to not only succeed, but in certain cases, survive.

A generally neglected issue not limited to Vassar College is intersession breaks and the respective campus policies enacted during these periods of time. Vassar is rumored to have the bare minimum amount of academic days in a semester needed to qualify as a college, with generous week-long October breaks, Thanksgiving breaks, 5-week long winter breaks (about a week longer than most higher-ed institutions), 2-week long spring breaks (again, about a week longer than others) and summers. An academic reprieve for most becomes a stress-inducing break for those victim to housing insecurity, though. While many are worrying about landing that winter break internship with their family friend’s firm or balancing out time spent during the holidays, a handful of others face questions of day-to-day survival on an emptied out campus.

The 2014-2015 winter break was the first of several breaks spent at my new home — Vassar, that is — due to extenuating family circumstances that left me without a place to “go home to” between semesters. It was traumatizing to be disowned for identifying as Queer, further traumatizing to become self-supporting emotionally and financially both at once, and then traumatizing again and again and again with each successive break. Winter break poses the biggest threat to vulnerable students for a number of reasons: the highest density of students evacuates Vassar for the holidays, the east coast winters put students (many of whom aren’t from the east coast) at risk for developing Seasonal Affective Disorder, and the manicured apartment areas look more like the barren, 1950s mannequin-clad nuclear testing site, Survival Town, than a college housing community.

At more than a first glance, the winter break intersession conditions at Vassar are a cesspool for mental health issues to flourish. I was staying at a friend’s townhouse over the break and experienced complete isolation during those five weeks, with only the 7/11 counter clerk over on Hooker Ave and Grand St or the occasional basketball player running to practice there to ruin my indefinite streak of hermitude. I wasn’t on Vassar’s payroll that winter and I didn’t know any others staying at Vassar either. I spent Christmas alone and worried constantly about food. It became quickly apparent that I was deteriorating, so instinctively, I called Baldwin, Vassar’s [infamously negligent] on-campus medical center — closed. Then I called Metcalf, our counseling service center — closed as well. With my parents no longer in the picture and the truth about my displacement still lurking in the closet, I felt the way many others suffering from depression do: burdensome.

It felt as though my only options were to dive into the medical industrial complex head-first,  so I did and much to my dissatisfaction. Getting into a psychiatrist or therapist as a new patient in Poughkeepsie, like many other towns and cities nationwide, can take at least a month, if not several, because of a supply that cannot meet a demand as Americans living with mental health numbers soar and health industries become more lucrative. When you do eventually get in for the initial visit, it’s just that: a warmup of sorts in which you fill them in on your health history and circumstances in exchange for an invitation back in a month where you can then get to work on a treatment plan. I didn’t have two months, and my guess is most people don’t either.

The national debate surrounding affordable and accessible healthcare for Americans is ongoing, especially under a Trump administration that wants to repeal Obamacare and kick tens of millions of people off of their existing insurance plans for less coverage, higher premiums, and tax cuts for Big Pharma and other wealthy Americans. Even in 2014, though, students covered by Vassar Gallagher insurance faced the trickle down of a broken system in desperate need of reform (not repeal without replace). Gallagher’s insurance coverage is not only scarce but even questionable, with policies that seemed intentionally ambiguous or contradictory and much of the basic coverage being determined at the discretion of the company after treatment is sought. Seeking clarification where there was none, I called the Gallagher customer service representatives. I explained the urgency of my situation and we agreed that my only option at that point was to check into a hospital. But when we brought up coverage for treatment based on said circumstances, the only definitive answers I could coerce out of the representative were several “it depends.” Terrified of racking up hundreds or even thousands of dollars at the hospital, I chose to downplay my circumstances and admit myself as someone relatively O.K. (I was not).* My care at the hospital was swift and mostly impersonal, all but the intrusive social worker who found it relevant to my case to properly identify and record my sexual preferences. I was in and out the automatic doors within a matter of hours, leaving with a prescription of benzos, a next-day appointment with a psychiatrist, and the beginning of a years-long headache with the school.

Fast forward to three months later, and I opened my P.O. box to find an insurance bill with a $600 charge rather than the $25 co-pay designated for anything from “partial hospitalization to intensive outpatient program services”. Their criterion: my condition had not been considered an “emergency”. Although Vassar is not responsible for the events leading up to my hospitalization nor do they have any direct input in insurance claims, they are accountable for denying their on-campus, regular session resources to their intersession students.

Rather than winter break being restorative, it can feel more along the lines of imprisonment for students of differing identities. In this context that word can take on double meaning: in its most general definition, to imprison is to confine someone within a space, but imprisonment also has a racially and socioeconomically complex element that extends well beyond the gates of a prison. For many of the students stuck on Vassar’s campus for the holidays, they are confined within a space — a bastion of privilege, if you will — but, it is not a coincidence that many of these same students are disproportionately marginalized (e.g. race and class) in a way that makes them physically, emotionally, and financially bound to Vassar year-round. If we are going to make the effort to bring low-income students into this school, we must also do the heavy-lifting required to give them just as much, if not more, resources than their wealthy counterparts, many of whom have an abundance of support built into our lives prior to arriving at Vassar.

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Vassar’s Financial Aid office works in conjunction with Student employment to select who (and who doesn’t) get to work over intersession breaks. The official statement released each break via email reads:

There will be approximately 50 [work study] positions open. We receive many applications, and not everyone can be hired. Priority of hiring is for international students on financial aid and students with high financial need.

It doesn’t mention that campus dining will be shut down or that health services will cease to exist. That library hours will be restricted to times that exclude those working on campus. That the vast majority of the dining staff will lose up to five weeks worth of wages, that food will become mostly inaccessible and students will survive on what little they have left or can afford. It makes no mention of the gap in pay cycles, leaving students without work wages for three to four weeks at a time, or that those living in a dorm will be limited to what cooking supplies they have (or don’t). The school also doesn’t provide information for local alternatives or resource guidance — you’re completely on your own.

Not until the 2015-2016 Winter break (to my knowledge, or at least during my time as a student) did Vassar create a shuttle system schedule designed to take students to and from the local grocery store. Students, along with some assistance by House Fellows and Interns, demanded that something as basic a necessity as food be accessible, which resulted in Residential Life cooperation. In preparation for the 2016-2017 winter break, students continued to do the work from the bottom up and an explicit push to create regular Saturday shuttle services over the breaks made the VSA agenda. Because these services aren’t directly in the VSA constitution (and given limited funding for the VSA in general), funds for this service were budgeted in unconventional ways and had to ensure that the operation would be economical in relation to the number of students remaining on campus. Despite the time and labor the VSA allotted towards extending these services, some (myself included) had no idea the Saturday shuttle existed as a result of the Vassar Administration’s failure to widely distribute this information or post it in easily accessible locations. Student to student support is continually hindered when an institution refuses to acknowledge, or rather, be aware of the material consequences its current system has on its students.

A large demographic of intersession students are international, queer/trans, low-income, disabled, and/or students of color. I’ve spoke with many whose “homes” in the traditional sense are physically and/or emotionally unsafe, others who can’t afford a ticket home. Several are deemed by the federal government as “at-risk-of-homelessness” while others and their families face that reality already. Most, if not all, live paycheck to paycheck, using the measly wages earned working 8-10 hours per week to cover everyday expenses for themselves and even for family members back home in some cases. Our federal work study wage limits seem astonishingly low when considering that other schools, such as Columbia University, pay students $12 – $20 per hour and allow 15-20 hours per week depending on their financial aid packages. When Vassar student’s budgets are as tight as they are given these different circumstances, the gap between the last day to work during the semester (some time right before or during finals) and the first intersession work study paycheck often leaves students in a bind — assuming they’re one of those fifty hired. Lots go without jobs; that’s somewhere between six to seven weeks without pay. Even more disciplined spenders find themselves running into continual financial barriers, with medical costs, food, books, graduation fees, and other unofficial expenses that are an often invisibilized cornerstone of higher elite ed.

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This past 2016-2017 winter break, the school decided that kitchen renovations would take place for townhouses (TH) 56, 58, 106 and 112. Coincidentally, I live in TH 58. New cabinets were going to be installed, and we were told that the work would take about a week to complete. I returned from a short stay at a relative’s house on Christmas Eve to find my entire kitchen gutted, an unplugged refrigerator full of spoiled food, and my living room full of boxes, furniture, and ripped up appliances that left it virtually unusable. With little money to get by until my first work-study paycheck and a microwave as the only working appliance to heat what little salvageable food there was, I was worried about my financial and emotional stability. Worried, I emailed Anna-Belle Jones (Coordinator of the Residential Operation Center), the Residential Life office, and Buildings and Grounds to see if there was someway to remedy the situation immediately. Of the three, the only response came from Ms. Jones who was sympathetic and seemed willing to work with me to get the problem resolved. In an email, she said:

Words can’t express my dissatisfaction of the coordination of the kitchens. I was notified when I sent the email but did let B&G know that students were still living in the town houses. I will see if the trouble shooter can connect your stove so you can cook. I’m awaiting their response and will stay in contact with you when they find a way to resolve this issue.

Although I appreciate Ms. Jones and her attentiveness to the situation, had the oven been connected, I still had no food to cook with, no way to wash dishes, and not an idea of my dishes whereabouts under the disaster that was formerly my living room. My funds were depleting at the same rate as my health. Under normal circumstances, I would schedule an appointment with a crisis counselor or wait until my next scheduled therapy session, but with our Metcalf Counseling Service closed for the break, the therapist I spent years establishing a relationship with was on Vassar holiday. Thanks to monetary donations from friends, acquaintances, and loved ones, I luckily had enough to travel to New Jersey and stay with a relative; had I stayed, I fear I would’ve landed back in the hospital as I did two years ago. This past year, I was lucky enough to have existing support systems (that I didn’t have two years back) that allowed me to leave, yet many others don’t. Regardless of this individualized situation, many of these emergency situations are triggered not only by personal circumstances but also by the actively poor conditions that Vassar leaves behind for some of its most vulnerable students.

Aside from the dozens of conversations I’ve had with students over these break, many of which involved commiserating over the miserable conditions, a post by Reilly Hay in a Vassar-specific Facebook group, “Free & For Sale,” once again confirmed that there were others in similar positions. In order to capture Hay’s words in their entirety, below is a screenshot of the post, used with his permission:

As of January 15, 2016, the post had acquired 125 likes and 9 comments, both supporting Hay’s thoughtful endeavor and hoping to assist in executing it. In my experience, this was both the most coordinated and effective student effort at temporary cooperative living as a means of surviving an intersession break. Although Hay’s model can and likely will be replicated in another iteration of itself, it is largely unsustainable without larger systems in place to see it’s recreation and subsequent progression. I also fear that the post’s relatively high engagement levels is indicative of a larger issue: that for many who liked or scrolled past it, it is their first encounter with a problem that a small but significant number of students face every intersession break.

Vassar has a legacy of neglecting certain demographics of students — students whose well-being comes at the direct cost of Vassar’s success and national admiration. Our former President, Catharine (Cappy) Hill, was interviewed by the New York Times on June 22, 2016 for her success in “more than doubl[ing] the number of [Vassar’s] low-income students” and increasing the financial aid budget to more than $60 million a year. It also mentions that, “the percentage of American students of color has risen to 33 percent from 20 percent” during Cappy’s time at Vassar. Although Cappy was “well aware” the school needed to provide more resources and support-services to these students, the school has yet to demonstrate how it will hold itself accountable in doing so. An article from a reputable, national news source that boasts our school’s receiving of the inaugural $1 million Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence without focusing much on the lives of who that money should be for is a great way to reduce marginalized folk to a set of statistics.

This is one of many instances in which the school needs to listen to its students and actively take steps to improve their intersession living conditions, rather than relying on its disproportionately affected students to do this labor and advocacy in isolation. Students need to be able to navigate collegiate institutions without the perpetual weight of worrying about surviving and create sustainable sources of support. We also need to look to each other to build up this institutional knowledge, raise awareness of intersession conditions, and create transgenerational resources (the living document being only a singular starting point). With Vassar College’s 11th President now officially in office, I encourage Dr. Elizabeth Bradley to not just consider these kinds of issues, but to expedite them to the top of her list. Dr. Bradley said to the New York Times recently that she is inspired by Vassar College and wants us to ‘be a national model on how to do [diversity]’”: if we want to be that national model, it begins with a desire for Vassar to do better than it has at providing support for its said nationally acclaimed diverse student body.

 

*Disclaimer: I am not advocating that anyone who needs emergency medical services avoid getting treatment or conceal from medical professionals the full scope of their circumstances/conditions. If anything, please do the opposite. Although our current health industry is absolute shit, there are many programs, social workers, and bill-pay assistance methods in place for low-income folks. I acknowledge the level of privilege needed to navigate certain health care financial aid systems, but we also must keep in mind that our health is paramount to everything we do and that there are always health care options available.

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