Exploring the Experiences of University Students Evicted from Campus Housing During the COVID-19 Pandemic
An International Comparison
Publication Date: 2020
During spring 2020, universities and colleges worldwide closed their campuses to minimize the spread of COVID-19. This shutdown, with little awareness of student vulnerabilities, and marginal or no coordination with other stakeholders, caused tens of thousands of students to be forced to evacuate their on-campus housing within a very short time. Through in-depth interviews with a non-random purposive sample of twenty evicted students from the United States and Canadian institutions, this report describes the ways in which this eviction has impacted students physical, social, and mental well-being, especially international and/or students from out-of-state. This research also identifies the students’ social, economic, and mobility challenges, among others, and their coping mechanisms. By exploring on-campus residential students’ evacuation experiences, this research aims to improve policies and the emergency and disaster response planning of institutions of higher education. It also aims to increase educational institution capacity to coordinate off-campus resources to facilitate their student relocation processes, which strengthens institution leadership in local and extended communities.
Introduction and Literature Review
The international public health emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every corner of the earth with enormous global and local implications (Dong et al., 20201). Since quarantine is the most effective intervention to prevent virus spread, most countries worldwide have committed to temporary shutdown, including closing borders, towns, cities, and even countries, as well as suspending services deemed non-essential (e.g., domestic and international travel, public events, and in-person education) (Kelleher, 20202; Nardi, 20203; Parkin, 20204). Accordingly, many post-secondary educational institutions—i.e., universities and colleges—worldwide have closed their campuses, with the aim of minimizing exposure and risk of contagion among students, faculty, staff, and other employees (Levenson & Boyette, 20205; University Affairs, 20206; Zubascu, 20207). This shutdown has resulted in tens of thousands of students evacuating their on-campus housing within a very short period, usually within three or fewer business days. According to media accounts, this unscheduled, inflexible, and involuntary eviction has dramatically impacted residential students’ physical, social, and mental well-being (Teotonio, 20208).
The students without local family ties, especially those coming from other states, provinces or countries, are being hit the hardest (Foster, 20209). For example, many international students, who are recruited by institutions of higher education with offers of scholarships or other economic assistance, have their migratory and financial status tied to their educational institution. Involuntary evacuations and the suspension of classes have triggered serious issues regarding their already vulnerable immigration and economic status (Anderson, 202010). Also, although the legal ambiguity of immigration does not apply to domestic students, those coming from other states or provinces may experience similar social and financial impact. For example, many students are recruited by graduate programs and research-oriented institutions with offers of assistantships and other forms of financial support. However, it has been documented that the average graduate assistantship is so low that most graduate students are living in poverty (Jung, 202011; Anderson, 202012), which makes them unable to bear the cost of involuntary and unplanned relocation. For example, domestic and international travel bans have dramatically increased the cost of airfare (Ben-Achour, 202013). Even if students are able to afford airfare, the entire travel process further exposes them and other travelers to higher risk of contagion (Mckeever, 202014).
This research focuses on university students, a vulnerable but often overlooked group in disaster and emergency management (Ward et al., 198415; Abramson et al., 199816; Fisher & Hood, 198717; Lovekamp & McMahon, 201118; Tanner & Doberstein, 201519). However, with dramatically increasing extreme events worldwide, researchers and practitioners from different disciplines have collaboratively contributed to understanding vulnerabilities at individual, family, community, and societal levels in order to identify best practices to advance existing emergency response interventions (Cutter et al., 200020; Norris et al., 200221; Balcik & Beamon, 200822; Peek, 201823). According to the Institute of International Education, during the 2018-19 academic year, there were 872,214 international students in the United States, and more than 50 percent of university students attending public universities live out of state (The College Finder, 201724). In Canada, the number of international students increases by an average of 15 percent annually (Canadian Bureau of International Education, 202025).
Few research projects that address this population have found that social characteristics increase the vulnerability of college students to extreme events. In particular, racial and ethnic minorities, first-generation, veteran, immigrant-identified, and low-income students are less capable of preparing for, responding to, adapting to, and recovering from the impacts of an event triggered by disaster (Karairmak &Rahsan, 201126; Phan & Airoldi, 201527; Bulathwatta et al., 201728; Meyer et al., 201829; Liao et al. 201930). The literature has also found that most students are not prepared physically, socially, or mentally for extreme events (Tanner & Doberstein, 2015; Lovekamp & McMahon, 2011). College students in general exhibit low risk awareness, limited experience with disasters, and a lack of preparedness. They also tacitly attribute responsibility for their well-being to their university’s administration. Most of them cannot identify how their university is prepared, but believe that the university is going to take care of them. Various research reports have also suggested that administrative support from the university and other community-based agencies is needed in order to overcome the students’ barriers for disaster preparedness. However, Borum and colleagues (201031) found that most educational institutions in the United States need to develop crisis response plans to prepare for and mitigate extreme events.
This research intends to identify the social, economic, and mobility challenges (among others) of out-of-state and international students in the United States and Canada. Evicting students without careful consideration of student economic and/or social situations, in addition to ineffective communication with other stakeholders (e.g., real estate agencies, city or regional governments, and non-profit organizations), enables universities to create a potential new type of homelessness. This will further jeopardize students’ overall well-being, further negatively influence public health, and create extra burdens for already maxed out public resources. In addition, this research aims to contribute to a nuanced understanding of various vulnerabilities students face. Identifying student challenges and the consequences of immediately relocating off-campus will help to improve policies and the emergency and disaster response plans of institutions of higher education across the world. University decision-making processes in the wake of a crisis or disaster need to reflect the practical and urgent needs of students. It also increases educational institutions’ capacity to coordinate off-campus resources that facilitate their student relocation processes, which strengthens institution leadership in local and extended communities.
Research Questions: The overall research question for this project was: what were the experiences of out-of-state/province and international university students who were evicted from on-campus residency as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? The following four components were developed to propose recommendations that would inform emergency response strategies and further identify the vulnerabilities students faced during the process of eviction. At the individual level: What were the challenges the students faced during the process of eviction? What coping strategies did the evicted students develop to deal with their immediate challenges? At the organizational level: How did the university support student relocation? How did other agencies or social actors support their relocation? At the national level: What differences in student and educational institution coping strategies exist between the United States and Canada? What could both countries learn from each other to improve their service in addressing student needs and educational institution challenges?
Data, Methods, and Procedures: This research project employed qualitative research methods to understand students’ eviction experiences in both the United States and Canada. In the U.S., potential participants were identified from the results of an online survey administered by the RISE Network Endnote 1. The survey was distributed to post-secondary educational institutions through social media. Thirty-nine responses were recorded. Ten of them were invited for interview. In Canada, the snowball approach was developed to recruite potential particpants and ten out-of-province and international students were invited for the interview. Interviews were conducted through internet-based videoconference systems (e.g., Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams). The interviews were recorded, transcribed, coded, and analyzed.
Sample Size and Participants: The sample size was ten students for each country. (Please see Appendix A for more on sample demographics). The sample from the United States included five males and five females attending mostly undergraduate programs in eight different states across the country. Two of them were freshmen, two were sophomores, three were juniors, and two were seniors. One of the interviewees was a graduate student. Nine participants were considered domestic students, although studying in states that were different from their home state, and one was international. In terms of ethnicity, five identified themselves as Puerto Rican and one of Puerto Rican descent Endnote 2. Five out of ten were attending private schools and five were attending public universities. Eight out of ten received some financial aid, including scholarships and loans, which attests to the financial need of participants. For one of them, the only international student included in the U.S. sample, housing was explicitly stated as part of the recruitment package. Interviewees from the United States were studying in universities in six different states (New York, Massachusetts, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, and New Mexico) and Puerto Rico. The sample from Canada included six females and four males. Five were undergraduates, including two freshmen and three sophomores. Five were graduate students, including four students at master’s level and one at the PhD candidate level. In terms of immigration status, five were international students and five were domestic students. Regarding ethnic background, four were white, three were African Canadian, two were Asian, and one identified themself as mixed. Six out of ten of the participants from Canada received full or partial scholarships, which covered their tuition and housing. Four did not have any scholarship. Interviewees from Canada were attending universities throughout the west coast to the east coast.
Data Analysis: Data analysis was supported by NVivo 10. The authors conducted two rounds of coding. First-round coding focused on the interview questions in order to identify related themes. The second round of coding concentrated on emerging themes to support deeper understanding of the connections among different interview questions and the themes discovered during the first round of coding. This was particularly important for some interviews, in which the interviewer did not stick to the order of interview questions, choosing to rearrange related interview questions to help the interviewees recall their experience during the eviction process. The second round of data analysis provided tremendous insights from different answers and contributed to a nuanced understanding of the interconnections among variables (such as economic, social network, and personal health condition) that merged together to influence students’ eviction processes.
Researcher Positionality, Reciprocity, and Other Ethical Considerations: The research team pursued the research ethics approval from their affiliated universities. Althoug risk for the students to particiate in this research was minimal, recalling the their eviction experience could have triggered some negative emotional reactions further influence their mental wellness. However, the participating students were reminded of their right to end the interview at any moment if they feel uncomfortable. The interviews were recorded, transcribed and prepared for qualitative analysis by the research team. The recordings were deleted as soon as the transcription process ended and the transcripts were stored under a pseudonym. Any identifying information, apart from gender, age, and citizenship was deleted. The interviewee’s home institution was deleted as well. The transcripts were saved on a google drive to which only the research team had access to and this report as well as any publication will only contain the aggregated data.
As widely reported by media, health risks and economic impacts have been the major concerns for this study’s participants. Air travel and carpools were the most commonly used transportation modes for students. The closure of campus triggered loss of on-campus employment, which unfavorably influenced their financial statuses. It is worth mentioning that air travel had become unaffordable when most universities released eviction orders due to changes in prices during the pandemic. Even if students could afford to travel, border closure made international travel extremely difficult and, in some cases, impossible.
In addition to these common themes, participants from both countries also identified specific challenges during their eviction from on-campus residency. First, universities did not have enough resources to support their eviction, including storage space, quick move-out strategies, and off-campus housing information. Since most universities did not have an emergency response plan, they were not able to provide these supports for their students. Second, these situations also negatively impacted students’ mental condition. Worries, anxiety, and burnout were commonly reported among all participants. Senior students also mentioned that immediate eviction made natural completion of their campus life impossible.
The most common challenge mentioned by participants was the economic impact of traveling back to campus for a couple of days, paying for car or storage rental, as well as losing their campus jobs and having to find other jobs to help out their parents after moving back home, contributing to the cost of living. They also mentioned the health risks of traveling by plane during a pandemic and the negative feelings generated by eviction. Most students were notified of their eviction by email while they were away from campus for spring break. In that institutional email, the university announced the campus was closing and requested that the students vacate their on-campus housing. That meant that the evicted students had to travel back to their campuses to retrieve their belongings in an extremely short period of time, sometimes as little as two or three days. One of the interviewed students describes:
“Since I was home, it was very stressful because I would have to travel all the way there, knowing that I would be alone because it would be even more expensive to get one of my parents to go with me. It is very expensive to travel to [name of the university]. So yeah, I was just, I was very stressed and overwhelmed because the university was kind of not giving us many options. They were like you have to come, you have to take your things out, like basically, it's either this or you have to pay $90 a box for storage. I was like, I don’t have that kind of money. So I just had to go, I have to go. It took… I was (sic) three days talking to my parents and talking to my family members to get my parents to allow me to go because we both knew that it was going to be difficult because of the pandemic. Having to travel was not the safest way. But at the end of the day, it would be the best way and the cheapest way for me to get everything. And the university didn’t really help us with anything.”
The students that could not travel back to pick up their belongings were given the option of having them stored by a private company. One interviewee explains: “It was a private company and they charged by the box. And it was like a crazy amount. Every box was like $80 or $90 per month. So yeah, it was very expensive. It was per box and they would not ship it to your house.” Although in principle, the alternative of storage could have worked for the wealthiest students, some of them expressed concerns about having a company making the move-out arrangements for two main reasons: (1) they were concerned about a stranger going through their personal belongings and the possibility of missing goods; and (2) the move-out arrangements were done by the same company that was charging per box, creating worries that might use more boxes than actually needed to take economic advantage of the situation.
Some of the interviewed students also expressed concerns about losing their campus jobs and having to find another off-campus to help their parents. One of the interviewees says:
“I had to take on loans to go to college and everything, and I had a decent job on campus working at the hotel. With the money I made I would pay for food, books, and everything. But once I got laid off, I didn't have the funds. Now I had to take on an extra loan to pay for everything I have to pay.”
“The reason why I attended this university was because I was not going to be able to go anywhere else. I could not be a burden to my family. My family has a very low income, I have a very low income. Therefore, I try to help my family however I can.”
In terms of emotions, the interviewees reported feelings of panic, frustration, anxiety, powerlessness, helplessness, impotence, stress, desperation, sadness, anger, confusion, and being overwhelmed as a result of the eviction process. One of the interviewees expressed it this way: “It was, I literally felt like we were being kicked out and we didn't even have the time to process the whole thing.”
University Support for Relocation
University support for eviction was very limited. First, students were only given a short period of time to leave, ranging from 24 hours to one week. Since the eviction order was released during the spring break of some universities in the United States and Canada, these students had to travel back to retrieve their belongings. Second, retrieving belongings had several restrictions. For example, some residential facilities only allowed one person to enter the building, which created difficulties for single students moving all their belongings without any help. Third, the students only had a very short time to pick up their belongings. During the moving out process, across all universities, no assistance was provided. Fourth, at the beginning of eviction, across all universities, no support information was provided. The students kept pushing their universities to provide storage space, which then became the only available support from the university. Fith, universities did not provide off-campus residential information for students, especially for international students.
In many cases, the students were given only a couple of days to fly or drive back to campus and pick up their belongings. It's important to keep in mind that most interviewed students were forced to fly because of the distance between their homes and their universities. Most participants questioned the logic behind having to travel via plane on such short notice and expose themselves to COVID-19, even though the university was not going to be using the space. As one of the interviewees expressed it:
“Okay, I am here back home, and you are telling me that I have to fly there in the middle of a pandemic so I can get my things when you are not even going to use the apartment for months? It made no sense to me."
According to their narratives, some students were given appointments to pick up their belongings at a certain time and date, they believed, to avoid overcrowding of the buildings. However, some observed that no specific instructions were given in terms of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the personnel were not observing CDC guidelines either.
In general, the interviewees understood the university behavior as limiting organizational liability. In the students’ eyes, the universities’ main concern was to decrease their responsibility for the well-being of students. As one interviewee stated:
“They weren't being very helpful or understanding. They were just trying to get everyone in and out of there as fast as possible so that they didn't have to be responsible for everything that was going on. That is kind of what I felt, mainly because they were just like, you have to do this. You have to do this, but they weren't really understanding that I can't just drive there. It’s not like it is a three-hour drive, and I just get there and be out (sic). Like, I would have to fly there. And it is like, so many additional costs. So they weren't really understanding of anything. And they were just being kind of rude with the whole situation."
Some universities offered a service to evicted students involving virtual appointments where the student would notice an employee what to keep and what not to keep. Retained items would be placed in storage. This generated a whole different set of feelings and issues, such as the lack of privacy (somebody else going through their stuff), and financial impacts (the cost of the storage). Interestingly, the interviewees made a clear distinction between the institution (the university) and individual employees. In fact, some of them recalled that the employees had little or no information and were empathetic with the students’ plight. In their experience, individuals were caring and trying to help in a situation where the organization (the university) was being rigid and self-serving.
The most common coping strategy among the students from the United States was to reach out to family, with the exception of the international student. The international student did not want to make his family worried about his situation and appealed to other students and university employees for help. As he says: “My mom was going crazy, calling me 24/7. I told her don't call me [sic]. Try not to worry. You cannot do anything from a distance.” He was going to school on a full scholarship. His financial aid package explicitly stated that the university was going to provide a place to live. One morning, he was called to a meeting with all of the other international students where they were told that they had a week to leave the country.
“As soon as the pandemic reached this area they called all the foreign students to a meeting and told us that we had to leave the country, that we had a week to return to our home country because the University was closing completely. And then I was talking to the director of the sports program and she told me that I had to go back to my country because she didn't know how things were going to play out in here during the pandemic and that I couldn't work because I have a student visa, that I could only work inside the university but that it was going to be closed. The university told us that we had only one week to leave the dorm, to get out of the country. That was very rude to me because we are foreign students and we don't have anyone here to rely on. We don't have family and only a couple of friends. One day the university said one week, and I said wow, I have to look where to leave my stuff.”
“Then, a friend told me that she didn't recommend it; leaving the country because we didn't know how long it was going to take to reopen and if I left it was going to be harder to get back in later. To come back, that's going to be very complicated. And she was right and I decided to stay. Then, I started looking for a place to stay, trying to get used to this new reality.”
We believe this case is illustrative of the particularities and vulnerabilities of international students in comparison to domestic students in the United States. As he elaborates: “Probably, I am in a worse position than most because I don't have the aid of either family or friends to rely on. If I get sick, I am on my own. Nobody helps me here.” International students are also unable to apply for federal funding that their domestic counterparts are eligible to receive, such as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Nevertheless, there are issues of lack of support that impacted all the interviewees independently of their immigration status. The most common observations were the short time period given to move out and that students had to retrieve all their possessions even though the space was not going to be used.
The experience of students from Canada was similar but have its own unique characteristics. Discussion with their direct family members was the initial coping strategy used for both out-of-province and international students. In addition to their remoted connections, the students’ local social networks associated with their universities and the cities where their universities are located, such as local friends and/or classmates, helped them to find or provided them temporary accommodation. Some out-of-province students’ families drove for more than 24 hours to pick them up. Most international students searched for off-campus housing so that they could move out as soon as possible.
During the eviction process, international students and domestic students in Canada received financial funds. International students received special funds from their universities (e.g. international student centers, their own departments, and their research supervisors), helping them to find out-of-campus accommodation or to cover part of their living cost. Like some countries worldwide, which provided emergence funds for their citizens, Canadian students were eligible for various emergency funds at both provincial and federal levels, to cover their rent and their daily costs. Additionally, off-campus communities, especially community-based service agencies (e.g. churches, communities center, and organizations) also provided in-kind contributions. For example, the community church sent out food and some daily necessities and helped the students to connect with local landlords to find a place to stay.
Students gave recommendations at multiple levels. At an institutional level, some students recommended that universities create a fund for international students to use in case of emergencies. They also recommended that universities have officially assigned personnel to manage international student affairs. Another recommendation was the creation of a team of therapy, health, and online transition services for the students. For example, one interviewee explains:
“Maybe have like a separate group of staff members from the university, working to help those students that can’t make it to campus or can’t afford a $300 flight to get in and out of the university. So having that group of people that could assist those students in any way they can. So if a student needs a flight, then they could book it for them. Or if a student needs a place to stay, maybe there is like a separate section of the university for students to stay until they can get everything moved out."
But most importantly, the students highlighted that higher education institutions simply need to put student well-being first. Apart from considering the economic implications in the institutions, they said that universities need to ponder the different vulnerabilities and needs that exist among their students so they can respond more effectively and serve as an ally during an emergency instead of a source of stress during an already stressful situation. At an individual level, some students recommended that students should not make any sudden decisions. They recommended the use of lists, conversation with family and friends, and breathing exercises. One interviewee recommended out-of-state and international students organize a peer network for when situations like these occur.
In the case of students from Canada, most students mentioned that their universities should develop their own emergency response plans. COVID-19 provides an opportunity to design a new plan or strengthen the existing one. Within the university’s emergency response plan, related support must be identified, such as on-campus resources available to students to help them move out swiftly. Supporting for health and well-being is also critical. The people with this expertise must be identified in the emergency response plan. Universities should extend their cooperation with other community-based organizations and agencies. During non-disaster times, the university’s resources could support these organizations and agencies. During disaster settings, in turn, these organization and agency resources could support students.
Key Findings: Based on the collected data, universities did not comprehesively take into consideration the challenges of students when ordering dorm evictions during the spring of 2020. Their need to avoid liability contrasted dramatically with the lack of resources (economic, cultural and social networks) exhibited by out-of-state and/or international students. Also, universities did not reach out to local stakeholders that could have aided the students in their transition to off-campus housing. For example, they did not contact NGOs based on nationality or other organizations that might be able to provide temporary housing to international and/or out-of-state students. Evicting students without careful consideration of students’ economic and/or social situation, along with ineffective communication with other stakeholders (e.g., real estate agencies, city or regional governments, and non-profit organizations), could lead to universities creating a potential new type of homelessness. This will further jeopardize student overall well-being, negatively impact public health, and produce an extra burden to already maxed-out public resources at the county and state levels.
Implications for Practice: University decision-making processes in the wake of a crisis or disaster need to reflect students’ practical and urgent needs. Institutions of higher education also need to increase their capacity to coordinate off-campus resources to facilitate student relocation processes, which strengthens the institutions’ leadership in the local and extended communities. Vacating on-campus housing not only affects the students, faculty, staff, and other employees at the institution level, but also further influences off-campus communities and other stakeholders. The outcomes of this research will further inform disaster and emergency management strategies beyond the University community, especially at the county and state government levels in the United States and the municipal and province levels in Canada. Vacating on-campus housing not only affects students, faculty, staff, and other employees at the institution level, but also further influences off-campus communities and other stakeholders. The outcomes of this research will provide evidence-based strategies for off-campus stakeholders, enabling them to use their connections and resources to support local educational institution emergency response and the students’ urgent requirements. This research will also inform the different levels of government to assist and enhance university emergency coping capacity.
Dissemination of Findings: The findings from this research will be returned to the participants via email. It will also published in the RISE email list that includes faculty of more than 114 universities across the United States, the RISE website and its social media accounts. Some research findings will be reported in academic journals, aiming for wide audiences. The researchers will also present their research outcomes through other knowledge mobilization venues, including conference presentations, media coverage, and webinars.
Limitations: This pilot research has several limitations regarding participants recruitment. Although the sample size is efficient for a qualitative research, it might exclude potential vaualbe participants just through social media and email recruitment. It is understood that the students that were in the most precarious situations were unable to answer the call and/or conduct the interview. Furthermore, for the participants recruitment in the U.S., the main outreach platform was the list of participants of the RISE Network and its social media accounts. The RISE Network is an interuniversity collaborative convergence platform that was created after the impact of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Although the network has a national-wide connections, most of the affiliates have interest in or are connected to Puerto Rico.
Future Research Directions: Although undergraduate and graduate college students are often used for social science research, few of those studies examined their marginalization from decision-making processes at the institutional level. The future research could further explore the possibility of enaging students in the development of their emergency response plan at university level. More research needs to address on the experiences of the morst vulnerable groups and the governance challenges that they confront in addressing their own vulnerabilities. Also more attention needs to be given to out-of-state and international students. Due to the limited of social networks, financial need and immigration status, this subpopulation is particularly vulnerable to the consequences of institutional decisions in higher education.
Endnote 1: The RISE Network is an interuniversity collaborative convergence platform that seeks to change the way in which universities interact with disaster-stricken communities and each other in extreme operating environments (https://therisenetwork.org/).↩
Endnote 2: We are aware of the non-representativessness of the sample in terms of ethnicity. However, including Puerto Rican students was particularly interesting because of their hybrid status. On one hand, they are culturally international so the experience of culture shock influenced their interpretation of the eviction. On the other hand, they are procedurally domestic. This means that because they are U.S. citizens, they do not have to deal with immigration pressures.↩
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