A closer look into the process that determined who could stay and who had to leave

Kevin Yang and Jacob Posner

Students whose petitions to stay on campus were denied met with deans in Hopkins Hall to discuss their decisions. (Kevin Yang/The Williams Record)

Seven students’ stories reveal the consequences of the College’s decisions and underscore the diverging home situations of the student body

Last week, as most students prepared to pack up their rooms and return home, around 350 students wrote petitions to remain on campus or access campus resources. Out of those 350, approximately 150 students were approved to stay, and about 100 ultimately accepted spots on campus, according to Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom. The rest were denied. 

In interviews conducted by the Record, the stories of students who petitioned to stay illustrate what returning home meant for them. For many, returning necessitated international travel, which brought with it concerns about travel restrictions and the health risks of passing through busy airports. For others, returning home meant living in financial insecurity, in an unstable home environment or without the resources necessary for remote learning. For others still, Williams is their primary place of residence, and they rely on the College for food and healthcare.

In an email to the Record, Sandstrom said the College reviewed the petitions “on a case-by-case basis, with two principles in mind”: to keep the number of students on campus low because of limited resources and to “narrowly allow exceptions for students who literally couldn’t get home, or who didn’t have a safe or stable place to go to where they could pursue remote learning.”

Students began to receive decisions on their petitions on the afternoon of Friday, March 13. 

Smaragda Chrysoulaki ’22, an international student from Greece, was one of those approved to remain on campus that Friday afternoon. In her petition, she emphasized the rapid spread of the coronavirus in Greece and the impact of travel restrictions implemented by the U.S in response to the pandemic. 

“I talked a lot about how there’s the risk that if I leave the country, then I will not be allowed back, and that’s a problem especially for students that have summer internships here in the U.S.,” she said in an interview with the Record

Approved after an appeal process

But for many students who were denied, the process was not yet over; there still remained the possibility of appealing the decisions. Preetul Sen ’22, who is from Bangladesh, cited the spread of the coronavirus at home and the health risks his return might pose to his family. “I mentioned that my dad has cardiac problems, so he is immunocompromised, and [that] if I did travel back to Bangladesh, there was a risk to his health,” Sen said. However, he also mentioned that he had the option of staying with a friend in Princeton, which he believes led to the initial denial of his request to stay.

Immediately after Sen received his decision, he went to the office hours that were being held by the deans in Hopkins Hall.

“Everyone was there — the director of financial aid, all the deans and the president. We were taken into a conference room where we could ask them questions, and we brought up a lot of the issues that we thought were relevant,” Sen said. “At first, they told us that there was no appeals process. But then I think they changed their minds.”

Later, Sen said, denied students were told to write an email that detailed any additional information that they would like to be considered. “I had to email [email protected], and there I specified that I [couldn’t] go to Princeton anymore,” he said. After sending this email that explained the change in his options, his petition was approved. 

According to Sandstrom, the College considered additional information from denied students in making its final decisions. 

“After we communicated with students in response to their initial request to remain on campus, some students felt that we had made the decision with incomplete information and chose to contact us with further information in order to provide more context for the necessity of their request,” Sandstrom wrote in an email to the Record. “We read through each of those additional emails carefully and responded to them on a case-by-case basis.” 

Another student, a senior from New York who requested to remain anonymous because of the personal information being shared, petitioned to stay on campus because his parents would not have been able to support him financially if he returned home. His petition was initially denied. In an individual meeting with a dean after he received his decision, he was told that the financial aid office would support some of his expenses at home. 

But without the option of staying at the College and unwilling to burden his family further by returning to New York, he tried to find housing near campus. After a few days, he realized he would be unable to do so. “I petitioned again, saying, ‘This is definitely not right,’” he said. 

In his email to the College appealing his decision, he explained what returning home would mean for him. “My family in New York does not have space for me to stay in,” he wrote. “We can barely fit two mattresses into a room because our place is so small. I do not have a room and I would be a spatial and financial burden on my family. I understand that the Financial Aid office will help me with the cost of food. However, the cost of water and electricity and any resources other than food would rise because of me, and it is unlikely that the money given by the college will be enough.”

Three hours later, he said, he was approved to stay.

Denied after an appeal process

Some students who were denied initially were denied again after submitting additional information in their appeal emails. 

One such student, who asked to remain anonymous because of the personal information being shared, said she petitioned to stay on campus because of a stressful home environment and concerns about healthcare. 

“I have two younger siblings, and I’m expected to help take care of them,” she said. “Also, my parents are going through a very tough time right now, and they’re thinking of getting a divorce, so it’s just a very chaotic household, and there’s not a lot of positivity or support — a lot of anger, so it’s not the place that I think I can do Williams-level academics.”

She also does not qualify for Canada’s single-payer Medicare system because her family moved from California to Canada after she had started college — another rationale she included in her initial petition. She later learned that the health insurance she receives from the College works internationally. 

She appealed after her petition was denied, citing concerns that she wouldn’t be able to get home with the closure of the Canadian-American border. Her appeal was denied, and she flew home March 18. Hers was the last flight out.

“They were basically like, ‘We’re denying anyone who has a home, even if it’s not a perfect situation,’” she said.

Another student, a senior who asked to remain anonymous due to the personal information being shared, was also denied after her initial petition and appeal. Her original rationale included her mother’s application for bankruptcy, a risk of homelessness, “[lower] access to food because of money and because my mom doesn’t cook much, no real studying/quiet spaces, and having to take care of my little sister because she’s not at school,” she wrote in response to a survey by the Record

In her appeal, she wrote that she “talked more about the bankruptcy — I even interviewed my mother about specifics of her situation and her debt.” She sent it at 10 p.m. the night she received her initial decision, and she received a response denying her request around noon the next day.

The night before she needed to leave campus, the student’s offers from two different families to house her fell through. She contacted the dean on-call, who told her that there was nothing they could do that night and that another dean had told them earlier that she could go home. The student then found housing with an alum who was to pick her up the next day but received an email from a dean that the Dean’s Office had already booked her travel home.

“They did this without asking me and thus without my consent,” the student said. According to her, the dean characterized it “as being for my benefit since I wouldn’t be in Williamstown with an overburdened healthcare system.” 

In discussing the difficulty of deciding on petitions, Sandstrom emphasized that deans were carrying out decisions made by senior administrative staff.

“It is important to understand that while individual deans worked hard to support students and help them plan next steps if their petitions to remain were not successful, the actual decisions about who could remain on campus ultimately were made by senior leadership,” Sandstrom wrote in an email to the Record

“If we could have, we would have allowed everyone to stay,” she added. “But there’s a significant risk to remaining here right now, and therefore we could only offer spots to people who were facing extraordinary hazards elsewhere. We hate how high that bar had to be. But it reflects the reality that decades of national policy choices have left regions like ours under equipped for the pandemic.” 

Non-traditional and off-campus students

Students who live off-campus also had to be approved through the petition process in order to access campus resources. Noah Savage ’21, who is from Williamstown, petitioned to have swipe access to Spencer Art Studio and Sawyer library.

“I thought I could continue my independent study work pretty much uninterrupted if I could just have access to those two buildings,” he said. “It was a pretty short petition with a paragraph or two and I just explained that.”

His petition was denied. In an email to him and his independent study advisor, Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom cited equity concerns. 

 “It was about not letting some students have access to resources while others don’t,” Savage said Sandstrom told him. “She said I’m also technically not allowed to meet in person with my independent study professors over the course of this… Even students who stay, she explained, have very limited access to resources. She then apologized profusely.”

Landon Marchant ’20, who lives off-campus, submitted a petition because Williams is their permanent residence, and they rely on the College for “housing, healthcare, and food,” Marchant wrote to the Record

 “If we weren’t approved, my fiancé and I (as well as [our dogs] Malibu [and] Aspen, and Freckles the cat) would have to pack up and move out of our house,” Marchant wrote. “I also have an independent study and courses that would benefit from library access, but I wasn’t even thinking about academics when I petitioned to stay. I was wondering where my family was going to live, and how we were going to eat (I’m at-risk so my partner and I are both avoiding grocery stores). Additionally, my primary care physician is at the Health Center and they’re only able to see people who have been approved to stay.” Their petition was approved.

For non-traditional students and traditional students alike, the petition process makes clear the difference between resources available at home and at the College. 

“Meal plans would allow me to be sufficiently fed,” wrote the senior from New York in his appeal. “I would not be trapped in my house and would be able to stay healthy and fit. I would be able to focus on my academics, and have the libraries for any academic resources. Every bit of my life would be better if I were allowed to stay on campus.” 

Both approved and denied students now face the task of transitioning to whatever living situations they face as the pandemic continues. 

Back at home, the student from Canada was on day seven of self-quarantine as of today. “The days are kind of all one,” she said. “I’ve been sleeping a lot more than I ever have slept in my entire life. Also my room is just very dark, and I don’t know why.”

The Record plans to continue our coverage of students as they transition to their new living situations during the coronavirus pandemic. If readers would like to share their experiences, please email kzy1 and jep4.