(Photo: Tdorante10/Wiki Commons)

Paola Nagovitch, a journalism student at New York University, received an email on March 9 from the school’s administration about coronavirus-related measures NYU planned to take. The email asked students to take their laptops, books and notebooks with them during spring break. She left New York to her hometown in Puerto Rico that same week thinking she would be able to return at some point to her student residence. However, on March 16 she received another email from the school asking students to be out of their residences “by no later than March 22, and preferably within 48 hours.” That same week Puerto Rico’s governor announced a nationwide lockdown and curfew, discarding any possibility Nagovitch had of returning to New York.

Since Nagovitch had been living in NYU housing for the past four years, nearly everything that she owns was in her room. She had to ask friends to pack everything for her via FaceTime. “I am in Puerto Rico with next to nothing,” she wrote in an email to Tom Ellett, senior associate vice president for student affairs. “I beg you, and the institution, to understand that I was (and still am) under government orders to remain in my home in Puerto Rico, not to mention the fact that traveling back to the epicenter of the virus to get my things would have put me and my family at risk.” Ellett called her back saying her things would remain in her room until the situation was more under control, and they will eventually ship them to her. 

Nagovitch is one of the 5,000 NYU students from outside of the continental U.S., many of whom now have to figure out how they will get their belongings back. Those like her, who are graduating this May, must also grapple with not being able to say farewell to friends, a canceled commencement ceremony, and entering the job market during a coronavirus-led recession. 

NYU’s emails to students stated that room and board costs would be refunded, items would be packed and shipped for those who couldn’t do it themselves, and over-burdened students could apply for emergency aid. Meanwhile, students’ parents— along with others in the NYU community— received a separate email asking for donations to an Emergency Relief Fund to support “travel expenses to get home, shipping belongings from residence halls and access to technology for remote instruction.” Some students question why a private school with an endowment of $4.35 billion is asking their parents for funds to send them back what they left at the dorms. Other universities throughout the country, such as Harvard, have also been criticized for the short notice given to students to evacuate dorms. 

According to Nagovitch (who, along with this author, attends the Arthur L Carter Journalism Institute, which produces Bedford + Bowery), the school’s overall communications to students have been condescending, especially a March 17 email sent by Marc Wais, vice president of student affairs. “The first three paragraphs were about him explaining what’s going on around the world, as if we had no clue of the situation,” Nagovitch said during an interview conducted in Spanish. “I read the news so I’m aware of what’s happening with the virus. He then goes on to say the expectation was for us to move out, but the school never told us that before.” Though students didn’t receive any notifications between the March 9 email asking them to take school materials, and the March 16 from the school’s administration asking them to move out, Wais told the New York Times that students “had not heeded earlier calls to leave their dormitories,” as the Times paraphrased it. 

The March 9 email from NYU said that students should “plan to carry home valuables and indispensable items in the event that a sustained period will pass before they are able to retrieve them easily,” but also said residence halls would remain open, as usual, during spring break. 

Nicole Lorusso, a Media and Communications undergraduate, was caught off guard by the change in policy announced March 16. “I think there’s a difference between being told ‘Make sure you get some of your important notebooks and books’ instead of ‘Get all of your belongings and be out because you’re not returning,’” she said. 

Due to the short notice, Lorusso had to ask her parents to help her move out. She was concerned about having them travel to New York because she didn’t want them to contract the virus. According to her, if she would have received prior notification she would have moved out before leaving for spring break. “We had to go back two times [from New Jersey]. So having to go back into New York, which at that point was such a hot spot, was definitely frustrating,” Lorusso said. 

Ellett said he could not comment on communications that come from the university. Wais replied via email with a list of the announcements the school released. (The March 16 email is the first on the list that mentions packing and leaving the dorms.) He did not comment on why the school is asking parents for money for shipping expenses. In his March 17 email acknowledging that the previous day’s announcement had upset students and parents, Wais explained that a lot had changed unexpectedly since the administration’s March 9 communication. “Frankly, we had held out the hope that we would be able to reconvene and resume in-person classes later this semester, but developments portended otherwise,” Wais wrote.

Students, faculty, staff and university organizations have come together under the “NYU COVID Coalition” to demand a better response to the current crisis. The coalition put together a petition with a list of requests, such as guaranteed housing to all students, indefinite paid sick leave for university workers, and access to healthcare, among others. According to the petition, as of March 27 members of the coalition had “contacted multiple relevant university administrative offices to discuss these urgent demands, and were either ignored or rejected (specifically in the case of student housing).” 

In addition to the housing refund, many students want a refund for their tuition expenses. They created a Change.org petition to request a partial refund of tuition in light of the switch to online classes until the end of the semester.  Emma Hoersdig, a senior drama student at NYU Tisch, believes online learning is not the education she paid for. She and other Tisch students are outraged at Dean Allyson Green’s response to their refund requests. 

In a May 22 email obtained by People, Green wrote to students that she wasn’t authorized to refund tuition and that the switch to remote learning was costing the school “millions”— then she attached a video of herself dancing to a song she said she leaned on “even in the darkest moments,” REM’s “Losing my Religion.”  

“It feels like (she’s) just placating us, it feels condescending,” said Hoersdig. “These are very, very serious concerns about our money. A lot of us are in some really tough financial positions, and we get a response that’s basically like ‘We hear you, we can’t do anything. Here’s a video of me dancing.’” 

After graduating, Nagovitch was planning to go to Spain to pursue a Master’s program with El Pais, a daily newspaper there. “Before I used to plan all my life well in advance, but now with this virus I don’t even think beyond the five minutes ahead of me,” she said. Hoersdig is also uncertain about her future plans. The theater scene in New York has completely halted and it could remain that way after she graduates this May. “Everything is just changing so rapidly day by day right now. And that’s how I’m getting through this, kind of trying to take it day by day,” Hoersdig said.