Washington and Lee Once Again Owes its Students Compensation for Travel

As my original article inches closer to its one-year anniversary, I find myself reminded of the fact that I never planned to return to this article, nor frankly to the concerns I raised in it when students first found themselves in a scramble to evacuate campus when, at the time, what would become the COVID-19 pandemic had not even hit 10,000 U.S. cases, nor had it yet rocked the very foundations of our small campus, our corner of Virginia, this nation, or the globe. Now, as I find myself writing a begrudging sequel, the number of COVID cases in the U.S. has reached 22.2 million and is likely to only increase in the immediate future. And, just as the pandemic is still very much relevant to our present tense, so too are those original concerns I shared publicly all those months ago. The needs of the student body, especially students from marginalized backgrounds, still persist, and I once again find myself imploring that the university administration remember its responsibility to its students during this difficult transition into the winter semester.

On January 7th, President Dudley emailed the student body announcing a staggered return to campus—the first form of communication from the administration which provided any sort of logistical details regarding the start of winter term. Through this correspondence, the administration blindsided students just 12 days before the start of classes and only four before the first group of students are expected to begin in person testing on campus. While I am not interested in challenging the validity of a staggered return as being in the best interest of student health, I nonetheless find myself disappointed in the university for presenting a set of strict and feasibly challenging expectations regarding student travel without even as much as an acknowledgment for the financial and logistical burdens these place upon the student body. Washington and Lee has once again chosen to assume its students find themselves with access to personal resources, which in this case, would allow for the creation and execution of safe, flexible travel plans at the whims of university policy. And, just as in the evacuation of campus in March of this past year, many students are at risk of falling through the cracks if the university does not take swift action to ensure the financial stability of its most vulnerable students.

While my position as a student leader has often left me in an antagonistic position with regards to the administration, I nonetheless openly credit the university for providing easily accessible financial support for students when we were forced to evacuate campus all those months ago. Where the university covid response—namely, the closing of campus—caused instability in the lives of students, this institution reacted with policy to create stability and support where it was so severely needed through the distribution of financial resources and compensation for student travel. Today, students find themselves in an uncannily similar situation: scrambling to find affordable and safe means of transportation due to policy implemented by the university at the last minute under an increasingly dangerous global pandemic. Yet, despite the mirrored circumstances, the university has yet to offer the financial support it once did for ensuring the safe travel of its student body with the same clarity of language and scope. I have been pleased to find that university deans have been encouraging students with financial concerns to reach out to them during this difficult transition for the possibility of financial support. While I find this an encouraging start, the distribution of financial and logistical resources must be executed liberally with wide reaching eligibility and easy accessibility in an attempt to reach as many members of the student body as possible.

As in my original article, I would like to reiterate that the challenges this university poses to its student body do not affect each member of this community equally. As low-income and out-of-state students, we find ourselves particularly burdened during this time with the financial obligations of last-minute travel. In addition to lacking the finances needed, an inflexibility in work schedules and lack of access to safe and affordable modes of transportation likewise characterize the circumstances of many low-income students who attend this university and their families. Issues of race, gender, disability, nationality/immigration status, and sexual orientation only compound these concerns. Indeed, this staggered return schedule poses logistical concerns for all students, but it is those students of marginalized background and identities who will undoubtedly face the most challenges in the coming weeks.

The university’s responsibility is clear. Given that this new staggered return schedule affects the student body in its entirety, the university must provide easily accessible financial compensation for the travel expenses of all students returning to campus for winter term. Anything less would be a refusal to acknowledge the ways in which university policies make vulnerable its students and furthers the marginalization of minority students. In refusing, they would forgo their responsibilities to the community they claim to serve.


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