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Penn ‘left us stranded on the streets’: Vulnerable students are desperate as coronavirus shuts down Philly colleges

Universities are telling students to go home, but for some this means returning to war-torn countries and unstable households.

University of Pennsylvania students were ordered to leave campus by Tuesday, March 17. But for the college's vulnerable and low-income students, that may mean going home to unstable living conditions.
University of Pennsylvania students were ordered to leave campus by Tuesday, March 17. But for the college's vulnerable and low-income students, that may mean going home to unstable living conditions.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

When Hussein Khambhalia received an email from administrators at the University of Pennsylvania late Sunday afternoon, his jaw dropped. He had 48 hours to pack up his belongings and leave campus, they told him. No exceptions.

But for Khambhalia, a highly aided sophomore at Penn, home was across the world, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He doesn’t have internet at home, he said, and shares a room with two of his siblings. He worries that amid the stressful environment and seven-hour time difference, his grades will suffer, but Penn left him no other options.

“They didn’t look at our needs, and just left us stranded on the streets,” said Khambhalia, 20.

It’s a scene rippling across the region as the coronavirus tightens its grip on the United States, pressuring colleges to move to online learning and to encourage students to leave campus and return home. Their decision comes as government officials have asked schools and businesses to practice social distancing to stem the spread of the virus.

But as school resources shut down, vulnerable low-income students are being left behind. The universities have offered to buy students flights home, but for some this means returning to war-torn countries and unstable households, placing financial burdens on their families.

“We feel like no one cares for us just because we don’t have the money and are somehow less important,” said Khambhalia, one of hundreds of Penn students whose application to remain on campus was denied.

Penn has taken a particularly hard stance on its closure, even reaching out to parents and local landlords of off-campus housing and asking for assistance in getting students to leave.

“We have communicated Penn’s position to local landlords, and asked them to work with their tenants to support this public health necessity,” Penn said in a letter to parents.

Penn’s effort is part of a larger approach to depopulate the campus of about 50,000 students, faculty, and staff as the coronavirus spreads. Penn had said it wanted all on- and off-campus students, except those with certain extenuating circumstances, to vacate by Tuesday. It also has asked employees to work remotely.

“We have approved several hundred requests from students whose personal circumstances made it impossible for them to leave campus,” Penn spokesperson Ron Ozio said. “For several hundred other students who required assistance to return home, financial support was offered in the form of booked flights, baggage fees, and, in some cases, bank cards to help with food and internet services."

Penn declined to comment further. The university said on Monday that three students who were abroad for spring break had tested positive for the virus and could have exposed as many as 20 others. Penn also on Monday took the extraordinary step of canceling on-campus commencement.

And on Saturday, Penn notified students that they were not permitted to gather in groups or hold parties, and could face disciplinary action for doing so.

Maureen S. Rush, vice president of public safety, said Penn police had encountered some student gatherings over the last few days.

“We want to reinforce that this is not a party,” she said. “This is a very serious issue.”

Still, critics of Penn’s decision to push as many students as possible to leave campus say it could hurt those most vulnerable.

“In a crisis, universities have a responsibility to communicate care to its students,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, an education policy professor at Temple University who is an expert on homelessness and hunger on campuses.

“The university’s letter to parents suggests that Penn wants local landlords to evict its own students,” said Goldrick-Rab, who runs, which helps needy students left in a lurch by the closures. "I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Goldrick-Rab also worries that as students return home, college may become a lower priority, and some students may not return.

City Councilmember Helen Gym also was critical of Penn’s decision to force students off the campus.

The city wants to keep people in stable housing, as long as they are not congregating, she said. “It’s a violation of the spirit of what we are trying to accomplish.”

Some colleges, including Haverford, took a softer approach. “Those students who are unable to go home will not be turned away,” president Wendy Raymond wrote in a message to the campus last week. But she also noted that wanting to stay just because a student would rather be on campus is not a sufficient reason.

‘It’s too much of a risk to go home’

Universities across the country are packed with vulnerable students, and Penn and Swarthmore College, renowned schools with billion-dollar endowments, are no exception. For many students, campus is a haven — maybe the first time they’ve had their own room, a stable routine, and consistent hot meals, advocates say. But now, within days, that haven has been stripped away, replaced with uncertainty and instability.

On Tuesday, Swarthmore, which had planned to hold online courses through April 3, announced that the online courses would be held for the rest of the school year.

Meanwhile, it was unclear what would happen to the nearly 200 students who got permission to stay after Swarthmore announced that it was temporarily shifting to online instruction.

Additionally, the school has purchased plane tickets or provided financial assistance to another 200 students.

“Our ultimate goal is to act in the interest of the health and well-being of our students, faculty, staff, and the greater community by trying to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” said Alisa Giardinelli, Swarthmore’s spokesperson. “One way we can do that is to reduce the number of people on campus to the greatest extent possible."

Giardinelli said the college made exceptions for some students, including international students, and assisted others with securing laptops and internet connection.

Shelby Dolch, a first-generation and low-income student, was among those denied housing. Dolch’s mother lives with lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and other immunodeficiency disorders, putting her at a higher risk of catching COVID-19.

“My mom can’t even catch the flu,” Dolch said, emphasizing how quickly the virus is spreading through Delaware County. “It’s too much of a risk to go home."

Administrators suggested finding somewhere else to go. But Dolch has no other options. On Monday, Dolch will return home to Billings, Mont.

Students are also losing their on-campus jobs. George Curtis, a Swarthmore junior, drives vans of students to tutoring appointments, which have been canceled until further notice.

“I currently have no income,” said Curtis, 20. Swarthmore offered to buy his flight home to Montana, but like Dolch, he doesn’t want to risk carrying the virus home to his 71-year-old father. He said he will likely end up sleeping on a friend’s couch.

“We are not only fighting a pandemic, but we’re fighting against a college that won’t help us,” said Curtis. “It’s a disaster that they’re choosing to push onto the students.”

Penn paid for Khambhalia’s flight home, and gave him money for internet and weekly meals, but online service in East Africa is unreliable. He also can’t stop worrying about his friend from the war-torn Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, who now has nowhere to go.

“They just want to ship us away from Penn,” he said.

Jesse Soto, a highly aided freshman at Penn, criticized the university’s communications, which he said didn’t address the questions or concerns of first-generation, low-income students. Soto has returned home to Cicero, a Chicago suburb. His parents are fast-food cooks and he’s worried about how his return will impact them financially.

“When I was in school, my parents didn’t have to worry about feeding another mouth,” said Soto, 18. “But now that I’m here, that’s another worry.”

Staff writer Susan Snyder contributed to this article.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at