Dear Stanford Administration,
A tiny house with no privacy. No bedroom, and a tiny workspace less than twenty feet from the kitchen. The constancy of always being watched and judged, and of being told not to participate verbally in social life. The feeling of never being good enough, and the knowledge that no effort would be enough to please. That was my reality for the second half of high school — and my reality if I had lived with my family last spring.
My relationship with my family has been toxic — their conduct has constituted financial and emotional abuse. Not only have I developed an inferiority complex because of how they treated me, at times I have experienced a severe depression. I separated from them in fall of 2019, but was denied special circumstances housing when the pandemic began. For a time, I felt hopeless.
For these reasons, I had applied to be considered “financially independent” through the Financial Aid office. I had filled out paperwork and had gathered supporting documentation from various parties, some of whom were Stanford faculty. Plenty of people could have attested to my situation, and the Financial Aid office could have provided everything I had sent to them. I’m unsure whether that happened, but in the end, I was denied special circumstances housing, and I was not aware at the time of the appeals process.
Fortunately, I have friends who supported me and provided housing through winter quarter, and am now one of the seniors currently living on campus. When I read this Daily article earlier this week, I was reminded of the stress I experienced last spring. Even then, the definition of “special circumstances” was unreasonably nebulous and the process for determining eligibility was not clear at all. It seems that some aspects of that have been addressed, but other frustrating aspects have remained.
The article linked above discusses the lack of advertisement regarding “special circumstances” housing for spring. This quarter, students who wished to apply for such housing had to submit a help docket through Qualtrics in order to have their application reviewed by a residence dean, or reach out directly to a residence dean. This is in stark contrast to applications before; in winter, an easily accessible form was sent out to all students. The application process has become less accessible, when a sense of openness is crucial to giving people hope in the midst of difficult situations.
In particular, the new interview and review process is deeply concerning. Students in the article emphasize the dismissive attitudes of resident deans, and one student in the speaks about having to justify their situation an additional time in a two-page letter. This whole process can be retraumatizing, with each new round of justification potentially contributing to stress and mental health issues. In some cases, having a conversation with an RD, a therapist, or anyone else regarding abuse or difficult living situations can be impossible. If I had been with my family through the pandemic, I would not have felt comfortable seeking therapy, much less talking to an RD or review panel; I would have had no privacy to do so without potentially facing additional abuse. I’m sure others are in similar situations. The confusing requirement that students come prepared with alternates to on-campus housing only compounds the stress of an already arduous process.
Of course, I am unable to speak to individual situations other than my own. It sounds like there were more applications for special circumstances housing for spring than winter. It sounds like at least one student was told that time zones are no longer something that administration can consider when making special circumstances decisions. The process is more rigorous, perhaps because there are so many more students on campus, or perhaps because of other unknown factors.
The easiest solution to this is transparency. What does “special circumstances” mean, what are the requirements and who determines eligibility? It seems like the definition has shifted, which makes some sense, but we are still unaware of what the new definition is. Things change all the time during this pandemic, which creates a sense of unease and uncertainty. Compound that with the fact that students are facing housing insecurity, unstable situations or other difficulties, and you now have a recipe for hopelessness and panic. I firmly believe that simply making students aware of what “special circumstances” entails, and how the meaning of that changes over time, would be very helpful.
As I mentioned earlier, and as the Daily article stated, publicizing of the new special circumstances process was done rather haphazardly. The general lack of awareness of university decisions makes finding resources and coming up with alternate plans difficult. As I mentioned, I didn’t even know there was an appeals process until last summer, after spring quarter was over. The article says there is still no formal appeals process and even if there was, students are generally unaware of it. We should always advertise something this critical, perhaps offering a resources page that is regularly updated, as well as a feedback form. There is comfort in accessible knowledge and regular communication. This would also streamline the process of addressing student concerns for the university itself.
Though everyone — students, faculty, and administration alike—should remember that this is an evolving situation and a learning experience, Stanford is falling short in its special circumstances housing policy. The University needs to recognize that its protocols have real consequences, as the mental health, living environment, and career hang in the balance for students, and a lack of transparency and shifting policies take a heavy toll on student health. We rarely have protocols for the spontaneous aspects of life as they occur, and the pandemic is no exception. Making decisions that impact thousands of lives is not easy either. The University, however, needs to be aware of the toll its opacity and inconsistency take on the student body.
Cricket X. Bidleman (she/her/hers)
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