By Hiya Chowdhury (UG23) and Devika Jamkhedkar (UG21)
The dreadful second COVID-19 strain has destroyed any hope of rejuvenation this year for all – as Ashokans, as Indians, as people. As 2020 came to a close, most of us bore a cautious optimism that the endless suffering would relent, even if just a little. We were desperate to be back on campus, to rekindle the life that we had left behind precisely a year ago. Thankfully, students were allowed to relocate in the Spring semester, joining those who had stayed on – financial aid students, international students and more. Thrill and flourish returned to campus – until 19th April when the Dean of Student Affairs evacuation email hit and we had to leave, once again.
For many, the university campus is more than just a place of residence- it’s a welcome respite from tedious, often painful circumstances. Though far from an equaliser, life on campus was a singular way to bring about uniformity in one’s lifestyle. It ensured that all students relied on the same WiFi connection, library books, and office hour sessions; Not to mention the same rooms, shower cubicles and pantries. Compounded by the pains of a COVID stricken life, the residences provide ample escape from poor WiFi and connectivity, inadequate academic resources, uncomfortable home environments or the worst – outright abuse. While those who could afford to simply pack up and leave within days (a trying task itself) did exactly that, the question arose about the plight of those on exceptional financial aid, and those who stayed on campus for otherwise exceptional circumstances – where would they go?
Through a petition, students on exceptional financial aid immediately requested to be allowed to stay on campus after the 17th of May, the last day for evacuation. No blanket policy for aid students followed, in spite of multiple requests. Financial aid students, international students, and those with undesirable home environments were all running out of options. Further, financial aid students from UG23 were told that they would not receive stipend for they had never been on campus – stipend was only for those who had been.
Fortunately, on 24th April, the Student Government relayed that the Vice Chancellor and Dean of Student Affairs allowed the desirous students to stay on at campus. The students were asked to send accounts detailing their circumstances and why they needed to stay on. Travel reimbursements were provided on a case-by-case basis. Exceptional aid students received emails permitting their aid bracket to apply for the time spent on campus after the semester, exempting them from residence or mess fees as well. With UG23 students, too, receiving the necessary aid, all affairs seemed to have been settled.
However, a sudden communication from the Pro VC swooped in on the 21st of May, asking for the same exceptional aid students to pay for the days spent on campus on a pro-rata basis: if one had been on campus since the 17th, then they were to pay for the days preceding this communication as well. This was a major cause for concern. Students who were already suffering due to poor financial situations, which were likely worsening in the pandemic, could not shoulder this additional expenditure. Email after email from aid students conveyed their concerns to the VC and student body alike, with the SG rallying for support. The uncertainty was frightening, coming so soon after a moment’s reassurance.
A final communication via the SG on 23th May appeared to smooth things over. Overturning the Pro VC’s initial communication, the VC allowed international students on financial aid, aid students continuing academics, and aid students who cannot return home due to COVID related reasons to remain on campus. Those who could not return home due to non-COVID related issues, such as difficult home environments, were to have their situations evaluated through a “mechanism that is humane and pays heed to the needs of individual students.” Those on campus would receive their aid bracket, but their circumstances would be periodically evaluated.
While this particular issue appears to have been resolved, there are glaring concerns here that bring into sharp focus the wider problems with financial aid at Ashoka. In light of this harrowing turn of events, one must ask: why were no specific accommodations enforced for the financial aid students from the very get-go? Why is it that some of the students most vulnerable to the ravages of this pandemic were not assisted as soon as the notice for evacuation was communicated? As every social media page run by Ashoka seems to shout from the rooftops as a badge of honour – Financial aid students make up near about 50 per cent of the student body. How then is it possible that the Ashokan administration does not account for the troubles of nearly half its student body preemptively and sincerely? The failure to do so is quite telling.
To the untrained eye, Ashoka is a haven for those with financial constraints. Before one enters this university, there is a constant refrain which the Ashoka pamphlets and website seem to capitalize on: no matter where one comes from, Ashoka can make their dreams come true. The ‘dreams come true’ adage feels believable because of the wider picture of philanthropic bliss Ashoka represents, as well as the need-based financial aid approach which, to be fair, has immense merit. Ashoka relies heavily on this narrative, promising an academic future free of financial burden or pressure for those who need it.
The reality of the situation, however, is in jarring contrast to this ideal ‘dream,’ for the promise of financial aid also seems to bring with it intimidation, fear and censure. Aid students are often unfairly burdened by the administration, as seen in the current pandemic circumstances, with a cavalier disregard for the structural issues which inform their plight during these times.This is not to say that aid students are never paid heed to. The administration has of course delivered on their promise to provide financial aid in the first place, and often, the concerns of aid students are also addressed pre-emptively. However, there seems to remain a sense of fear and indignation around the administration’s treatment of aid students, which may stem from an unwillingness to truly hear the students’ concerns, and to go above and beyond to ensure a safe university space for them.
There seems to be an implicit knowledge that abounds in hushed tones among the student population: aid students live in a precarious condition at Ashoka. They fear being at risk for administrative maltreatment and incompetence at best, and revocation of their aid status at worst. In fact, during the protests against professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation in March, many aid students expressed their desire to communicate their grievances anonymously, lest they be identified and their aid be revoked. The administration would no doubt claim that these fears are unfounded, but on what basis? For the fear to exist, whether implicitly or explicitly, it must be based on student experiences of classism at Ashoka.
Communication from the administration in response to aid students raising their concerns offers no respite. In a private communication to a student who publicly emailed the student body about how their financial struggles during the pandemic were further exacerbated by the administration, the Dean of Student Affairs resorted to tone-policing the student for the manner with which they had worded their email. Such a response can easily intimidate and threaten students who are already of a structurally vulnerable status in the university.
It is understandable that the administration members may feel slighted by an indictment of their actions in front of the student body, but it is also unfair and difficult to justify tone-policing a student who has courageously made their plight clear for all to see. It is not so much this individual case of tone-policing that takes presidency here, but the culture of upholding university pride and purity over genuine student concerns and criticisms. Had Ashoka been doing an entirely admirable job of helping its student body with no cause for complaint, these concerns from the aid students would not have existed in the first place. The administration is, thus, not only unaware of the repercussions of their actions, but they are also unwilling to listen to those who take the pains to point them out.
The pandemic is not easy on anyone, students, professors and administrators alike. However, such a difficulty does not absolve the administration’s responsibility towards those worst-hit by the pandemic. The problems and fears of financial aid students did not start today, but they are being brought into sharp focus by the recent actions of the administration – casting immense doubt on Ashoka’s belief that their financial aid philosophy truly makes ‘dreams come true.’
Note – This article has been fact checked by Harshit Kumar (UG22), member of the Financial aid committee of the Student Government.
Author(s) bio –
Hiya is a rising second year and prospective English major. She enjoys writing personal essays and political opinion pieces. She is a financial aid student.
Devika is a rising fourth year Psychology major. She enjoys writing thinkpieces and investigative articles based on people’s lived experiences. She is not a financial aid student.