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Distance vs. displacement: Why I’m an advocate

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Dear Stanford:

I drafted this just after finishing the CSS Profile for the 2020-21 school year. It was April 29, 2020, which I’m only adding to emphasize how much I procrastinated on financial aid documentation — the priority filing deadline was April 30. Normally I wouldn’t take so long, but I was having trouble with something.

Several weeks ago, I received a fee waiver for the CSS Profile from the Stanford Financial Aid Office. This was shortly after they declared my parents noncustodial due to significant financial and emotional abuse. I also got an email saying that if I wanted to avoid putting in information about my parents’ assets etc., since I probably wouldn’t have access to that, I should declare myself an orphan at the start of the profile. Every time I tried to before today, I just couldn’t. I was adopted from China in December of 2002, so I was an orphan once. But this would be a declaration of the fact that I’ve been orphaned, disowned, abandoned or insert your synonymous verb of choice.

Last September, my relationship with my abusive parents ended, and I applied for and received a declaration of noncustodial guardianship through the financial aid office. Since then, I’ve been relying on Stanford; it’s the only home I have. While I have plenty of friends, some of whom I stayed with over winter break, I thought Stanford would be a stable source of housing during the academic year, but I was wrong. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, I filled out a petition to stay on campus. This was supported by my financial aid information, by my resident fellows and by some medical documentation requesting that I be allowed to remain at Stanford in order to attend in-person appointments. Furthermore, I receive tactile graphics and other accommodations through the Office of Accessible Education (OAE). As I live off campus, it would be impossible for me to receive many of these accommodations in a timely manner. In any case, my request to stay on campus was denied, and when I spoke to my residence dean, I was given no way to ask for my situation to be re-examined.

I’m writing from a friend’s apartment in Philadelphia. Living here has presented some challenges. My belongings are on campus and, unlike most, I don’t have a home for them to be sent to. I don’t have a way to receive some accommodations in a timely manner. The time zone difference has made scheduling difficult. The stress of having additional responsibilities, including paying rent, has contributed to my medical condition. I recognize that the financial aid office is doing a lot. It provided a stipend to help cover travel and rent and food. It’s re-examining financial aid offers to help make up for this unanticipated quarter. Everything is unstable right now, and while I appreciate that Stanford as a whole, and the financial aid office in particular, was able to adapt so quickly to these new circumstances, one thing that no amount of financial support can ever make up for is the lack of a home. A place to stay is not nearly the same as a home.

There’s an assumption in many pieces of communication from the University that every student is staying “at home” or with our families. I know that’s not the case because I’m not, and I’m sure there are other students in similar situations. One email I received on April 24, said “We hope this email finds you and your family well.” I’m not with my family, and while I hope they’re doing well, this only serves as a reminder of the fact that they’re no longer in my life. There are very likely other students who received the same email, who are homeless and/or not living with their families. Emails like this, though probably written with good intentions, can sometimes worsen a person’s mental health by reminding them of what or who is no longer in their lives.

The same email I referenced earlier began with “Dear OAE Student.” It was sent by someone who is obviously affiliated with the OAE, and was a mass message. In combination with the language I quoted earlier, this greeting made the message seem like one that included some useful information, but that had a greeting included primarily as a courtesy, which didn’t have much thought put into it. A lot of clients that allow for the sending of mass emails do have features allowing for a list of names to be fed through and associated with the email addresses the messages are sent to. This way, the emails seem slightly more personal. This way, the recipients don’t just feel like phenomena, but like people. This way, the diversity of names is recognized, even if the diversity of situations is not.

I am calling on Stanford to make efforts to recognize the diversity of circumstances students are living in and to more deeply consider petitions to stay on campus in future quarters on a case-by-case basis. Efforts to be inclusive and to recognize diverse situations can range from things as simple as being careful of language used in emails, to continuing with video messages during shelter-in-place situations, to making students feel welcome by recognizing them by name. The second part is a little more difficult, since situations like the one with COVID-19 tend to become public emergencies fairly quickly. Petitions have to be considered and decided upon rapidly. I think, however, that there needs to be an appeal process. If a student’s request for an appeal is supported by multiple people including resident fellows, medical professionals and/or financial aid information, etc., I feel that these should be automatically approved. If a request is not supported by documentation but seems strong and valid, then it should be considered. The goal of the University should be to support students’ livelihoods. Students can’t really have livelihoods if they don’t have stable housing during the academic year.

I’m remembering a ninth grade physics lecture in which my teacher explained the difference between distance and displacement. Distance is the amount of space an object has traveled, while displacement is the amount of space an object has traveled from its point of origin. For the purposes of this op-ed, let’s think about distance as a physical measure, and displacement as inclusive of emotional change. I’ve logged a lot of miles, even since coming to college, but I never expected to experience so much displacement. I’ve grown so much, and while some of it was voluntary, a lot of it was forced. I’m an advocate for blind people, for students and for anyone in need, because no one should be displaced nearly as much as I have been. No one should be subjected to abuse, and no one should feel like their voice doesn’t matter.

I don’t want pity, and the only kind of attention I want is the kind that will fuel positive change for all students who have been negatively impacted by COVID-19. I would love for the administration to internalize the fact that students are coming from and returning to diverse living situations that cannot be neatly categorized into “on campus,” “at home” and “paying rent.” I would love for the administration to remain open-minded to the diversity of situations and identities students have, and to more deeply consider how best to ensure that students are heard and represented in large decisions. 

In the interest of bringing greater attention to students in different living situations, I would love for students to make their voices heard by contacting me so that I can bring everyone’s concerns to the University administration. My email is communications ‘at’ assu.stanford.edu.

All the best,

Cricket X. Bidleman ’21

Director of Communications | Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU)

Contact Cricket X. Bidleman at communications ‘at’ assu.stanford.edu.

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