College students express virus-related fears and concerns during virtual town hall

Legislative Gazette file photo

With state officials grappling with an estimated $13.3 billion revenue shortfall from the COVID-19 pandemic, college students at public and private schools in New York are concerned about the state’s ability to support them during and after the crisis.

Problems such as homelessness, food insecurity and mental health issues were already a concern before the COVID-19 outbreak, but the crisis has exacerbated these problems for many students, and the state’s dire financial situation means many of the support programs students relied on could be in jeopardy.

Marcia Collier, City College of New York student discovered a survey from the Wisconsin HOPE lab, which showed that 14 to 20 percent of college Pell Grant recipients were struggling with homelessness and food insecurity prior to the pandemic. 

“Now our issues with food and housing are even more severe during this public health crisis,” Collier said as another survey reported 85 percent of New Yorkers currently experiencing a lack of food access.

At a virtual town hall meeting last week between students and local and state officials, Collier said a student from her class only eats one meal a day to save money. The average food on and around Collier’s campus costs about $10 per meal, and the hours to access food pantries on campus and the grab-and-go meal plan are limited. 

“The city has not put any grab-and-go program on campuses, which would have been helpful in those neighborhoods where the campuses are,” said Deborah Glick, the chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee. She is urging CUNY colleges and private schools to provide the grab-and-go program.

Young Invincibles, an advocacy program that helps college students engage in politics and expand their economic opportunities, coordinated a group of elected leaders to address students’ rising concerns caused by the pandemic. 

During the event on April 30, Collier stated, “I had a male friend who was an engineering student that could not afford campus housing.” 

Collier added that the concerns of housing insecurity within her campus increased during the pandemic. 

Regarding the lack of housing, Assemblyman Harvey Epstein, D-East Village, pointed out that there are 100,000 empty hotel rooms in New York City available for homeless students. 

“We have an opportunity to help people and we should use whatever tool available in our tool belt to do it, and that includes using the housing resources that are going to be empty,” Epstein said at the virtual town hall.

Lisa Nishimura, fourth-year student at John Jay College is expecting to graduate soon, but before her graduation, she found that she has to deal with paying rent, paying for food and handle an uncertain job search. 

As an Asian-Latinx woman, Nishimura also found herself fearing for her safety due to increased anti-Asian harassment reports recently. 

“There’s a lot of uncertainty and a lot of anxiety in terms of my health, my safety and about being able to survive financially and mentally,” Nishimura said. 

According to the survey conducted by the CUNY School of Public Health, 54 percent of young adults (18-29) were more likely to manifest anxiety during the virus outbreak. In the same survey, the mental health crisis worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic as 40 percent of New York residents feared their loved one getting sick, 18 percent feared getting sick themselves and 15 percent expressed anxiety of remaining in isolation. 

“I feel it’s important for students to gain access to these resources [mental health therapy] as we all are experiencing collective traumas caused by this pandemic,” Nishimura said. 

In response, Glick said adding mental health counselors on college campuses is “not a possibility” in light of the state budget deficit.

“We have to get federal bailout dollars, and if they arrive, it will still be a problem,” Glick said. 

As an alternative, Glick encouraged the students to call the state’s dedicated mental health hotline, which provides free mental health counseling and support.

“We’re going to see harsh cuts on the state budget, which are going to negatively impact the students across the state, and the hope is the message of budget justice, and bringing in new sources of revenue,” Epstein said.

A raise on tuition is “likely to happen” after the pandemic, according to Epstein. Additionally, taxing New York millionaires and billionaires two percent more will add approximately $4 billion to the budget and help address the students’ concerns.

“The best way to balance income equality is the raising of those who can afford it the most,” Epstein said, “And $4 billion can make a huge difference in our state budget.”