Editor's note: This column was submitted to the Texan by a member of the UT community.
On March 16, 2020, UT students left Austin for a highly anticipated and much-needed spring break. Some spent their time on the beach while others, concerned about the new COVID-19 outbreak, headed back to their hometowns across the country or the world. After a few days, the outbreak began to grow more serious, and it was clear these events were going to change our college experience. Getting the email from former UT President Gregory Fenves stating that we would extend spring break by a week was a nerve-racking development for many.
“This decision today will create new challenges for many of our students, specifically regarding the completion of courses and credit, housing, the retrieval of personal items from University residence halls and access to technology away from campus,” Fenves said in a school-wide email on March 17.
The concerns Fenves addressed in his letter only grew worse as time moved on. Some courses continued full speed during the spring semester, using the Zoom platform for online meetings, while students in rural areas lacking stable broadband accessibility were left behind.
Living in East Texas, I felt like I was pushed to the side. Some professors were very understanding of the situation and worked with me, while others were not as understanding. I managed to keep up with my work by driving to the nearest McDonald’s, which was about an hour away, for Wi-Fi, but that did not make it easy to keep up with my assignments. I realized this was not a sustainable or productive learning environment when it became harder to upload my work than to complete the work itself. I couldn't complete Google searches in less than five minutes, Zoom lectures were completely out of the question and the cost of the internet was rapidly wiping out my savings account. I tried about five different internet providers that each charged a nonrefundable installation fee and still did not work. It wasn't my fault, but it did feel like the University didn't care about my situation.
UT is an excellent institution that I am very proud to be a part of. If we are going to continue to be a leader in academics we need to make sure our students have the tools to succeed at all times. According to the Texas Tribune, UT received $31 million to supplement any lost money due to the closure of the campus, but students received no tuition reimbursement for the resources the University closed down. For me, this meant I would have to go home and absorb many unexpected expenses while still paying for all of my obligations and my apartment in Austin. Sure, CARES Act and student emergency funds were available for some students, but it did not scratch the surface of all the costs we had to endure. Between losing my job in Austin, still making my apartment payments, finding stable internet, and keeping up with coursework, hard was an understatement.
I’m not asking the UT System to pay for all of our hardships and responsibilities; that is our job. What I do ask of them is to show the same sympathy for their students that the federal government showed to them. Duke University provided its students with WiFi hotspots, mailed directly to their homes. Access to stable internet is something every student needs to have a chance to succeed in class. Many students have solved their internet issues, but some are still struggling. With the simple implementation of loaner hotspots, additional grant money for internet capabilities and a better understanding of the situation, UT can lead this effort once again.
Harmon is a rhetoric and writing senior and student government University-wide representative from Jasper, Texas.