On August 26, new student move-in day, I could barely exist in my un-airconditioned Brooks room. It was suffocating. Several fans and a window that opened only four inches did nothing but move unrelentingly hot, stale air around, but I pushed through to get organized. My mom tried to help me move-in, but soon sat on the floor in disbelief, fanning herself and nearly passing out. The heat of the room was unbearable. Moreover, it was unacceptable.
Even with six fans in my room, a feeling of suffocation woke me up my first night, and I had one of the biggest panic attacks of my life. I couldn’t believe I was starting NSOP the next day tired and depleted, from spending an hour literally fearing for my life as a result of the hot and humid air in my room making it difficult to breathe. Over the next two weeks, students went to the Emergency Room and Primary Care, had severe health conditions worsen, and were forced to spend more and more money on fans, cooling supplies, and even rented hotel rooms. Since Barnard boasts a diverse student body of varying backgrounds, not every student could afford to buy fans or relocate.
The image Barnard College presents of itself is filled with contradictions. Articulate presenters spoke of wellness initiatives to combat stress culture and aid in settling in; students wore buttons saying, “ask me what it’s like to be: a low-income/first generation student” or a “student with a disability,” and there were meet-ups throughout the week for students who aligned with those identities. For a school that clearly values self-care, mental and physical health, as well as equity and diversity, it seems paradoxical that it doesn’t adequately prepare and provide for the comfort and health of its students in the event of severe heat.
In an apparent attempt to help us through the heat advisory, Barnard Residential Life eventually sent two emails that offered “solutions” such as eating popsicles and celery, drinking when we’re thirsty, not exercising, avoiding the outdoors, and spending time in air-conditioned buildings like the Milstein Center or the Diana Center. This prompted disbelief, only furthered school-wide frustration, and sparked a plethora of “eat celery for hydration” memes. The emails were patronizing, condescending, and put the onus on the students to fight off the debilitating heat. Students weren’t offered any real, viable solutions other than water stations and sleepovers on the floors of other students’ Sulzberger rooms, and these sleepovers are not sustainable night after night. These suggestions were insufficient, providing nothing more than a temporary aid to a problem that has affected and will continue to affect students until the administration acts.
It was a joke between my roommate and I about which one of us would end up in the ER first, but it was truly a real and deep fear. Everytime I’d get lightheaded changing my clothes in my room, I’d think, “This is it. ER here I come.”
We toughed it out a little longer, despite lightheadedness, nausea, and sleeplessness. When it got too bad, I was lucky to be able to take refuge in my roommate’s parent’s Airbnb for a bit before joining many Brooks and Reid residents who retreated to the air conditioned Sulz 6 lounge.
A Harvard study revealed that students who slept in unairconditioned dorm rooms with 80º F temps had a significant decline in cognitive function and memory compared to those who slept with AC. Our room reached 93º F several times, even at night, and another student cited a room temp of 110º F at one point.
The administration needs to be held accountable for finding longer term solutions to this problem, instead of repeating the mantra “there’s really nothing else we can do.” This is only the most recent problem in a long history of neglecting the comfort and needs of Barnard students, from lack of winter housing to inadequate room space for the amount of students admitted.
Seeing as this is an issue that disproportionately affects low-income students and those with disabilities and pre-existing health conditions, there are basic human rights conversations that need to be had. It’s an equity and health situation that extends beyond sleeping well or keeping cool.
I posted a petition in the Barnard Class of 2022 Facebook page, urging all Barnard freshman to sign it so that it can be presented with a written proposal detailing long-term and sustainable solutions to the administration. In it, I call upon my fellow classmates to join me in making sure the college puts us and our needs first. We will see if the administration values the health and safety of its students as much as it claims to.
Sophia Trzcinski is a freshman at Barnard College who plans on majoring in art history and minoring in human rights.
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