It’s 7 a.m. in Louisville, Kentucky. I wake up and start arranging my grandfather’s pills for the morning: Isosorbide Mononitrate, Colace, Allopurinol, Pantoprazole, Clopidogrel, Levothyroxine, Mucinex, Glimepiride, Zyrtec, Torsemide, Tamsulosin, Carvedilol, aspirin, Tradjenta and Insulin Toujeo. His glaucoma-induced blindness prevents him from seeing the names on his prescription bottles, and his dementia prevents him from remembering which pills to take. He and I then eat breakfast, talking about religion, his time working as a laborer for the Bhilai steel plant, and how he hopes to live long enough to see me graduate from Yale.
Around 8:30 a.m., my mom returns from her 16-hour night shift at the hospital. On Tuesday, she treated her first patient with COVID-19. She has dedicated 30 years of her life to taking care of others as a nurse, but we may not be able to care for our family if tragedy strikes. She has no more paid time off or medical leaves of absence. Medicare, Medicaid, SIS and SNAP help us with some of our expenses, but rising prescription costs and my grandfather’s ailing health have hurt us financially. We are just one hospital stay away from me having to take on a full-time job in addition to the part-time jobs I hold on campus.
I work hard at Yale. I have four student jobs to sustain myself and send money to my family. I dedicate several unpaid hours each week as a senator for the Yale College Council, where I work to improve a university not designed for students like me. And then I go to office hours, to class, to more office hours and then to the library to complete all of my assignments. First-generation, low-income students like me have to work hard, often harder than our peers, just to stay afloat.
Because of COVID-19, the University has sent students home to finish the semester virtually — a difficult though necessary decision to keep us safe. But now Yale needs to make online learning equitable for all students. In order to support Yalies and their families during these deeply trying and uncertain times, Yale must adopt a Universal Pass system for this semester.
Under this policy, all students would receive credit for their courses, marked by a P on their transcript. This policy differs from Credit/D/Fail: Under Universal Pass, all courses will still count for distributional and major requirements.
This system addresses the inherent inequities that FGLI and international students face with the transition to online classes. As an organizer of No Fail Yale, I had the privilege of reading over 200 personal statements from students who responded to our online petition. Their courage to share their own stories has moved me to share my own. Many have unreliable internet access and inadequate technology. Others must become primary caregivers for siblings whose schools have been closed while parents try to make ends meet. Differing time zones will force some students to take classes and exams in the middle of the night. And those without quiet study spaces must search for public alternatives, risking immunocompromised family members in the process.
Many students also fear unexpected medical expenses or funeral costs associated with COVID-19. We fear that our loved ones could be among the millions who will die from this virus in the coming months. I’m not ready to say goodbye to my grandfather. And those who fall ill are not the only ones affected: Already, family businesses have been shattered and livelihoods lost. If our families are among the millions who will be laid-off, furloughed or receive wage cuts, who will pay the difference to help support us? The burden will fall on students like me.
Yale throwing money at us cannot solve these problems. Professors cannot evaluate our performance now in the same way they would during a normal semester, leaving students to cope with such different circumstances and resources.
Institutional Pass/Fail is not unprecedented: Yale offered the option during the 1970 Black Panther trials in New Haven, which shut down campus. A global pandemic has forced students to hastily evacuate campus, quarantine themselves, fight for basic supplies and prepare for massive layoffs. If these circumstances do not warrant a Universal Pass policy, what will?
Some students, especially those vying for graduate school, have argued they have worked too hard this semester not to receive letter grades. But none of us anticipated that a deadly global pandemic would sweep across the U.S., forcing us all to flee campus. We took on a full course load, then worked multiple student jobs to support loved ones back home. Not implementing the Universal Pass policy will put many students in jeopardy because of pandemic conditions beyond any of our control. Arguing that we need grades to validate this semester’s work prioritizes some students’ futures over that of every vulnerable student. We have worked hard, too.
Others have advocated for an optional Pass/Fail system. While well-intentioned, this may as well create stigma around choosing Pass/Fail that would fall along socioeconomic lines. I am confident that years from now, employers and graduate schools will understand the circumstances students faced during a pandemic that will destroy millions of lives and livelihoods — so long as Pass/Fail is a University-wide policy. I am less hopeful for this outcome if privileged Yalies are able to finish the semester with A’s on their transcripts, while their disadvantaged peers finish with P’s. We have the opportunity to ensure we are all taken care of. Why leave the futures of our least-advantaged peers to chance?
Optional Pass/Fail might make better-resourced Yalies appear more competitive to employers and graduate schools than those forced to complete the semester Pass/Fail. In fact, the students who are hurt most severely by COVID-19 might not be able to meet academic standards at all, potentially failing their courses. Vulnerable students will face a double-edged sword: Suffer the future consequences of electing Pass/Fail, or drain themselves just to stay afloat.
We are no less deserving of Yale’s protection than the students this might inconvenience. When we work double shifts to put food on the table after our parents are laid off, missing academic deadlines, are we no longer Yalies? When we take care of our younger siblings and are forced to put aside our studies, are we not Yalies? When we choose to prioritize our ailing family members over Zoom seminars, are we not still Yalies? Many of us chose this University because we believed in the community and the protection it provides. Yale also chose us, from thousands of applicants. Will you now choose our grades over our lives?
Yale is not perfect, and there are no perfect solutions. But Yale can provide us with a more level academic playing field by not feigning normalcy. At Yale, we all have access to speedy YaleSecure Wi-Fi, quiet Bass Library study spaces and grand classroom settings. We do not have any of this when we return home.
In these difficult times, every one of us is doing the best we can with the little we have. We are not asking for handouts. We never have. This is about empathizing with our less-privileged peers. The rest of this semester shouldn’t be about grades, internships or transcripts — it should be about getting our communities through crisis. It’s about standing up for equity in education when it is at risk. We are defined not by what we say to one another in our seminars but by what we do when our peers are in need. You can’t claim to fight for people you don’t know without showing up for the ones you do. So many of us are drowning. Will you help us?
Abey Philip | firstname.lastname@example.org