n one of the frantic days leading up to the closure of Boston College’s campus in March, Sara Moorman, a sociology professor and director of the department’s undergraduate studies, sat in front of her computer and cried. She was watching as BC faculty and staff members typed their names into a Google Sheet, volunteering to provide students with everything from meals and storage to hotel accommodations and language services.
“It was just really heartwarming to see so many faculty and staff say, ‘Look, whatever you need, we can do it for you,’” Moorman said. “It was just such an unprecedented situation, and it’s nice that people were able to use their own connections to take care of their students and the people they know.”
That list, which eventually included the names of 125 faculty, staff, and graduate and postdoctoral students, was devised by BC Law professor Hiba Hafiz with help from other members of Faculty for Justice, an informal group committed to combating injustice both on and off campus. The list was shared via email. Moorman was among those who signed up to help, as was BC Law professor Zygmunt Plater.
Plater noted the similarities between the COVID-19 crisis and the looming threat of the Vietnam War during the 1960s: Both instilled unity in communities and stirred up a sense of duty among faculty members to protect students.
“No faculty member that I know ever flunked any man in that time, because that would have meant they would have been drafted and gone off to war,” Plater said. “I had a colleague who didn’t have a family, so he spent his entire time helping undergraduates to stay in school or to resist a draft board. The ’60s pulled people together. … And so, yeah, this feels like the ’60s to some extent, with social media layered on top.”
or Plater, the desire to help others was a habit familiar to him from his rural upbringing.
“I grew up in the country,” Plater said. “And in farm country, when someone has a fire, everybody comes to help. When there was a flood, everybody went to shovel out the home. … It’s part of what we’ve done as children. And for a lot of us, it just makes sense.”
Despite his position in the most at-risk age bracket and his history of pneumonia, Plater ultimately resolved to offer storage space and transfer students’ belongings. After initially talking with three students, only one of them ended up needing help.
History professor Franziska Seraphim also entered her name into the list. Her experience providing storage for several students was made more meaningful by her memories of helping her own daughter move into BC. With both of her children graduated from college, Seraphim realized she had plenty of space in her home to offer. She was able to store the belongings of several students in her basement.
Seraphim said that from the last class that she taught in person and her conversations with the students she helped, she was able to get a sense of what they were going through. Although she considers her contribution to be a small one, the students were very grateful.
“You can empathize really deeply. These kids are the same age pretty much as my own kids, and having just moved my own kids in and out of dorms, in many ways, you’re going to the dorm, the same dorm my daughter had lived in, and doing this kind of packing and so on,” Seraphim said. “That’s what we had just been doing for years.”
Yet the circumstances couldn’t have been more different. At the time, Seraphim thought that the rush to move off campus was a temporary moment of chaos. She had no idea how much things were about to change for the worse. Her interaction with the students she helped was the last time she was in close contact with people outside of her immediate household.
Moorman connected what she saw as a lack of official support for students to the assumption that most BC students are wealthy. Moorman bought plane tickets home for two students who could not afford the tickets themselves. While the closure of campus meant that all she needed to do was work from home and isolate from others, she realized that it had much more severe consequences for some students, and she felt a responsibility to help them.
“I don’t think it occurred to the administration that people wouldn’t have the money to get home,” Moorman said. “In the U.S., something like 50 percent of people don’t have $400 in an emergency. And this is an emergency, and people didn’t have $400 for a plane ticket.”
One of the students contacted Moorman through the Google Sheet. The other student Moorman happened to overhear in a hallway discussing her worries about getting home. Moorman stepped in and offered to buy her ticket then and there.
Moorman noted that while students from nearby states could have their parents pick them up, students from farther away were at a disadvantage. Not only is buying a plane ticket a financial burden, it’s something that students may not have previously known how to do.
“I don’t think I could have bought my own plane ticket when I was a student—not financially, but I don’t think I knew how,” Moorman said. “Whenever I traveled somewhere, it was with my family, and they took care of it for me. I don’t know if just logistically I could’ve figured it out.”
Plater also displayed sympathy for students who suddenly needed to arrange last-minute housing and travel plans on their own, as he acknowledged that some students didn’t have the option of immediately returning home.
Plater mentioned that while the University made arrangements for international students, most domestic students weren’t afforded the same resources.
“In a way, it was having to grow up really fast for some people because they didn’t have a support system ready at hand,” Plater said.
He also observed that undergraduate students were in a much more vulnerable position than his own students, many of whom own a car or have friends who can offer them rides. And unlike graduate students, undergraduates depend on the University for housing.
The students who Seraphim helped were able to make it home, but the international students she teaches were uncertain about where they would go after campus closed. Several students expressed disbelief and panic over the circumstances. Plater also recalled that the students he assisted seemed exhausted from worry.
“There was a real confusion, and there was a real shock,” Seraphim said.
Weeks later, Seraphim was still hearing from the students she helped. They sent her cards and texted her to let her know how they were doing and asked about her.
“I really like the fact that faculty were asked to jump in and help,” Plater said. “It felt as if we were all colleagues with the students, we were all in the same boat.”