Amid the panic and confusion following USC’s decision to move classes online in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Veronica Marks took to organizing resources for struggling students.
Marks, a junior majoring in screenwriting, first posted on social media March 12 asking students who were leaving campus to donate leftover food to low-income students. Marks has since collected hundreds of donations at their home off campus to help those struggling to pay for meals.
“Any time that situations are rapidly changing and the needs of people are rapidly changing, I think sometimes we need to move independently of bureaucracy and officiality,” Marks said.
The outpouring of student support for the food drive led Marks to create a mutual aid spreadsheet, which documents resources available for students, including housing, food and transportation services. Students can edit the spreadsheet to offer help with tasks such as buying groceries for immunocompromised students or to ask for assistance with storage and housing.
Jessica Moreno, a freshman majoring in business administration, has visited the food drive twice to help support her family. Moreno’s mother works in the restaurant industry and has been laid off due to coronavirus concerns, making it difficult for her family to afford meals.
“There was a lot of stress about how are we going to get food or basic needs, so the [food drive] definitely helped,” Moreno said.
Marks adapted the spreadsheet based off of the work of student activists at the University of Michigan and Middlebury College. They said the lack of decisive action from the administration to address food and financial insecurity inspired them to start enlisting the help of fellow students.
“The whole point of this is that there was no infrastructure in place to take care of these needs,” Marks said. “Therefore, the response to it isn’t as bureaucratic or clearly delegated or organized, but it is extremely passionate.”
While the spreadsheet primarily coordinates help for USC students in need, it also provides housing availability for students from the Claremont Colleges, a consortium of seven private colleges near Los Angeles that includes Harvey Mudd and Pomona colleges.
The administration at the Claremont Colleges told students to leave university housing immediately March 18, leaving many low-income and LGBTQ students living in abusive households without a place to stay. Marks said they reached out to activists from the Occupy Pomona movement, which advocates for continued living on campus for vulnerable students, to help organize rooms for students experiencing homelessness.
“USC students will be voluntarily leaving the area because of USC going online, and a lot of people should be going home, and that means there’s rooms, there’s apartments, there’s beds empty,” Marks said.
The spreadsheet allows USC students to list their available housing and contact information for students to reach out. Currently, 25 students are offering spaces, with four listings at full capacity.
Lucy Allen, a junior majoring in cinema and media studies, is offering her single bedroom in a shared house on the spreadsheet. Allen said she felt compelled to help others during this tumultuous period.
“In a time like this, in which a lot of people are in crisis, it’s important to look at what you do have access to and what resources you can extend to other people,” Allen said.
Allen learned about the spreadsheet from Marks’ Instagram and has received queries from Claremont students about moving into her space, which is now at full capacity.
In addition to sharing the spreadsheet on social media, Marks wrote a letter detailing resources for food-insecure and immunocompromised students and sent it to several USC academic deans and department heads. Marks also encouraged their social media followers to share the information with students in their classes on Blackboard.
Marks contacted the administration in hopes of promoting the spreadsheet’s resources through their communication channels. While Marks hasn’t received an official response from administrators, Undergraduate Student Government posted a link to the spreadsheet on its coronavirus resources website page.
The University plans to advocate its own projects for low-income students, USC told the Daily Trojan in a statement.
“The university is promoting an initiative run by Student Affairs through the Student Affairs’ Student Basic Needs Office,” the statement read. “The team there centralizes resources for students who are food, housing, and financially insecure.”
USG President Trenton Stone said he hoped publishing the spreadsheet on the organization’s website would help market and formalize the activists’ efforts.
“It just touched me and just makes me proud to be a part of this Trojan Family in a time of crisis,” Stone said.
Samantha Kosai, a senior majoring in sociology, is a part of a basic needs task force Marks organized to spread the word about resources for students. Kosai said that as a low-income student, she wanted to help other students facing financial insecurity.
“When [Veronica] mentioned that they needed help organizing and had a vision for a lot more of what they wanted to do to help these insecure students, I knew that was something I wanted to be a part of,” Kosai said. “At the end of the day, that meant I was helping people like myself.”
While Kosai felt the University adequately communicated its coronavirus response, she said the administration failed to consider the needs of low-income students.
“A lot of times students like myself, who are living out here as independents, who might be facing food or housing insecurity, we’re already falling through the cracks in so many places that the University doesn’t address when there’s no pandemic,” Kosai said. “But, then to be in such a frightening time globally and especially in L.A., to not really have any resources for us is both frustrating and sad.”
Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism professor Jennifer de la Fuente said she heard about the spreadsheet through an Annenberg Media Center Slack channel and decided to forward the resources to her students through Blackboard announcements. While de la Fuente is no longer offering her office as a storage space due to restricted access to campus, she continues to promote the work of the student activists.
“I think that it speaks a lot to the community, just to the community of students, people really are looking out for each other,” de la Fuente said. “I think, rightly or wrongly, USC has a reputation of being full of spoiled children … but I think in times like this, it really does show that we’re not that reputation.”