Dear Campus Community,
I am deeply saddened that a letter of this nature must be written once, but even more so that less than two years later should have to be reprieved. As a Bairnwick Women’s Center resident, I am writing not only to shed light on the Wick’s recent caution-tape fashion accessory, but to give everyone insight into what we have experienced not only in the past few weeks, but what has been an ongoing battle before the semester even began.
When we moved in this past August, residents began reporting bug bites on their legs and ankles. As summer was still in full swing, we all chalked it up to mosquitos and continued on with getting settled and starting classes. However, as the days progressed and residents began experiencing bites more frequently, it became clear that this problem was much bigger than mosquitos. From there, things began to take a turn for the worse as residents were being bitten and were experiencing physical and mental health struggles on account of the living situation.
Photo courtesy of Beylie Ivanhoe
Near the end of August, my roommate and I were rudely awakened very early in the morning to a scratching sound coming from our walls and ceilings. Other residents also living on the second floor reported hearing the same sounds. To our dismay, we discovered that raccoons were making a home within the walls of the Wick. Upon further inspection, we found that the chicken wire that had been put in place to keep out any wildlife had holes in it.
Shortly after, our worst fear was confirmed as residents began spotting little bugs that were unmistakably fleas. We knew at this point that we had to act fast to get a plan of action together and to try to avoid moving out of the house. When we first contacted The Office of Residential Life on September 13, we were optimistic that they would jump at the chance to help us figure this out, as no one wanted a repeated instance of what happened two years back. Rather, we were met with skepticism and a distinct lack of urgency on the part of Res Life, as well as shockingly abrasive behavior directed at Wick residents.
When Res Life finally did send someone to the house for the first time, we were told that they didn’t see any fleas and we should continue on as normal. The residents knew about the presence of the fleas and we were aware that we were going to have to fight in order to be taken seriously. We decided to take matters into our own hands and order flea traps for all of the rooms to see if we could take care of the problem ourselves. Within two days, the flea trap in my room had trapped over forty fleas. As the residents continued to document the existence of pests in the room, Res Life repeatedly told us that the copious picture and video evidence we were sending didn’t appear to resemble fleas stating, “Our third party pest control came to campus this morning and checked the Wick for fleas. They found none but treated anyway as preventive measures. They left things that will track if there is evidence of fleas down the line, and they will return to treat again in two weeks.”
We knew that the course of action we were currently taking wasn’t working, and the severity of the problem was worsening. Kendall Buck (C ’24) had been experiencing health problems related to the house since moving in. After seeking several opinions both from University Health Services and several specialists, Buck was advised to have an x-ray of her chest and was placed on a nebulizer treatment. The concerns she was facing were believed to stem from the state of the house, either from mold or animal feces in the air conditioning units. After approaching Anastasia Chake, a member of the Res Life staff, about needing to seek other accommodations even temporarily, she was met by an unsympathetic ear. Buck was turned away, and it wasn’t until she came back with a doctor’s note specifically stating that she needed to be moved out of her house that she was taken seriously.
As the other residents of the house watched Buck’s situation unfold, we were aware that we were in over our heads as Res Life was not listening. Many of us decided it was time to get our parents involved. Only after parents began furiously calling and emailing about their children’s gross and unsafe living situation did Res Life begin to consider action.
After this and amid a torrent of angry parents’ phone calls, everything began happening in quick succession. Cook’s Pest Control came out and treated the house for fleas twice. Even with these treatments, we could tell the problem was getting worse. After the first treatment, things reached a tipping point. Every time I got into bed at night, I could feel fleas crawling all over me. I was awakened by the feeling of bites on my legs and ankles, and when conferring with others in the house we could each get up in the morning and compare the new bites we had from the previous night. Several of the residents were choosing to sleep on friends’ couches or air mattresses, essentially becoming homeless as the living situation in the Wick was too much to handle. Personally, my mental health was at an all-time low. I don’t believe it would be a stretch to say that the rest of the members of the Wick felt the same.
We resorted to emailing Res Life again, only to be told that the members of the pest control company had not seen any fleas while they were in the house but had treated the house anyway. The tone of the messages were borderline condescending, and we found the “nothing to see here” statement hard to believe; if the pest control company looked at the traps in our rooms they would have found hundreds of dead fleas in plain sight. In a conversation with Buck, she states that Res Life staff told her “bugs have wings and fleas don’t have wings, so it wasn’t a flea.”
The cycle began again as more angry parents sent messages and were met with a distinct lack of urgency by the Res Life staff. Cook’s Pest Control came to the house and treated the building again, but remained insistent about the lack of fleas. It took a combination of student emails complete with pictorial proof, messages from angry parents, and communication from the house advisor Dr. Lauryl Tucker (English) for Res Life to formulate a plan of action.
On Monday, October 25, the residents received an email from Theme House Area Coordinator Caleb Gonsalves stating that on the next day we needed to move out of the house as they were going to fumigate all of the rooms. We were given the option between choosing permanent or temporary housing, and we were spread out all over campus to other dorms including St. Lukes, Benedict, Courts, Johnson, and Hoffman. I would like to stress that through this process, Gonsalves was a light in the struggle. He was responsive and empathetic, and he did everything in his power to keep us informed and up to date. With that being said, a day’s notice to pack everything you need for over a week knowing that you can’t get back into your home during that time is beyond stressful. Furthermore, no one was there to help us pack or transport our belongings to our new living arrangements, so many of us were forced to rely on our friends to help us move.
While our new spaces were acceptable for temporary use, many of us were forced to leave most of our things behind. We were forced to do without mattress pads and toppers, adequate amounts of clothes and toiletries, and other creature comforts. Getting an adequate amount of rest in a space that is not yours is difficult, and there was a great disruption to both our academic and social lives.
It is important to mention that during this time, we kept providing the important resources that are expected of the Wick, including condoms and pregnancy tests. We continued to go on call as scheduled; even though many of the house residents were in need of peer support themselves, but still managed to be on call for the greater campus community. As Wick residents, there are services that we are expected to provide for Sewanee at large. However, I must ask: how can we be expected to serve our community when we don’t have a safe and sanitary place to comfortably rest at night? We even managed to host an event in the Social Lodge two days after moving into the temporary dorm rooms, as we could no longer host it in our home.
Sadly, this is not the first time this story has been told. Some of our senior residents remember their sophomore year Wick experience as they were forced to relocate permanently for the semester while a similar flea situation in the Wick was being addressed. Not even two years later, it feels like an extreme case of dèjá vu.
The root of the problem has yet to be resolved. Residents are unsure whether the raccoons have been removed from the house. I know there is excitement to be able to move back in, but there is also a healthy amount of anxiety. Until the creatures living in the space are gone, there is a good chance the fleas will come back and history will repeat itself yet again. As someone wanting to live in the Wick my senior year and potentially even become a co-director, situations like this certainly put a damper on my desire to return; this is devastating since I truly love the work that the Wick does and the services and resources we are fortunate enough to provide.
Sewanee is not an inexpensive university, and regardless of financial factors, the bare minimum the University can do is provide safe and liveable housing for its students. If there is a problem, the University should do its best to fix it with the appropriate amount of haste. Not only was Res Life lackadaisical about addressing the issue, but I and several of my house-mates had interactions in which Res Life staff came across as rude, aloof, and uncompassionate. While we understand that situations arise that are sometimes out of our control, the Res Life staff on a whole handled the situation with a lack of urgency until it was too late, and were rather unkind to many of the residents of the house. When situations like this occur, it is the bare minimum to take the situation seriously from the beginning, and to treat students with understanding. While the fleas certainly were an issue, I feel that Res Life’s handling of the situation left much to be desired. As Sewanee prides itself in being a residential campus, students should be equipped with safe and liveable housing in order to function, and I am afraid that this standard is not being met for the Wick or several other dorms around campus at this time.
Photo courtesy of Beylie Ivanhoe
The Wick is not the only example of housing disarray on campus. Dorms, some with no air conditioning, mold, bedbugs, fleas, and even domesticated raccoons, are in very poor condition. There must be a call to action. If we want students to come to Sewanee and stay on the Mountain all four years, the University must provide safe and sanitary housing for all. While I try to keep a positive outlook about Sewanee, this semester has sadly tainted my feelings about our University. I and other Wick residents can only hope that this problem can be addressed before it becomes worse.
Sloan Rogers and all other disgruntled Wick residents