UVM emergency housing residents learn true meaning of feeling the heat

Shuvan Shrestha, a University of Vermont senior, stands in front of his dorm room where he is the only student living in the residence hall. Photo by Kate Vanni /Vermont Cynic

Kate Vanni is a news reporter for the Vermont Cynic, where a version of this article was first published. 

Editor's note: On July 2, the university began installing air conditioners in emergency housing, according to the Vermont Cynic.

After three months of living in emergency housing, some of the 30 University of Vermont students who remain on campus have begun sleeping outside to escape what one UVM employee described as “life-threatening” heat.

“The Physical Plant (Department) employee who I spoke with on the phone said my condition was life-threatening because the temperature in my room stayed from 88-93 for almost a week,” said Shuvan Shrestha, a senior in emergency housing said.

Shrestha is from Kathmandu, Nepal, and has been living in University Heights North (UHN) under emergency housing since March 30, unable to go home because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Physical Plant informed Shrestha on May 19 that the heat had been turned on in University Heights North for maintenance purposes, but that it would be turned off in a few days.

After five weeks neither the Office of Residential Life (ResLife) nor Physical Plant had solved the problem.

Shrestha emailed President Suresh Garimella, Vice Provost Annie Stevens and three other UVM employees on June 22 to inform them that his room’s temperature was 91 degrees while the temperature outside was 69 degrees.

The Physical Plant Department “performs critical and vital maintenance and upkeep of all building, mechanical and utilities systems and infrastructure and grounds of the university campus,” according to its website.

The department did not respond to a request for comment on the statement that Shrestha said was made about his room temperature being life-threatening. 

“There are occasional hot days in Vermont that some may find uncomfortable, but there never was any life-threatening situation in any student housing,” UVM spokesperson Enrique Corredera told the Vermont Cynic.

Shrestha emailed ResLife on June 20 saying he didn’t know what else to do after emailing the office about his issues since May 27 without receiving any concrete help. 

“Physical Plant refers me to ResLife, and ResLife takes 3-4 business days to respond, even in relatively urgent situations like this one,” Shrestha said.

Shrestha went on to say that he believes students living on campus are the most vulnerable student population right now, not the students UVM hopes to bring back in the fall.

“I’m so concerned that UVM has forgotten that there are still students living in its residence halls, unable to go home, alone by themselves,” Shrestha said.

As of June 24, Shrestha had been sleeping outside of his room for three weeks. He alternated between his common room, the lobby, and as a last resort, he slept outside on the University Heights North green roof.

In an effort to stay cool, UVM senior Shuvan Shrestha set up bedding on the green roof of his dorm. Photo by Kate Vanni /Vermont Cynic

“The lobby was a bit cooler than my room so I was able to sleep there but the lights were always on in the lobby,” Shrestha said. “It was for weeks that I slept outside.” 

According to Sue Willette, a member of the University Heights North custodial staff, Shrestha is not the only student who has been forced to sleep outside to escape the heat.

“The kids over at Harris-Millis are going through the same thing, and they’re sleeping in the lounges,” Willette said. “Covid is going around. Turn the air conditioning on and put them in buildings that actually have air conditioning.”

Students in emergency housing are not the only people suffering from the heat in the dorms. According to Willette, members of the custodial staff have felt ill and vomited from heat exhaustion while they clean out rooms.

Shuvan Shrestha's dorm room thermostat tells the story. Courtesy photo

“It’s unhealthy for all of us,” she said. “Two people called out yesterday because of the heat,” Willette said.

Air conditioning is supposed to be running in University Heights North during the summer months,  according to the webpage for the University Heights Residential Learning Complex.

“Each of these new rooms have …100% fresh air supply, in addition to being air-conditioned in the summer,” the website states. 

Five different UVM employees have five different explanations  as to why the university is not running air conditioning in University Heights North this summer, according to Cynic a review of correspondence or statements made to the newspaper.

A Residential Life employee named Katie, who did not sign her emails with her last name, was the first person to respond to Shrestha’s request for bringing down the temperature of his room on June 2.

“I am trying to get clarity regarding whether the AC will be turned on for the summer (it usually is so I’m not sure why this summer would be an exception),” Katie stated.

In the email sent to Stevens and Garimella June 22, Shrestha wrote about how the temperature in his room was still 20 degrees hotter than the outside temperature.

“I feel helpless,” Shrestha said in the email.

Stevens responded to Shrestha’s email on June 22 apologizing that the temperatures were that high, but said neither “Physical Plant nor Residential Life can change how hot it is.”

Annie Stevens, UVM vice provost for student affairs. UVM photo

Stevens then offered a room in the Marsh Austin Tupper (MAT) complex to Shrestha and suggested that he turn on a fan and open his window.

Stevens did not respond to the Cynic’s request for comment regarding the email she sent to Shrestha.  

At the start of the pandemic, the university informed the custodial workers that the air conditioning was experiencing mechanical problems, Willette said.

“Just the other day we were told that to save money they are not running the AC this year because we were so far over budget,” Willette said June 24.

Kim Parker, associate director of administrative services, responded on June 24 to Shrestha’s request to lower the temperature of his room, saying “UVM does not provide air conditioning in the residence halls during the summer months.” That statement runs contrary to what is stated on the university website.

Parker could not be reached for comment.

Willette said she saw ResLife maintenance employees installing air conditioning units in dorm apartments where UVM staff live.

“These apartments are in the end units on various buildings, including UHN,” Willette said.

Because Shuvan Shrestha lives in a balcony room the windows do not open as far as others on campus. Photo by Kate Vanni /Vermont Cynic

Staff required to live on-campus for work and renters may purchase a unit as long as it is portable, not a window unit, but ResLife is required to install them, Director of Residential Life Rafael Rodriguez said in a June 24 email.

Students may not install personal air conditioners, according to UVM’s “Housing and Meal Plan Contract Terms & Conditions 2019-2020.”

“Air conditioners recommended by Student Accessibility Services (SAS) and installed by Residential Life may be permitted,” the contract states.

Shrestha began reaching out to ResLife on May 27 about the temperature of his room. After almost a month ResLife offered Shrestha a room in MAT on the second floor.

Shrestha declined to switch to this room stating, “I made a visit to the MAT room, and it is more hot than my room in UHN.”

In its most recent email to Shrestha, ResLife informed him that it had decided to purchase fans for all of the students still in emergency housing. 

“If you already have a fan, a second fan may provide some additional cross-ventilation and relief,” the June 24 email stated.

As of July 1 Shrestha said he still had not received a fan.

Students in emergency housing have been at UVM for more than 90 days. Emergency housing can be a very isolating experience, as students are purposefully staggered among buildings to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

“International students are going through so much emotional stuff, they cannot readily talk to their family back home due to the time difference,” Shrestha said. “The heat situation has made this all much worse.” 

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