From her parent’s house in Homestead, Florida, 21-year-old Communication major Leonela Gaither spent the summer making tough decisions.
Against the backdrop of COVID-19 cautions and amplified conversations about FAU’s treatment of Black students, the women of the Business and Professional Women’s Scholarship House have managed to create an oasis of sisterhood and service – without the pandemic guidance provided to the other residence halls, they said.
As hundreds of students herded themselves past safety signs into the other dorms on move-in day, they were given masks, hand sanitizers, and other protective equipment to help adjust to living at FAU under safety protocols. However, Gaither said she was given very little in comparison.
“The only thing I was able to get out of [housing] was four spray bottles,” Gaither said. “We have to go through FAU to get everything because they have our money. So, we did not get cleaning supplies until the third week of school.”
Gaither carefully orchestrated a series of new coronavirus safety procedures for the incoming residents of the Business and Professional Women’s Scholarship House, a one-story building located across the parking lot from the entrance to University Village Apartments.
Director of Housing and Residential Education Catherine Kellman asserted that housing officials reviewed Gaither’s safety plans and provided individual COVID-19 information sheets to students during move-in.
“The house advisor worked with the president to address social distancing and other concerns of COVID-19 when managing the house,” Kellman wrote in an email.
The students disagree.
“I already knew FAU was not going to be involved in anything regarding the safety of this house – so I had to come up with my own plan,” Gaither said.
Though the house is overseen by the FAU Department of Housing and Residential Education, its day-to-day operations are managed by the residents. As president of the house, Gaither’s responsibility is to ensure that each woman who resides in the house feels safe and taken care of.
To the untrained eye, it may look like an extra utility building, but the shelves of used books and marker boards displaying weekly dinner menus make it clear that the house is actually a well-cared home.
Since 1996, the building has housed more than two dozen cohorts of women, primarily of color, providing an affordable housing alternative – $500 per semester compared to the thousands of dollars students pay each semester for the towers and pool of Innovation Village Apartments and the high-rise units of Parliament Hall.
Inside, 17 women share the responsibilities of 17 chores on a weekly rotating basis, from washing windows to doing dishes – one chore for each of the 17 weeks in a semester.
21-year-old Elementary Education major and House Historian Rhoda Hoods, says the schedule adds variety. “If I have to vacuum the hallway this week, I won’t have to do it again.”
Hoods was the first to move back into the house after spending her summer as an orientation leader. According to Hoods, she noticed upon arrival that the house, which was closed for the summer, hadn’t been kept up by the university. All by herself, she removed the dead worms from the carpet, cleaned the house, swept the kitchen, cleaned windows, and purchased a couple of plug-in air fresheners for good measure.
“Even the site director at UVA, when he opened the door for me, he was like, ‘Oh, it’s musky in here,’” Hoods said.
Kellman wrote via email that housing facilities are responsible for upkeep when students aren’t there over the summer.
“We worked to address all concerns that were brought to our attention and others that were observed during our walkthrough of the house,” Kellman wrote, “We assessed all appliances, and all concerns were addressed within the first weeks of school.”
Gaither says she listed measures she wanted to take for the house and presented them to her adviser, but he had no comment.
“No COVID-19 plans were received, and no handouts,” Gaither said.
20-year-old Health Science major and resident Daijah Downey says the house has been a blessing for her, but she is tired of asking for basic needs to be met.
“Although we don’t pay nearly as much as regular housing students, we still are FAU students. We shouldn’t have to beg them to replace the hand sanitizer or to spray for bugs,” Downey said.
Gaither’s request for two more spray bottles was met, but she was also told by housing officials to keep in mind that the disinfectant spray was only to be used in ‘high-touch areas.’
“We touch everything, we share everything…Everything is a ‘high-touch area’ in this house, seriously,” Gaither added.
Adjusting to the fall semester hasn’t been easy, but from spa days to movie nights and other activities, the women of the scholarship house still find multiple opportunities for fun and fellowship.
Outside of bi-weekly meetings in the courtyard, Uno tournaments in the living room, and the eight required volunteer hours to maintain membership in the house, Hoods says sometimes the best moments start with one or two girls in the kitchen and ends with the whole house.
“Sometimes it’s just impromptu. The girls join in and we all fellowship together,” Hoods said.
Downey came to the house during the spring 2019 semester; Gaither was her first roommate. As an only child, Downey says she had to get adjusted to having roommates and always being surrounded by like-minded women.
To become a resident, applicants must maintain a 3.0 GPA and must have completed at least 12 credit hours. Also, they need to have at least $1,500 in unmet financial needs. As far as plans for the future, the women say they’re thinking about adapting their annual Thanksgiving event for the times.
“Maybe a drive-thru thing. Nothing has been finalized yet,” Hoods said.
“When I was living in dorms, I had friends but I was still lonely. When I come home, someone’s always going to be around to do stuff with,” Downey said. “When I found BPW, I was like, ‘Thank God.’”
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