Despite shutdown, UMaine schools in The County provide for students left behind

HOULTON, Maine — Colleges and universities have shut down across the country — most for the remainder of the spring semester — switching to online classes and forcing students to leave campuses as COVID-19 spreads. 

But for the two university campuses in Aroostook County — University of Maine at Fort Kent and University of Maine at Presque Isle — students can rest assured that food pantries and housing will remain accessible to them

Many students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, rely on the housing provided by the campuses, as they may not be able to afford off-campus housing. Food insecurity, or lack of proper access to meals, is another issue that affects low-income students, because they cannot afford off-campus dining or have access to the cafeteria during school vacations.

 According to a nationwide survey in 2018 by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 36 percent of college and university students are food insecure. 

In some of the country’s major schools, the sudden closures have caused chaos among students and left those from lower incomes scrambling. At Harvard, all students were ordered to vacate their campus housing, leaving lower-income students who may not be able to return with the prospect of homelessness. 

But the universities at Fort Kent and Presque Isle have said they have no such intention to turn away students who are in need of the school’s housing and food supply. They also have students come from locations such as the San Francisco Bay Area, where harsh lockdowns have made returning not an attractive option. 

“Our most food insecure at-risk students have stayed here. They have identified going back home as not an option,” said Kerri Watson-Blaisdell, director of communications at University of Maine at Fort Kent. “If they identified any need, whether it be housing or anything in general, we elected to reach out to offer to keep them.” 

Matt Morrin, dean of students at both UMFK and the University of Maine at Presque Isle, also said students were free to remain on campus during this time if they so wished. 

“If they lived on campus before, and wanted to continue, of course we will let them,” said Morrin. “We would never send anyone back to a situation that would be unsafe.” 

UMFK has about 22 percent of its undergraduates living on campus housing, while UMPI has 34 percent. According to the schools, there are around 35 students staying on each campus presently, though the number may decrease after spring break officially ends. 

Both UMFK and UMPI have food pantries that are accessible to students, the Bengal’s Outreach Kitchen and UMPI Emergency Food Pantry, respectively. They provide easy, discrete access to meals and grocery items, many of which are donated, to students whose meal plans may not be enough to maintain a proper diet. 

Other resources for low income students, such as Stacy’s Closet, which provides free toiletries to students at UMFK, will also remain open. 

“We’re not in any risk of drying up anytime soon,” says Watson-Blaisdell. “Virus or not, we make sure that [the food pantry] stays full.”

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