Becky Foster was on a trip to Cape Breton recently with other students she met during her recently completed first year at Dalhousie University. Although their classes had been completely online due to COVID-19, the group decided to meet in person before beginning second year in the fall. At one point during their trip, they discussed their residence applications and realized no one had heard back from the university.
“We were kind of stressing out because we’re like, ‘If we don’t get accepted, what are we going to do?’” says Foster, who’s from the Annapolis Valley and is entering her second year of Dal’s ultrasound program. “We haven’t started even considering apartments because we kind of weren't expecting anything of this sort to happen.”
Two days after that trip, she received a reply from Dalhousie about her residence application. It was a rejection.
She’s among hundreds of students who were hoping to get a spot in one of Dalhousie’s residence buildings for the upcoming school year, but were recently denied.
“Now, here we are rushing out to find an apartment because there’s so many other students in the same boat,” she says. “We were searching online, on the Facebook Marketplace, on Kijiji, and if you don’t claim one right away, you go on in an hour and they’re gone—the places are flying out.
“It’s been kind of a stressful situation...especially now that everybody is running out doing the same thing.”
Due to COVID-19, Dalhousie has had to cut its overall residence capacity. Prior to the pandemic, the university had around 2,300 residence spots available at its Halifax campus. Now, the university had to cut that capacity by 20 percent, losing about 500 spaces.
Last year, that limit wasn’t an issue because all of the university’s classes were offered virtually. But this year, Dalhousie is preparing to offer most of its classes in person. Now, many students who must move to Halifax are finding out they won’t be living in one of those 1,800 or so dorm rooms.
The situation has been difficult for many students, especially international students who aren’t as familiar with Halifax.
Deniz Engin lives in Turkey and he’s entering his second year of Dalhousie’s engineering program. He attended high school in Liverpool, NS and says he’s lucky he’s somewhat familiar with the area and knows a few people in the province. However, he said other international students don’t have those benefits.
“It’s pretty stressful, honestly,” he says. “I’ve been scrambling to find a place and luckily, I know people. I know other people that know absolutely no one in the area, so they can’t have someone look around in person. I have friends [in Nova Scotia], so I asked my friends to look for me.
“I feel lucky on that part, but I also feel just cheated. Honestly, I feel like Dal should take care of its students that don’t know the area so well and haven’t lived in Halifax before.”
He says he hasn’t received any help from Dalhousie nor has he heard of anyone getting help for housing from the university. While he knows the university has an off-campus housing advisor, he said he no longer feels comfortable asking the school for help with accommodations.
“Dal knew this was going to happen from way earlier,” he says. “They knew they were going to operate at a reduced capacity and they gave priority to returning students.”
That’s true according to the university’s website. On June 17, the university posted an update on rejected residence applications. “In accordance with our room assignment policy, priority is given to current residence students who re-applied by our March deadline and new, direct-from-high-school students who applied by June 15,” says the update.
But that wasn’t the case for Aminat Mustapha, who’s entering her second year at Dalhousie. She’s from Nigeria but, despite only having virtual classes in her first year, lived at the university’s LeMarchant Place residence. In fall 2020, she re-applied to live in residence for the following school year.
“It was actually crazy because the day I got the email saying I got denied, I literally had a panic attack—that was how scared I was,” Mustapha says. “Everything I had was built around res…my friends, the hospital, my health issues, everything was just built around res.”
Right before living in residence, she said she struggled with her mental health. That meant it was necessary for her to live around people she could lean on for support.
She contacted the university about why she needed a spot in residence, and the university re-assessed her situation. For the upcoming year, the university offered her a new suite in LeMarchant Place, but all of the friends she made in her first year were rejected from residence. Mustapha said her new suitemate is a first-year Canadian student who’s a “total stranger” and that she feels like she’s “back to square one” in terms of having a support system.
“It was kind of a letdown because I feel like I don’t make friends that easily, so I thought this was a good way to start,” Foster says. “Especially where there’s so many other people who haven’t been there and made friends yet.
“We (second-year students) are not coming out of high school, but at the same time, we kind of are because we’ve never been to Dal before.”
On top of that, both Engin and Mustapha say the university must do better for its international students.
“The international students are getting the short end of the stick here,” Engin says. “They can’t just go on to Halifax and look for a place…there’s so much to do. I feel like Dal is not taking care of its students very well, especially its international students. I don’t think it’s listening to its student body, and it feels like it’s just about the money right now.”
For the upcoming school year, undergraduate international students who take a full courseload (five courses a semester) and who have started their program after fall 2019 will pay at least $17,300 a year—but that increases depending on their program.
“I just really feel like Dal, they really need to look better at international students because it honestly feels like they don’t care,” Mustapha says. “Even though they’re bringing in the majority of the revenue that Dal has.”
Foster, Engin and Mustapha all say the university should’ve given more warning about rejecting residence applications.
“They could’ve notified people earlier, they had the applications,” Engin says. “And now, everyone’s just panicking because there’s about two months left until classes start and so many people don’t even know where to start looking for a place.”
Janet Bryson, Dalhousie’s associate director of media relations and issues management, says in an email that the university has seen high demand for residence spots from students in their second, third and fourth years—something that’s “traditionally not the case.”
She also says she isn’t sure how many residence applications the university has had to reject. She rejected a further interview on the situation.