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Mills students demand change and transparency from Student Financial Services and the administration

On Feb. 2, Heaven Bachand, a sophomore at Mills, shared frustration via MillsGo about a friend being notified by the Financial Aid office that they were in danger of being administratively withdrawn due to non-payment. Prior to this email, the student had a hold on their account which prevented them from registering for Spring courses, and they had been unable to get an adequate response from Student Accounts regarding the hold. The post was removed from the platform, causing several students to post similar questions in response to its disappearance.

“So my post was deleted,” Bachand posted on MillsGo. “As I was saying, Mills students are getting dropped from their classes tomorrow, and rather than responding to emails students are getting BS responses. When will Mills care about their students? How can we help people not be dropped tomorrow? If they care, they should solve this.”

A conversation immediately erupted as students shared that they had also received an email from the Financial Aid office threatening to withdraw them from their classes for non-payment. Many students had been trying to get in touch with the Financial Aid office for months and only received an automatic response prior to the withdrawal notification. Others were more confused as their bills were already paid. 

Associated Students of Mills College (ASMC) President Dylyn Turner-Keener was also a recipient of this email and who’s mother had helped her advocate for her payment plan since early January. Turner-Keener emailed the Dean of Students, Dr. Chicora Martin, cc’ing the student body, to address the impact of this notification on students and the lack of communication from the Financial Aid office. To her surprise, she received replies from former and graduate students detailing the same experience.

“I was one of those students that got [the email] … I knew that if I’m getting this, I’m not the only one who’s receiving this notification and I need to let … our constituents know that we’re looking into this issue and that this is appalling and unethical because the email was sent out a day before,” she said.

Later that day, Turner-Keener met with Mills College President, Beth Hillman, as part of her ASMC duties and used that opportunity to discuss delaying student withdrawals due to the miscommunication.

“Near the end, I was kind of demanding for them to just acknowledge that they’re looking into this, at first by request …  Is there a way that you can pause this whole withdraw hold? Because this is really unethical,” Turner-Keener said. “Her response was, ‘Oh, we sent out warning emails with the deadline before. It’s usually once the deadline is close … that students actually start taking, you know, their situation into action.’ Which I told them … well, not everybody got that warning email. And that’s the big problem here.”

In an official college communication email, Dr. Martin sent a follow-up to Turner-Keener’s email and apologized for the lack of communication that impacted students. They noted that they had reached out to Student Accounts and Financial Aid to share the concerns of students and that all students affected would be eligible for an expedited reinstatement process if they were to be dropped from their classes after the add deadline. 

“I am following up to acknowledge the concerns students have expressed about having cleared accounts and/or having reached out to student accounts and financial aid and still not receiving a reply,” Dr. Martin said. “We should never make errors that confuse students and provide inaccurate information.  For students who have verified their account is cleared and you received the email that you were to be dropped, we will follow up to see how this error happened. The last thing I want to do is add any stress to the situation. We will investigate the issue and ensure it is corrected.”

A senior impacted by this situation, who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, received a phone call from a Student Access & Support Services (SASS) employee on Saturday, Jan. 23 notifying her that she was on a list of students whose accounts hadn’t been cleared. She was in danger of being dropped from her classes on the following Wednesday and later administratively withdrawn from the semester on Feb. 3. 

This phone call was confusing because she had received no prior communication that there were issues with her student account. Upon further clarification, she was told by the SASS employee that she was on a list of 300 students that had a remaining balance. When she went into her portal to view the balance, it was posted, but she had never been notified — nor was she notified about the termination of her work-study as a student assistant. This was frustrating as she had spent the summer thinking she had a job secured for the fall but was no longer employed.

When she tried to pay the remaining balance through the Mills portal, there was no indication on how to pay. She then emailed Student Accounts, as suggested by the SASS employee, still facing extreme difficulty resolving the situation. A representative from Student Accounts would send her instructions to pay the bill and when those instructions did not work, she was sent the same steps. 

Eventually, she sent Student Accounts a physical check for her remaining balance but was concerned about the state of other students. 

“I’m thinking to myself, okay, if there’s no notification from the portal, if there’s no indicator of where to pay, how are students supposed to know where to send their money to? … Where’s the information? It’s nowhere, you can’t find it anywhere. It’s not clear … I was extremely concerned,” she said.

She decided to call the SASS employee who originally contacted her back about her remaining balance and explain the possible technical issues with payments through the portal. Even though she was able to find a solution for her bill, she says her concerns were not heard.

Then on Feb. 2, she received an email from Dr. Martin that her account had not been cleared, and she would be administratively withdrawn the following day if no action was taken. 

“I was scared to death that I was going to lose my future. You know, because Mills is also my dream school, it was my only choice. It was the only school that I ever applied to,” she said.

She was relieved when Turner-Keener sent out the email addressing the situation to Dr. Martin and the student body. She felt like she was not alone and was glad to be able to communicate with other students via Discord who were in the same predicament. 

“If I hadn’t been able to communicate with other students, I don’t think I would have been able to get out of that really panicked state that I was in over that email,” she said. “I felt really good because it told me I wasn’t crazy … I think knowing that there were other students who are going to stand up to this and not allow it, that’s what really helped.”

On Feb. 3, students created a petition titled Student Body Support Signatures for Financial Aid Resolution expressing how they were impacted by their experiences with the financial offices at Mills and having their concerns ignored. 

“It has become more apparent to us as a Collective, that this institution has no regard for the needs and wellbeing of its students. This is a recurring issue that is largely experienced by but not limited to, Black, Brown, and Indigenous students of color; 1st generation and/or low-income students,” the petition read, “… The current administration prioritized marketing itself as a social justice and equity-oriented institution, but students who this institution professes to serve are currently finding themselves facing a chaotic distribution of the resources needed to cope with our realities of being from marginalized communities. The inaccessibility of the aforementioned parties, only reveals the negligence on the part of the Administration as well as a lack of oversight and transparency.”

With 162 signatures at this time, the petition included a message to current students to continue advocating for themselves and a list of the following demands:

  • “Extend deadline to clear student accounts and/or establish payment plans to March 1st, 2021
  • Withhold from dropping students from classes and/or putting them on administrative leave 
  • Withhold cutting off dorm building and meal plan access
  • Provide a clear outlined plan on how Mills will improve their financial aid office management and handling of student accounts in the future terms
  • Provide stable WiFi connection to students living and learning on campus—or stop charging students for wireless utilities altogether. Not providing stable WiFi to students during online learning is theft.
  • Withhold lab fees for as long as students do not have access to an actual lab, or charge lab fees only if equivalent to the cost of mailed kits.
  • Refunds to those who were forced to drop classes but still were charged (that includes extra costs like books, fees, programs etc.)
  • Permanently remove $25 late fees for monthly payment plan payments.
  • Reinstate the ability of our elected ASMC representatives to email the student body.”

The petition was physically delivered to President Hillman’s office by Mills senior and creator of the Mills Discord Server, Terra Muhammad, and sophomore Faye Nelson. Hillman informed them that her team had already received the petition and was working on a response. The two students mentioned that they preferred a student-wide response to the petition.

A Mills student emailed Turner-Keener about their financial aid situation and cc’d Dr. Martin. When Dr. Martin responded, they attached the same thread initially started by Turner-Keener when first addressing the withdrawal notifications.

This new email contained the student’s private information and potentially violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Dr. Martin quickly followed up with an apology email for sharing the student’s private information, however, both emails were soon deleted from the student body’s school-associated Gmail accounts. This caused concern for some students who were not aware that information in their email accounts could be accessed.

“That’s very questionable,” Turner-Keener said. “That’s very [suspicious] to me.”

As ASMC President, Turner-Keener had the ability to email the student body directly through the mass alias: students@mills.edu and noticed she was blocked from sending student-wide emails later that day on Feb. 3. She contacted Mills College IT and Dr. Martin about the block as well as the deleted MillsGo post by Bachand. 

When Turner-Keener first contacted Dr. Martin and the student body about the withdrawals, she received gracious emails from students for ASMC’s advocacy and support for students at a time when they feel they are not receiving it from Mills. More than 80% of students at Mills receive a form of financial aid and have the potential to be impacted by issues within Student Financial Services.

Earlier this month, ASMC held a care package program to give out self-care items, food, arts and crafts, diapers and school supplies to students for free to help combat the financial burden of preparing for the semester. The idea was brought to Turner-Keener by ASMC Vice President Ashlee Davis and quickly took to effect. They both presented the idea to the Full Board in order to receive a special fundings request and gained the help of ASMC Student Services Chair Nell Hayes.

“I think [a] motivation was that the institution wasn’t doing anything about it, at least … when it comes to supporting students with sheltering in place, and COVID.” Turner-Keener said.

When discussing the addition of school supplies to the care packages with Hayes, an important factor was the new dining policy established at the Tea Shop no longer allowing students to pay for non-food items with their meal points. The Tea Shop sells school supplies and personal hygiene items which were convenient for students who do not have access to go off-campus for needed purchases. During the pandemic, students now have to make up for this cost with their personal finances. 

Due to the overwhelming number of applications and funding limits for the care packages, ASMC had to close the form early but are working on securing another round of care packages for students this semester.

Since March 2020, Founders Commons has been closed and all dining needs are met at the Tea Shop, catered by Bon Apetit.

“We understand this is a difficult time for students, but this was a change that had to be made. We explored other options and we had to make this change to adhere to meal plan policy and the California state tax franchise board guidelines regarding non-food items. We will, however, work with any student to customize their meal needs,” Merilee McCormick, the general manager at Bon Appetit at Mills, said in email correspondence with the Campanil. “We have been ordering special products and grocery items for students upon request so they can utilize their points. We also did not raise pricing and kept our pricing low, despite skyrocketing food costs. In the upcoming weeks, we will be providing a 10% discount for all non-food products to students with a meal plan to help with these challenging times. The Bon Appetit team will continue to work with any student who has questions and specific dining needs.”

On Friday, Feb. 12, Muhammad, Nelson, and ASMC were emailed a response to the petition from the Provost and Dean of Faculty, Dr. Chinyere Oparah.

According to Dr. Oparah, the college follows three principles when addressing the issue of students unable to clear their accounts. They aim to “minimize the impact on student learning and keep students in classes,” “limit student exposure to unnecessary debt” and “maintain Mills’ ability to receive state and federal financial aid on behalf of [the] students.”

In an effort to support students at this time, the response detailed the direct action taking place to meet the demands outlined in the petition. The deadline for students to clear their accounts has been extended to March 1, 2021, and the readmission fee will be waived if they were withdrawn in error. Students will continue to have access to dorm and food services as they are petitioning their withdrawal; and all late fees will be removed from monthly payment plans for Spring, Summer and Fall 2021. In regards to the ASMC President being blocked from the student body email, the response assured that Dr. Martin had been in contact with Turner-Keener to grant access to email students “with official ASMC communication.”

The ASMC Executive Board has a bylaw outlining which ASMC positions can be in contact with the student body. ASMC is working to draft a new byline for Dr. Martin to enforce, but they are still focused on the care packages program for students.

Dr. Oparah clarified that at the beginning of this semester, 160 students had not cleared their accounts and as the deadline came, twenty-six students were dropped from their courses. Thirty registered students were officially withdrawn as they did not have a payment plan and owed over $2,000.

“We recognize that college financing is an equity issue that disproportionately impacts BIPOC and first-gen and low-income students and that improving systems and processes in our student financial services offices will both advance equity and antiracism and benefit all students,” she said in the petition response. “I view student feedback as a critical way for Mills to learn about how we can better support students and I am grateful for the time and effort that went into crafting these specific demands … we will report back to ASMC leadership regarding progress on the steps listed above.”

According to Dr. Oparah, team leaders in Student Financial Services will work to address specific goals and resource needs for students to make improvements in their “operations, systems and customer service.”

Muhammad was glad that there was a response from the administration regarding the petition and shared it with other students via the Mills Discord Server. Her issues with her student account were cleared, but she did see the outcome of the withdrawals for other students. She saw moving trucks as people prepared to leave campus and helped a friend move out of his apartment the day she delivered the petition.

A transfer from the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC), Muhammad has seen a different response to student activism.

“I’m glad that there was a response in general. I mean, that’s coming from [UCSC], I’m used to being completely ignored after protesting on campus every week for five weeks straight,” she said. “… They’ll just pretend like we don’t exist or say, well, ‘We support you guys,’ and then absolutely ignore every single one of our demands … just being completely disregarded by every tier of the administration, every single week. So I mean, getting a response so quickly, and so directly, it was really refreshing.”