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Cautionary Tale: from Dorms to Hospital Beds

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Aug. 26 2019, Published 8:06 p.m. ET

While a college degree already costs you an arm and a leg, enduring low-standard living conditions seems to be somewhat of a normal thing for college students these days. The upkeep of college dorms has not always been ideal. Heating and cooling issues are probably the most frequent complaints, but some students have reported far worse problems such as vermin and mold, and it’s a major health hazard.

Last September at Georgetown University, one student spotted the black mold spread through her dorms – five on her floor over merely two weeks. It only took a short while before she started seeing some mold growing on walls and furniture in her own room, too. Annemarie Cuccia and her roommate told the maintenance about the mold; and within a few days, workers went to take care of the issue. But it didn’t end there for the 19-year-old student.

About a month later, I started getting really, really terrible pains in my ears, said Cuccia, now a sophomore at Georgetown, telling New York Times of how she developed an ear infection caused by black mold spores.

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But isn’t Georgetown, you know, rich? Turns out it’s not that simple. Yes, they have the money, but it doesn’t mean it’s going where it needs to go. Many institutions, even the relatively wealthy ones, end up with tight operating budgets and little means to fund building projects that might not appeal to donors. Anthony Lyons, a commissioning engineer with university project experiences, said this:

“For alumni giving at universities, you want something attractive, new, something you can put your name on. You want to be the person who donates a library, a lobby, a student center, a building, a whole program. I know it’s hard to have money for dorm renovations,” Lyons continued, “It’s all gotten so bad for many, many years that now it’s reaching the breaking point. Frankly, some of these conditions are disgusting.

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Some Georgetown students are taking steps to expose their poor living conditions that their university were failing to address. Some vent on Facebook, but the most prominent is probably the Instagram account @georgetown.hotmess that was created in 2016 – one scroll through their feed, and you’ll see not only gross black mold growing on walls but also rodents, both dead and alive, and ceilings that are literally falling apart.

Outside of Georgetown, the same issues exist within many university dorms. Facilities workers at several of those colleges have acknowledged the dismal conditions in some buildings, and blamed it on aging infrastructure, financial problems, and a lack of political will to make maintenance a priority above other more “shiny” things. Most workers were assigned to focus on reactive upkeep: fixing one complaint at a time, instead of coming up with a thorough renovation plan that would go to the root of the problems.

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Another college student, Sarah Melton at University of Oklahoma, also reported horrific health issues. Not long after she moved into her dorms last fall, she came down with a rash, headaches, and cold symptoms. It eventually boiled down to having mood swings. She was tested positive for mold poisoning and had no choice but to withdraw from her courses in November.

“This unfortunately has become more of a lifelong issue. I wish I would’ve just walked into the bathroom and looked up. We never thought to do that.” 19-year-old Melton has since been encouraging other students to look for signs of mold when they move into their accommodations. She has now transferred to a school in her home state Texas, but remains worried about the lasting effects of her Oklahoma nightmare.

Many students expected subpar living qualities in college, but they probably didn’t know it could be so hazardous. Many of those affected might even reluctantly accept these issues as they did not want to appear as ungrateful for the privilege of attending college. Cuccia, the aforementioned Georgetown sophomore expressed regretfully, “I kind of just have an assumption that there are some things about college facilities that are just bad, like dorms are never just amazing, food is never just amazing… It’s about finding the line between This is what going to college is like and where it is actually unacceptable.”

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