I’ve never been to any one of the handful of “Escape Rooms” in Koreatown, Hell’s Kitchen or Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan. Friends have, and they invariably wax on about how much fun they have logicking their way out of their voluntary confinement. As a moderately claustrophobic person, I’ve never understood it. In the two other countries I’ve lived in — Germany and India — escape rooms weren’t a phenomenon.
Whether we like it or not, a lot of New Yorkers are now living through an extended game of escape room as orders to shelter in place have been extended. We’re confined in our already small apartments, some alone, many with roommates, partners, pets, and children. Graduate students, like myself, are in a special spatial hell crafted for us by our respective universities, our relatively meagre stipends and wages. Like many New Yorkers, we can’t afford to live alone, or in rooms large enough to accommodate much more than our beds.
Since moving from Berlin to New York in 2016, I’ve lived in eight different shared apartments in Brooklyn and East Harlem, sometimes struggling to pay rent, and always just about scraping by each summer. As a PhD student at NYU, my fellowship only covers me for nine months of the year. We’re expected to find other work or, paradoxically, if we’re international, to go home in the summer, irrespective of the fact that a flight to India (where I’m from) costs almost as much as a couple months rent. Let alone the reality that most PhD students are in our early 30s and moving back in with our parents is impractical.
International students who have come to the US to attend graduate school towards a PhD plan for the long haul. We expect to undertake years of courses and exams, craft and defend a dissertation prospectus, teach undergraduate classes, research and write a book-length dissertation while receiving a stipend below a livable wage. All of this is made even more challenging for international students by the fact that our financial livelihoods are complicated by our visa status, which bars us from working off-campus in the US, and the anxiety that comes with not knowing whether we’ll be allowed to stay once we’re done or where we’ll go to next.
Add a global pandemic into the mix and stir. One way in which I was able to fund myself over the past few summers was through research grants involving travel to archives and conferences. Since March, all of that has disappeared: grants have been pulled, and international students have basically been left to fend for ourselves — backed into a corner by US immigration policy and graduate funding that was already inadequate in pre-COVID-19 times. We can’t legally work in this country, and aren’t paid enough to cover rent through the summer.
What the past few months have made clear is that, when a crisis like the one we are living through hits, it isn’t just graduate students who are impacted by universities’ austerity measures and endowment-preservation maneuvers. NYU has already laid off parts of its operational staff, including dining workers at its engineering school, Tandon.
One of the Twitter hashtags that’s been used by the few student-led campaigns that have sprung up in the wake of the pandemic is #NYUCanAffordIt. The NYU COVID Coalition, one such group, has even gone so far as to gather the data to illustrate NYU’s financial capabilities. For my part, I have been involved in the 3-day “sick out” that took place earlier this month, in which over 460 graduate students and 116 currently-teaching TAs participated. Our demands were simple: emergency summer funding and a “universal extension” (an extra year of fellowship) for all PhD students. Our union, which held a “Virtual Week of Action” with the COVID Coalition in late April, could not support or endorse its members choosing to stage what was essentially a wildcat strike as a result of our union contract’s no-strike clause.
Having been an international student in Europe is instructive in showing me that there are alternative — and to my mind, better — ways in which both immigration law and universities can be structured. In Germany, where I put myself through university by working part-time jobs and with scholarships, things look very different for international students. We can legally work off-campus, tuition is minimal to non-existent, university housing and canteens are affordable, and a world-class education is accessible to a far greater cross-section of society than in the US, which, tragically, used to be able to boast of a similar higher education system.
Five years is a long time. We live our lives, make friends, fall in love, move in with significant others, decorate apartments, get attached to people, parks, rhythms, the weather, the cycle of seasons, the food, and everything else that comes with living in New York City. But the constant anxiety of knowing that all of that could be taken away in an instant with the expiration of a visa or the disappearance of our incomes can be overwhelming. The pandemic has quite literally closed all doors on international students in the US: we can’t leave, we can’t (legally) work, and, since our stipends are barely enough to survive the 9 months of the academic year, many of us won’t be making rent this summer.
The safety instructions on the website of an Escape Room near Pittsburgh, PA, advise players not to stick their fingers into outlets, “use brute force,” or defenestrate themselves in panic. International students in New York City don’t have a safe word we can shout, or a glowing exit sign to guide us out of the dark of the pandemic. And like Jean-Paul Sartre’s three characters in No Exit whose attempts to stab each other — and themselves — out of their own personal Hell, a “drawing-room in Second Empire style,” fail, there’s nothing international students can do to magic our way out of the rollercoaster that lies ahead. We’re only left with one choice: Garcin’s — and the play’s — final words: “Eh bien, continuons.”
Smaran Dayal is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at New York University, working on a dissertation on Afrofuturist and postcolonial speculative fiction.