• Harvard became one of the first universities to close campus to curb the spread of the coronavirus in March.
  • For students from low-income families, having to return home comes with many hidden costs.
  • Students Malia Marks and Alex White told Business Insider Weekly about the stress and expenses they face as they moved home and searched for work.
  • View more episodes of Business Insider Weekly on Facebook.

The journey home has been expensive for low-income students like Harvard freshman Alex White.

In mid-March, Harvard became one of the first universities to close its campus on short notice, announcing it was transitioning to online classes to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Like many of the estimated 22 million college students in the United States who have been forced to evacuate campuses because of the coronavirus pandemic, White will need to find a way to finish his academic year remotely.

He will also have to grapple with the financial burden that comes with moving back home.

"I didn't have to pay for food or gas money or things like that," White told Business Insider Weekly. "And now all of that's a consideration again. I'm going to have to figure out how I'm going to work, or if I'm going to work at all."

Malia Marks, a junior at Harvard, can relate.

"Kind of worried about how the rest of the school year is going to pan out," she said. "I'm going to do my best, but with that extra challenge in the way of getting things done, it makes me a little bit nervous."

At Harvard, her financial aid covered things like meals and housing. But now, she'll have to figure out how to pay for those sudden expenses herself.

"I'm going to need to help contribute to the family's earnings, which I'm also concerned is going to have an effect on my performance at school," Marks told Business Insider Weekly. "It's really, really stressful."

Foto: Colleges around the country have closed their campuses to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Source: Franco Sacchi for Business Insider Today

For an estimated 30% of undergraduates across the country who come from poor families, policies to leave campus on short notice have hidden costs.

"There's a big misconception that Harvard students are all rich kids that went to prep schools and all of our parents went here," Marks said. "My main concern was how am I going to pay for all of this? Being a low-income student, my family doesn't have a lot of extra money."

One in five Harvard students receives full financial aid - meaning everything from tuition to cost of living is paid for.

The school covered some of the costs of leaving for those students - reimbursing up to $750 in travel expenses and $200 for shipping - but students will be on their own after that.

"When I go back home, the amount of food that my mom's going to have to buy is going to increase by 50%," Marks said.

Home for Malia is Washington state - the site of the first coronavirus outbreak in the US, which brings another worry to mind.

"My little brother had come down with a fever of 102 degrees," she said. "He had difficulty breathing a dry cough, you know, all of the symptoms that could be coronavirus. Is it safe for me to go stay in my own home at all?"

"Knowing that my child has to be evacuated, that kind of really made it hit home."


Foto: Harvard student Alex White and his mother Betty walking in Luray, Virginia. Source: Dmitriy Savchuk for Business Insider Today

For Alex White and his mother, finding the money to get him home to Luray, Virginia, wasn't simple.

"We had to figure out how to pay for, like, shipping and luggage and everything else," Alex said.

His mother, Betty, remembers hearing from Alex about Harvard asking students to leave campus.

"I got a call at work, which is very rare for him to actually call me at work," Betty told Business Insider Weekly. "We've always had a rule. Unless it's something serious, you don't bother me when I am at work."

To pay for everything up front, Alex said, "she had to check her accounts and everything to make sure automatic pay would still work."

The Harvard freshman had hoped to pick up work at a previous job once he got home, but businesses in his tourism-based town are closing.

"Not sure how that's going to work because most people can't even go to work right now," he said.

Betty, a local bank teller, said having Alex back was a wake-up call.

"Knowing that my child has to be evacuated, that kind of really made it hit home that this is very, very much real," she said.

"It's harder to motivate myself to even open up my email."


Foto: Harvard student Malia Marks with her brother at their home in Aberdeen, Washington. Source: Peter Bittner for Business Insider Today

Across the country, Malia Marks arrived home to a state that had already seen dozens of deaths from COVID-19 - a number that's risen to more than 270 as of Friday. She worried about meeting her mother at the airport.

"I am really nervous, just safety-wise," she said. "If I'm going through airports, if I've sat on an airplane seat that had the virus on it, it could be on my clothes and so I don't want to hug my mom and then give it to her. So it's going to be really weird to not have that hug at the airport."

Meanwhile, Malia's mother Molly Marks waited outside in her car.

"She's very unhappy to be coming home," Molly told Business Insider Weekly. "I told her, "Calm down," because panic isn't going to help her in the least."

As Malia walked out of the airport and saw her mother, the two greeted each other with smiles and an elbow bump.

"I think from a standpoint of me trying to help my family, returning home was the right decision," Malia said. "But I also wonder whether it was the right decision from a health standpoint."

Over the next two weeks, Malia planned to self-quarantine at her home in Aberdeen, Washington.

She spoke to Business Insider Weekly from her porch because she was afraid the inside of her house could be contaminated from her or her brother, even though he was feeling better.

"He hasn't been tested, and so we don't know whether or not he had it and therefore, whether or not he's still contagious," she said.

The two sat together outside, playing with their dogs.

"This is the first time, just going out into the yard, that I've left my bedroom at all since I got back," said Malia.

School, she said, felt distant.

"I've already noticed, like it's harder to motivate myself to even open up my email, let alone work on assignments," she admitted.

Malia said her hometown was also struggling.

"We're a pretty poor town. A lot of people don't have much savings to fall back on," she said. "We also don't have a lot of stores to buy supplies at. Our grocery stores are empty."


Foto: "It's a team effort and everybody's got to do what they're supposed to do," White said. Source: Dmitriy Savchuk for Business Insider Today

Back in Virginia, Alex White was hoping to finish his now online classes at the local library, where there's better WiFi than at home. But the library closed four days after he returned.

Despite the challenges, Alex said he understood why Harvard had to close its campus.

"We really do have to change our behavior," he told Business Insider Weekly. "It's a team effort and everybody's got to do what they're supposed to do."

Malia recognized that, too.

"I think an important thing to remember right now is that it's not just me that's worried. It's like the entire country that's worried," she said. "This isn't just one family that's having a hard time because of the coronavirus."

The challenges she faced, she said, were small in the grand scheme of things.

"Like I keep saying, it's better that I'm disappointed than a bunch of people losing their lives to this disease," she said.