With help from Rice community, students in need stay connected

When “the world kind of fell apart,” Rice University sophomore Avery Bullock was making plans for spring break.

As an Alternative Spring Break site leader, the psychology major from Will Rice College was frantically rearranging plans that had been in place for months. Her group was to visit South Texas to study how the criminalization of immigration is affecting undocumented migrants, their families and communities.

One week before they were to depart, Rice canceled all classes for the week of March 9 due to the growing threat of the coronavirus. While other students left for home, Bullock scrambled. The trip to the hospital was out, and so were some group activities with children. Perhaps her team could still attend immigration court hearings if they took the proper precautions. She had days to redo a year’s worth of planning.

On March 12, Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman notified students that they would finish the semester online. Alternative Spring Break and other university-sponsored trips were canceled. Students were told to return home as soon as possible.

But Bullock’s home had no internet access. She grew up in the country, about 45 minutes northwest of Fort Worth, Texas. The nearest town, Peaster, has a population around 100.

“I’ve never had Wi-Fi at my house,” she said. “I’d do my schoolwork at my mom’s office in town and come home really late at night when I was in high school.”

Bullock had no idea what it would cost to get internet at her home, but she knew her family couldn’t afford it. Her dad had recently lost his job.

“That Thursday, when everything kind of went crazy, (Rice) sent us a lot of surveys,” she said. “I filled them out, and I spoke to my magister about my situation, just saying, ‘I don’t know what’s going to be expected of me. What’s going to happen if I can’t do my assignments?'”

Bullock went home for spring break, still wondering how she’d finish her semester. She wasn’t alone. Rice’s technology survey had found more than two dozen students who lacked internet access and several who didn’t have computers.

Rice Trustee Brian Patterson ’84 was in Poland trying to finish a business deal when he got an email about the university’s plans to move courses online for the remainder of the semester. He still remembered how difficult it had been to make ends meet as a student.

“It occurred to me that a lot of the kids wouldn’t have all of the computers, headphones, whatever they needed, to do all the schoolwork remotely,” Patterson said. “I just said, ‘Look, if there are kids that can’t afford all this stuff, let me know if I can help.'”

His gift paid for 16 new laptops, four webcams, 32 cell network hotspots and a broadband internet link for Bullock. Because her home doesn’t have cell coverage, she needed fixed-point broadband, a wireless technology that required a 20-foot antenna to connect to the nearest network tower.

In addition to attending online classes, the link is letting Bullock stay connected to Rice. She was there when Will Rice’s O-Week advising teams were revealed online, and she was selected as an advisor. Her Alternative Spring Break group is making new plans. The San Francisco nonprofit where she’s scheduled to intern this summer has said she can telecommute from Peaster if the pandemic continues.

“I am just so grateful to be at a school where they care so much, and we have a community that cares so much about our students,” Bullock said. “And even when other people, I’m sure, had a lot going on in their personal lives … they were taking the time out to help me and my family, and a lot of other students that were in similar positions.

“To me, it really, really meant a lot, and it’s helped us so much,” she said. “I say to Brian Patterson, the donor, and everyone who helped me from Rice, from the financial aid office to the controller’s office and from (the Office of Information Technology) — thank you so much, from the bottom of my heart.”

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.