After spending the first year of her anthropology doctoral program studying from home in Zambia during the COVID-19 pandemic, Maggie Katongo was more than ready for her second year at Rice — in person, in Houston, living among her peers at the Graduate Student Apartments.
The stately brick apartments on Bissonnet offer all kinds of creature comforts beyond furnished bedrooms: cable TV and internet in the apartments, gaming tables and consoles in the lounge downstairs, barbecue grills and picnic areas outside. But when it comes to basics like dishes, bedding and cookware, grad students need to bring their own.
That’s where the Graduate Student Loan Closet comes in.
For many Rice newcomers, especially international students such as Katongo, lugging a rice cooker, chef’s knives or coffee mugs along with your suitcases is tough. It’s also inconvenient — and pricey — to buy new stuff when you’re busy setting up utilities and cellphone plans in a new country.
“Everything is so expensive in America,” said Mary Prendergast, associate professor of anthropology and one of Katongo’s advisers. An American who’s lived most of her life in Europe, Prendergast returned to the U.S. as a new professor at Rice in January and faced her own culture shock. She knew firsthand about some of the challenges Katongo would face as a new international student, so Prendergast began searching for ways to help ease the transition.
Prendergast found the loan closet on the Graduate Student Association website. The Rice Women’s Club created the program in 1990, and since then it has outfitted decades of grad students and postdocs with everything from plates and pots to sofas and lamps, all for a tiny yearly fee. The club pulled together an assortment of new housewares for Katongo, and her other adviser, anthropology professor Jeffrey Fleischer, picked them up as a gift to welcome her.
“It’s such an incredible resource,” Prendergast said.
When Katongo arrived in Houston in August, she was greeted by Fleischer and four large boxes from the loan closet, each filled with essential items she’d need to set up her new apartment — from dishes and bed linens to an electric kettle, all of it brand-new.
Basics in a box
For the last 31 years, the Graduate Student Loan Closet has been an invaluable way to welcome new students into the Rice community and ease their transition to a new city on a limited budget. Before the pandemic, the storage closets at the Graduate Student Apartments were filled with housewares and furniture donated by Rice faculty, staff and their families, all of it ready to be loaned to a new round of students.
In the past, whatever students no longer needed was returned to the loan closet for the next batch of borrowers. A steady supply of donations ensured there was always new stuff in stock.
The loan closet suspended its operations when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, and months later the Rice Women’s Club discovered a leak in the main storage area. The water damage destroyed 40% of the inventory; the rest was given away to grad students and other Rice community members. It was better and safer, the club decided, to buy everything new for the students arriving this fall.
In collaboration with the Graduate Student Apartments staff, the volunteers surveyed students to determine what they needed most of all. Then they created four different "starter kit" boxes, each with different supplies. Box C, for instance, contains a full-size sheet set with pillowcase, a full-size blanket, a bath towel, hand towels and a washcloth. Box D holds an electric kettle, an electric rice cooker, a glass baking dish, pot holders and a can opener.
Students could sign up to borrow any number of the boxes for a $25 yearly fee; many of them, like Katongo, opted for all four boxes.
“They made it so easy,” Katongo said. Her flatmate, a Shepherd School of Music student from California, was just as happy, because many of the household items could be shared. “She was really excited about the electric kettle,” Katongo said.
Program remains popular
Starting Aug. 2, Rice Women’s Club volunteers Diane Sinclair and Carlyn Chatfield put 466 miles on their odometers and hit 43 stores to stock up on everything they needed for their starter kits. Chatfield knows those numbers because, like her fellow volunteers, she keeps detailed records. This meticulous documentation, as well as staying flexible to meet student schedules, are the group’s keys to success.
“I hit all the Targets and Walmarts in Houston, and many of those many times over,” said Chatfield, a former Rice employee who retired in 2019 after 20 years with the university.
Chatfield and her fellow volunteers worked around the clock to ensure they’d have a fully stocked closet of fresh supplies once they’d decided on distributing starter kits, which were easier for students to pick up and move in a pandemic than sofas and tables. They were also a whole lot easier to purchase than furniture, because supply chain issues have created shortages in stores across the world.
It took only a few weeks for the volunteers to restock the revamped closet, and on Aug. 11, the Graduate Student Loan Closet officially reopened its doors. The first customer — computer science student Chengzu Ou — actually arrived on Aug. 8, Chatfield said, but she was able to meet Ou when he showed up at the Graduate Student Apartments. She gave him the first starter kit directly out of her SUV.
A steady stream of students has already signed up for starter kits: 64 so far this semester. Students can retain the houseware items as long as they like, with the fee decreasing each year of their studies: $20 for the second year, $15 for the third and so on.
Many of them have already texted pictures and thank-you notes to the women working with the loan closet. Robin, an architecture student from Germany, wrote that “the service acted swiftly, gently and provided a remarkably comprehensive range of household items.” He, too, holds an electric kettle in the photo he sent.
Eventually, the Rice Women’s Club wants to revert to its old model and provide larger household necessities, such as sofas, dining tables and chairs, lamps and end tables. But for now, the club is happy to welcome students in a uniquely Rice way.
“When we surveyed the damage from the leak and tried to imagine how our previous setup would work in a pandemic, we almost closed the loan closet down,” said Darlene Hirasaki, who has volunteered with the group since 2000.
“We could have donated our remaining funds to graduate student scholarships, but that would only help one or two people,” Hirasaki said. “But by reinventing the loan closet, we’ve been able to reach many more grad students and postdocs.”
For more information on the Graduate Student Loan Closet, visit gradloancloset.blogs.rice.edu.