Move-in week for new university students overshadowed by Parliament protest
Thousands of new university students in Wellington are experiencing stress compounded by the move and the start of a new chapter in life, but are seeing their classes and introduction to the capital disrupted by ongoing protest activity in Parliament.
If authorities fail to act, the reputation of students in the city could be at risk, said Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association president Ralph Zambrano.
New students moved into halls of residence across the city on Sunday, but their usual welcome to Wellington had been overshadowed by the protest in Parliament.
More than 16,000 people have signed a petition to evict protesters from Victoria University’s Pipitea campus, whose closure until April 11 would affect some 8,000 law and business students and staff.
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“Students have had enough disruption from Covid-19 over the past two years. This adds to [their] physical, emotional and mental anxiety,” Zambrano said.
While moving into a residence hall was normally a celebratory moment for new students, the student association had instead responded to calls from parents and students who had personal safety concerns, and from returning students who Nor did they feel comfortable returning to the capital until protest activity ceased.
Zambrano said the association is disappointed and frustrated that authorities aren’t doing more to prevent the campus from closing before the start of the first term on Feb. 28.
With Pipitea closed, being forced to learn online until April 11 would highlight issues of tech equity and disproportionately affect marginalized student communities, Zambrano said. The university should consider setting up a laptop loan program or paying back the fees.
On Saturday, University Victoria Vice-Chancellor Professor Grant Guilford said it was frustrating that police did not act on a trespassing permit he had issued for the Pipitea campus. The university no longer had the power to move protesters.
Protesters intimidated, verbally abused and spat at some students, Zambrano said.
While reports circulated online about a student being physically assaulted on the Pipitea campus by a protester, a police spokesperson said he had no report of any such incident.
But Zambrano said given the escalating tensions at the protest, the possibility of harm was very real.
The association is aware of several cases of verbal and physical harassment involving students.
Law student Dominique Orange, who studies on the Pipitea campus, said students were unsure what was going on.
“I find it quite anxiety-provoking and stressful, particularly when there are fewer people on Molesworth St actually working. They are all protesters now,” she said.
“I respect that they don’t want to create a violent situation, but at the same time it seems like we just accepted that this is the new normal. This is untenable for those of us trying to live our lives.
And students at Massey University have also been affected. Some residents of the Hutt Valley avoided the town altogether, said Elizabeth Hodgson, co-chair of the Wellington Students’ Association.
“My heart goes to [new students]. It’s not a great way to start the college year, where you want to make fun memories,” she said.
Additional reporting Ben Strang