WASHINGTON, D.C. — Every summer, students passionate about policy and social reform flock to the nation’s capital for summer internships. Yet, when students accept these internships, many often don’t anticipate the city’s steep rents and limited housing options, leading to subpar living situations.
Adding to the frustration of students struggling to find a place to live for is that a Cornell owned-and-operated dormitory is not open to any student not enrolled in summer courses under the Cornell in Washington program — despite the fact that more than half of the spacious rooms in the Dupont Circle apartments are empty.
The Sun set out in search of the Cornellians tucked away in Airbnbs, alumni homes and George Washington University dorms, to get an insider’s look at the multitude of alternate living situations, and how these interns are making it work.
Mixed Experiences at GW
George Washington University, located in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood on the main metro line, has long been a popular spot for Cornellians interning in the summer because of its familiar campus environment and convenient location. The dorm buildings are within walking distance of many downtown offices and government buildings.
Cornell’s Arts and Sciences Career Services office directs many students to GW, according to Jen Maclaughlin, assistant dean and director of career development in the arts college. She said that Cornell doesn’t “endorse any specific type of [housing],” so “it’s really up to the students” to figure out their living logistics.
For Hurya Ahmed ’22, safety was a priority in her housing search. Ahmed said she liked the idea of living on a university campus because it felt more secure than other independent city living options. GW “kind of chose itself” when a last-minute internship left her scrambling for housing. Ahmed, however, as one of several Cornell students residing in GW’s Fulbright Hall this summer, described the dorm as “just overall gross.”
“It has this weird smell,” she said, speculating that it may be from old carpeting or the age of the building. Fulbright Hall was built in 1947 as an apartment building. GW has also divided studio apartments into quad style rooms.
“It’s definitely too pricey for what you’re getting,” Ahmed said. A studio-turned-quad room from June 9 until August 3 in Fulbright Hall costs $301 per week, plus taxes. Meanwhile, a regular double room that houses two people at Georgetown University charges $322 per week, plus taxes.
David Leo, a GW student, also resides in Fulbright Hall over the summer. While moving in, Leo and his friends noticed asbestos warning signs around the building. Alyssa Martindale, also a student at GW and a Fulbright summer resident, told The Sun that asbestos warning signs were also posted at Fulbright Hall last year.
GW facilities staff confirmed the presence of asbestos abatement signs, stating in an email to The Sun that the abatement occurred from May 28 to June 7, 2019. They said that the signs often remain up after the abatement.
Martindale also expressed frustration at GW administration’s decision to house four people in one room. “I don’t spend a lot of time here because it’s … so cramped,” she said.
Fulbright’s quad-style dorms have previously drawn the rebuke of students during the academic year. In the Fall of 2018, first year students were concerned about adjusting to Fulbright’s small rooms, which are “typically meant to house three students but now house four freshmen each,” GW Hatchet, the college newspaper of GW, reported.
A summer resident of GW’s Madison Hall, Aadi Kulkarni ’22 and his roommates witnessed GW staff entering their suite without prior notice to set up cockroach traps and spray pesticides. Kulkarni told The Sun that they “had no heads up to put away belongings or valuables.” Living in Madison Hall costs between $280 to $301 per week, plus tax.
Not all experiences at GW have been negative, however. Mason Woods ’20, a resident of GW’s International House, found the dorms’ location “incredibly convenient.”
Nikhil Dhingra ’20 and Sheal Awsare ’20 found housing at GW’s Sigma Chi fraternity house. Last year, GW’s summer housing option did not cover all the dates Dhingra would be interning for, so he arranged to spend the remainder of his summer at the fraternity house. This year, he decided to return to live at the house exclusively, for which he is charged approximately $350 per week; slightly more than Fulbright Hall.
Although he is not a Sigma Chi member, Dhingra shared that there is not much he “missed out on.” He added that the house is “definitely not traditionally clean,” but that he enjoys “the opportunity to meet new college students interning in DC.”
A Cornell-Owned Dorm Sits Below Half-Filled
Cornell owns 27 apartments in the Wolpe Center, home of the Cornell in Washington program in downtown D.C. According to their website, CIW is a government-oriented immersion experience in D.C., allowing students to enroll in a four-credit Cornell courses while also working a daytime internship.
CIW’s apartments are fully furnished with a range of amenities, including private bathrooms and a kitchen.
While the maximum occupancy of the building is “about 52 people,” according to Brittany Paylor, CIW services coordinator, this summer, only 16 students live there.
Some students, including Ryan Thompson ’22, questioned why Cornell doesn’t open its doors to other Cornellians living in D.C. for the summer. Thompson interns at Resolution Economics and is taking the “Enduring Global and American Issues” course under the CIW.
However, when Thompson first inquired about living in the Wolpe Center without taking the class, he was turned down. The full cost of CIW’s summer program, including housing, an activity fee and tuition is $8,673.
“Objectively, it does not look like this housing is being used efficiently,” Thompson said, as many students are left to “find housing in a market where there aren’t many options.”
Connor Lightfield ’21, also a CIW student, told The Sun that some rooms designed as triples only have two residents.
Carol Fields Hagen, director of administration for CIW, estimated that the building is “under half full.” She said that “students have to be registered students to live in Cornell housing.”
Hagen, who has worked at CIW for nearly 35 years, said she didn’t know the “components” behind this policy barring non-CIW students from living in the dorm. She does, however, “wish that we could figure out a way to open it up.”
When The Sun reached out to a university spokesperson to find out what these components entail, Hagen replied to the email, reiterating that “to live in the Wolpe Center during the summer, students must be registered in Cornell Summer Session” –– Cornell’s summer classes program.
Hagen later followed up with The Sun, explaining how at CIW, “we are bound by Cornell’s policies and housing contracts, which are written to protect students and mitigate risks.”
Ahmed argued that the dorms “should be for us,” adding how Cornell could provide an affordable option “to promote less affluent Cornell students pursuing careers in government and policy” to end a “cycle of underrepresentation of minorities working in government.”
Cornell Grants Seek to Remedy Inequalities
This cycle is something that Cornell’s Summer Experience Grant — a group of funding pools maintained by the Student Assembly, the arts college and ILR — seeks to break, according to Maclaughlin.
Maclaughlin said the grant seeks to “alleviate those disparities between students who may be able to fund a summer experience independently and students who may not have the money to be down in D.C.” For Arts and Sciences students, the grant has a funding pool of $300,000 and is used by 17 students this year, according to Maclaughlin.
She added that even after only a few years of existing, the grant, founded in 2015, is already boosting the prospects of post-grad beneficiaries. After graduating, past receipients of the grant often are able to enter career fields more aligned to their interests because of the “experience under their belt,” Maclaughlin said.
Ori Huang ’20, one of the grant recipients, currently lives in an Airbnb in Bethesda, Maryland. Huang pays around $1,300 a month and her internship is unpaid.
For Huang, getting to work requires taking a bus –– which runs every 45 minutes –– to a metro station, before boarding the subway to work. Even though the grant was enough to cover her housing expenses, she still partially relies on financial assistance from her parents. Without the grant, Huang said “would’ve probably had to sit down and think more about” coming to D.C. for her internship.
Huang called CIW’s decision to bar non-CIW students from living in the Wolpe Center “illogical.” “Cornell is literally giving us money to go give the money to someone else,” she said.
Cat Tran ’20 said she thinks it could be helpful for Cornell to appoint a dedicated person to finding students housing in D.C. She said she felt “lucky” to be able to afford and find summer housing in D.C. –– a friend connected to a Cornell alum who provided their home at a discounted rate for the summer.
Now, D.C. summer internships are beginning to wrap up, and students are moving out of their various living arrangements. As many look toward next summer’s opportunities, Cornell’s initiatives to aid student’s housing pursuits in D.C. remain in question.
Olivia Weinberg ’22 contributed reporting to this article.