J.D. Wright ’24 shivered and curled into their sleeping bag. It was February 2021. It had snowed, and Davenport College’s heating wasn’t enough to ward off the chill in their dorm room. It was freezing inside and out—cold enough for your teeth to chatter and your joints to ache and for you to pull all your old blankets from the closet. But J.D. had no blankets to bundle under, or any bedding at all, save for that thin sleeping bag. Yale had lost it all.
J.D. wasn’t the only one to lose their things. As of December 2021, students have filed 1104 claims to be reimbursed for lost items, some of which total in the tens of thousands of dollars. When the pandemic began in March 2020, students had already left for spring break, which made it almost impossible for out-of-state and international students to return to New Haven and retrieve their things.
So Yale stepped in, at first retrieving only essential items but later expanding their operations to packing up all student belongings. Once the items were packed, they offered to ship them home or store them for the student. If a student opted to store their items, they could later pick the items up themselves or ask Yale to move their stuff into their new dorm room upon their return to campus, in spring or fall 2021.
After J.D. spent a year stranded in Illinois because of the pandemic, they expected that their bedding (and all their other possessions) would be awaiting them in their dorm room as Yale had promised. But, when J.D. arrived, they found that Yale hadn’t kept its word: Most of their things, including their bedding, were missing.
J.D. couldn’t afford to replace any of it—they’d come to Yale that semester with only $90 to their name, they recall. It wasn’t until six weeks later that Yale reimbursed them $800—the total value of all their lost items. But it was warmer by then, and they needed to start saving up to fly back home. So, they deposited the money instead of spending it on bedding, or warm clothes.
Worse than the bedding, though, was the loss of their books. The books were “parts of the people they were from,” full of letters and well-wishes for the future, J.D. explains. They miss their Polaroids, too—“the physical representation of [their] memories,” of friends, of home. They wrote everything they lost down when filing for reimbursement from Yale, so they’re not worried about forgetting. But they miss the comfort of holding their memories in their hands.
“Did they ever explain where my stuff went?” J.D. repeats my question.
After a beat: “No.”
Half-amused, J.D. tells me that Yale lost their stuff again this semester. They had stored their items with Yale over the summer as part of a summer storage program offered through Davenport College, but when they arrived on campus this fall, they once again found that all their items had vanished. Though Yale returned J.D.’s stuff to them after two weeks, the University still hasn’t explained this second disappearance, nor has the University explained how it misplaced the items of over a thousand students, who, when they finally returned to campus, opened the cardboard boxes littering their rooms and found nothing but disappointment.
WHEN SHIT HIT THE FAN
“No one knew that there was going to be a pandemic,” says Kathryn Vieillard, Deputy Director of Yale Conferences and Events (Yale C&E), the campus office that was responsible for shipping and storing students’ belongings. She is excited to talk, like someone who has something to say but hasn’t had the chance to say it, and before I can even ask my first question, she’s taking me back to the beginning, when it all started in March 2020.
In an email sent March 3, 2020—the Tuesday before spring break—Dean Marvin Chun urged students to “consider bringing any items [they] will want with [them] if [their] return to campus is delayed,” as COVID began to disrupt travel around the world. But the pandemic still felt like an impossibility, and, free from midterms and high on the promise of beach nirvanas, students didn’t listen. So, when the pandemic came and Yale moved classes online, many students didn’t have what they needed, and Yale was at a loss for how to return their things. They turned to Vieillard at Yale C&E to help them deliver essential items home to students.
At the time, the task seemed simple, so Vieillard agreed. She volunteered herself and the Yale C&E team to help plan the retrieval of essential items, like laptops, textbooks, and passports. At first, it felt manageable—only 550 students had requested that Yale retrieve items for them. Vieillard’s team contacted two moving companies, Dorm Room Movers and Meyer; ordered gloves and hand sanitizer; and coordinated volunteers from the dining halls and their HR department to help get students what they needed most for this initial retrieval of items.
But on the eve of executing this plan, Yale administrators asked Yale C&E for help on another front. They needed Yale C&E to clear the rooms on Old Campus of all student belongings so that Yale graduate students could live there and safely socially distance. Then the state of Connecticut said Yale C&E needed to clear 500 rooms for first responders. Then the team needed to organize COVID quarantine housing. And so on. Yale C&E, with a staff of only twenty-two, had to set up a 24/7 office. As Vieillard puts it, “No one knew the scope of what we would have to do.”
“Think about what a student’s room might look like when they are just leaving for spring break,” Vieillard bids me. My suite, I remember, had clothes strewn about the floor, papers scattered on the desks, unmade beds, and toiletries crowding the sink.
Movers, both those from Meyer and those subcontracted to Dorm Room Movers, had to figure out what belonged to which student—what went in the box and what went in the trash. (Sometimes, these decisions of what to send and what not to send bordered on the absurd. Maayan Schoen ’23 says she received a rotten potato and a half-used bottle of shampoo, but almost none of her clothing or valuables.) Often, according to Vieillard and Meyer’s Ryan DeVille (a Business Development Associate, who helped coordinate the Yale job), students wouldn’t respond to movers. Other times, movers would discover that students had switched rooms without telling Yale. “One suitemate moves to Italy for the semester, so [another girl] moves into [their] room, because it’s nicer,” Vieillard conjures as an example.
After deciding what belonged to whom and what went in the box and what didn’t, Meyer and Dorm Room Movers had to either store the items in local Connecticut warehouses or ship them back to students, both domestically and internationally.
The shipping process often involved lots of “red tape,” DeVille recalls. Meyer employees found themselves having to navigate the customs laws of countries around the world. When I ask about the most challenging delivery, DeVille pauses, before starting to read off a Korean mailing address. He gives up halfway through and starts to spell out the letters. He laughs, and says the hardest part was “communication.”
Because of COVID regulations, no one could access dorms except the movers. Sometimes, Yale C&E employees could visit dorm rooms, but for the most part, they had to supervise the moving remotely. And once the boxes left the shipping company and headed to Texas or Mississippi or London, Yale C&E couldn’t control what happened (they did, however, keep records, according to Vieillard).
DeVille estimates that Meyer moved over twenty-five thousand items and coordinated between four-hundred and six-hundred deliveries. Given the scale of the operation, as Vieillard puts it, “it was inevitable some things would get lost and never be found, or damaged, or broken beyond repair.” Despite their best efforts, Yale C&E anticipated that things would, naturally, slip through the cracks.
HOW DO YOU LOSE A COUCH?
Katherine Sylvester ’23 doesn’t understand how her couch slipped through the cracks. It wasn’t a special couch, L-shaped and beige, but she thought it would be hard to lose. She understood how items could get lost in the chaos of the pandemic. Katherine had experienced it firsthand when she opened the boxes Yale sent home to her in spring 2020 and found that her framed Dead and Company poster — a gift from her dad — was missing. But like J.D., when they lost their items for a second time, she had stored the couch with Yale through her residential college’s summer storage program (run in conjunction with Meyer). The program, which was cheaper and more convenient than getting a storage unit, permitted students (among other things) to “leave one couch per suite” to store over the summer of 2021. By then, she thought, Yale would have had enough time to ensure no item went missing. The couch was big, and she had labeled it with her full name and suite number, as Davenport College had specified in their summer storage directions. She was disappointed when it went missing, she recalls, but more than anything, “determined to find out” where it and her other belongings (a lamp and a chair) had gone.
So, she contacted the Davenport College office, who then directed her to Yale C&E, who re-directed her to the facilities manager for Davenport, who re-directed her back to Yale C&E, who then encouraged her to send a mass email to her residential college and to email Meyer, who said to ask Yale.
No one knew anything.
“It felt like they were ducking responsibility,” Katherine says. “I was constantly being directed to ‘this person’ or ‘this form.’”
When Katherine had exhausted all avenues for finding her couch, after weeks of emailing back and forth, Yale C&E sent her a reimbursement form, which Yale C&E forwards to students seeking repayment after they determine an item has been lost. But she never got reimbursed. A few days after submitting the form, she received an email from Yale C&E invoking the fine print of the initial summer storage email Katherine had received. “Yale takes no responsibility for any items that are left on campus in Spring 2021,” they quoted.
When I ask DeVille what Meyer does when they can’t determine who owns an item, he answers matter-of-factly. They rely on Yale C&E to help them make that identification, he explains, but if they can’t find the owner, they put it with the “Unknowns.”
According to DeVille, Meyer compiles these “Unknowns” together in one of their storage units—from what he describes on the phone, it’s a jumble of couches and fridges and boxes, full of who-knows-what. From what I piece together from Vieillard and DeVille and my conversations with students, there could be Burberry scarves, Gucci belts, spare notebooks, game consoles. There could be surrealist senior art projects and Polaroid photos. Journals and game consoles. Childhood stuffed animals.
Soon, Yale and Meyer will unbox the items and dispel the mystery. They are planning to donate all the ‘Unknowns’ to the Salvation Army. It’s both an act of charity and of simple business. Vieillard explains to me that Yale has still been paying to store these ‘unknowns.’ (Though she couldn’t give me the exact cost, I got the impression that it was expensive.) Neither Vieillard nor DeVille mentioned any plan to let Yale students look at the ‘Unknowns’ before they are donated.
For Christmas, a lucky child may get a Burberry scarf, or Stuart Weitzman boots. They could even get a couch, or—who knows?—maybe even an organ, according to Elko Gerville-Reache ’24, a student in Trumbull College.
“I had an organ—emphasis on had,” Elko says. Elko had spent years looking for a vintage Ace Tone Electronic Organ Model Top-2, like the one Ray Manzarek of The Doors played. In his common room, he set up a music studio, replete with amps, pedals, guitars, basses, and microphones. According to Elko, he knew Yale would somehow lose his stuff, so he emailed his residential college, Yale C&E, and Dorm Room Movers at the onset of the pandemic: “Do not touch my stuff.”
They touched his stuff.
They moved it into storage, which Elko says he was “initially okay with.” After all, Yale C&E had to move everything eventually to open up rooms for the 2020-2021 school year. But he was nervous about them moving his things again, so, as Elko recalls, he emailed them again: “Do not touch my stuff. Whatever you do, leave it there.” They did not leave it in storage.
“[The organ] took three to four years to find, and now I was told they just threw it out,” he says. His words crescendo, but then he stalls, as if imagining the red paint chipping in a landfill. His voice is heavy: “I hope someone took it and not—not just threw it out, you know?”
When I ask Dorm Room Movers if there were any challenges to moving such a large volume of items, Director of Customer Experience Tonya Kinney tells me that Dorm Room Movers “doesn’t see challenges, just opportunities to create a new service.” When I ask her what happens when an item goes missing, she assures me that customers have the “ability to purchase a protection plan” but that they will “use everything and every resource [available] to find that item.” If they can’t, she promises me they try to reimburse the client and do “everything in their power to ensure the customer is satisfied with the outcome.”
PAY BACK TIME
The first time the (203) ***-**** number called Katherine—who is still, to this day, missing her couch—she thought it was a scammer. The second time, she picked up. She was shocked to find it was the Yale Police Department (YPD), calling her about the reimbursement claim she filed for the missing couch (and other items). At the time, she had yet to discover she was ineligible for reimbursement. So when she filled out the reimbursement form with photos and prices for each missing item, she had thought she was done with the process.
But it had just begun. It can take weeks to receive any reimbursement, which can hurt students who “don’t come to campus with a lot of resources to fall back on,” according to J.D.
Lieutenant Sabrina Wood of YPD tells me that it is standard procedure for officers to call students who file reimbursement claims. They go over students’ personal information, information about the items, and confirm they have taken steps to find their items before seeking reimbursement. Then, according to Wood, they let the student know that, under Connecticut Code 53A-157B, it’s a “Class A misdemeanor” to file a false police report. Wood estimates that the YPD has handled 75-100 of these cases.
Vieillard tells me that, though the University has paid out 831 total claims to students, Yale C&E only forwards reimbursement claims above $500 to the YPD. “There have been claims of tens of thousands of dollars,” Vieillard says. When I ask if Yale is concerned about false claims, Vieillard tells me no. Wood, when I ask her the same question, tells me that “[YPD has] no way to investigate [false claims].” Yale C&E’s policy, according to Vieillard, is to take all claims at face value no matter how incredible. “[You get students with] five Gucci coats, three of those goose down jackets […],” she explains. “It was kind of amazing what some students had in their rooms.”
“The University put finances second,” Jennifer Franssen, Deputy Director of Financial Planning and Analysis at Yale, tells me. Neither Franssen nor Vieillard can tell me how much any of this has cost—the storage, shipping, and reimbursement. When I ask Franssen, she says, “I don’t know.” (Yale has a “chart of accounts” system which lets employees label any budget item and then total them accordingly. I ask Franssen if I can use this system to add up the numbers myself. I am told, quite gently, “No.”) But Vieillard assures me Yale isn’t worried about the money. “The directive was not to be a penny pincher with these students,” Vieillard says. “The directive was to make them whole.”
The reason they involve the YPD at all, Vieillard says, is because Yale’s Office of Risk Management wants to ensure that there were no “patterns of foul play” by movers, not students. But why, then, would the YPD call students and not movers? It frightens students, and it doesn’t make much sense. After all, if Yale C&E were keeping records, as Viellard suggests, they would be able to notice and notify the YPD of those patterns themselves without talking to students. But still, Vieillard tells me she has “no knowledge” of any such patterns of foul play. When I contacted Risk Management and asked them to explain, they did not respond to my requests for comment.
WHILE MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS
*Asterisk marks a pseudonym
Peter’s* mother waited for four hours on Easter to buy him Guitar Hero 3, when it came out in 2007. His eyes crinkle, as he smiles at the memory, before his face sinks, as he remembers how the game (and all his other games) vanished.
He and his suitemates wanted to make sure all their items had been packed up and stored, so they asked Yale C&E for a list of their things. Yale C&E then contacted Dorm Room Movers on their behalf. But instead of a list, Dorm Room Movers sent Peter pictures of his items. Peter and his suitemates could see that some of their things weren’t there, but they were pleasantly surprised that most things seemed to be.
But when they moved into their dorm rooms this August, it was clear there were even fewer boxes than what Dorm Room Movers had promised in the photos. Plus, all their games and their game consoles (a Wii and an Xbox) were missing.
To Peter, the logic should be simple. You open a box, you load the box, then someone else opens the box. An error, he suggests, must have occurred somewhere along the way. “I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist,” he tells me. But when searching for replacements for his rare games, which are no longer made, he was surprised that a number of them on eBay were being sold from Connecticut.
“Considering how crazy it was,” Davenport College’s Head of Operations Shaffrona Phillip-Christie tells me, “[it’s] shocking we didn’t lose more items.”
She wishes the residential college offices had been more involved in the process, but she tells me that in the big picture—while some items were lost—many more were delivered, and Yale C&E did eventually find some of the items that went missing. With a staff of only twenty-two coordinating thousands of student items, it does seem miraculous that more wasn’t lost, all the while helping first responders and those sick with COVID.
“I am so proud of my staff,” Yale C&E’s Vieillard says. “They became like detectives.”
According to Vieillard, when COVID restrictions were relaxed and allowed her staff to go into closed buildings, they would go look for student items themselves, often becoming personally invested in the case. “We’re…on the phone, talking to kids,” she recalls, “trying to figure out what happened, why somebody had the wrong box, or why they didn’t have any boxes, or why they were missing certain things.” They wanted to make it right. Out of 1104 claims for missing items, Vieillard’s staff was able to resolve 273. (They reimbursed the other 831.)
For their service to the University, the team won a Linda Lorimer award, which according to its website “recognize[s] individuals and teams among the Yale staff who have distinguished themselves through a commitment to excellence and innovative thinking.” Still, this apparent success is hard to reconcile with the feelings of students. “Maybe I’m being naive,” J.D. says. “But it can’t be that hard to store something.” Elko, when I ask how he feels, calls the team “incompetent.”
OUR DEEPEST SYMPATHIES
“Sometimes, [a student] is missing something, not to coin the credit card company ad, that is ‘priceless,’” Vieillard explains. “Something your grandmother gave you, or a note from someone you can’t find now, or whatever it was. There were plenty of heart-breaking stories about heirlooms, which people may or may not be reconnected with.”
Vieillard says her team has a system in which they track a student’s quest to find an item—whether a locket, or a diary, or Polaroids—from beginning to end. They mark each development, from the moment they are contacted until they find the item, or until Yale C&E determines that it’s unfindable.
SOME THINGS YOU CAN’T REPLACE
My grandfather sent my grandmother cross-country love letters when they were college students in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. She mailed them to me in the fall of my first year. I remember keeping them in the bottom drawer of my desk, with school supplies and cards my mom sent me. When I was homesick, I would take them out and read them. I liked to feel the weight of their love in my hands. My grandfather died when I was four, so I never knew him, but I got to know him better through those letters, when he was eighteen and felt out of place at Yale, just like me, hundreds of miles from Fort Worth, Texas.
When I went home for spring break in March 2020, I didn’t think about the letters. Now, I can’t remember if I made sure to put them back in the drawer, or if I left them on the coffee table in our common room when I left. Sometimes, I wonder if they fell under my bed as I was packing for spring break, or if I threw them into my luggage and forgot about them. I’d just turned nineteen and was too distracted by the Jimmy Fallon tickets in my back pocket to worry when Dean Chun warned us to take what we needed.
But I do remember that I felt thankful when my stuff was shipped back home to Texas. I knew that it must have been a nightmare for Yale to coordinate. Almost all my things were there, though all the papers were mixed up and my mug had been chipped. My notebooks were there. So was my bedding, and my ballet shoes, and the photo my mom and I took in front of Princeton.
The letters weren’t.
Alexandra Galloway is a junior in Davenport College and Co-Editor-in-Chief of The New Journal.