Hailing from Hoover, Alabama, a suburb near Birmingham, the three Mahmood sisters — Aisha Mahmood (18C, 20PH), Fizza Mahmood (21C) and Mahaa Mahmood (18Ox, 20C) — all chose to attend Emory University, pursuing public health, medicine and law, respectively. As first generation and low-income students, the sisters have faced housing and academic hardships together as a result of the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

The Mahmood sisters — Aisha Mahmood (18C, 20PH), Fizza Mahmood (21C) and Mahaa Mahmood (18Ox, 20C) — all attend Emory University./Courtesy of Mahaa Mahmood

The Mahmood sisters were home in Hoover during spring break when they received Emory’s email that dorms would close and classes would transition to online learning.

Confused by an initially unclear announcement, Fizza initially thought she could continue living in her on-campus apartment at Clairmont. Fizza thought that her sister Mahaa, a senior resident advisor for Woodruff Residential Center, could live with her at Clairmont, but they quickly realized that both would be forced to leave. Mahaa was shocked by the miscommunication and constantly changing housing procedures. 

“It was overall panic and disappointment just because I think Emory sent out the email very quickly,” Mahaa said. “I wish there would have been more specifics as to how they were going to support students through that process.”

Both sisters applied to stay on campus. Despite coming from the exact same circumstances, only Mahaa was initially accepted. Mahaa explained that her mother and other family members are immunocompromised, and that returning to Alabama was not an option. She helped her sister, Fizza, appeal to stay on campus; Fizza was eventually accepted.

Days before either sister received a response, however, they struggled to figure out what to do with their belongings in the event their applications were denied.

Mahaa was frustrated by the University’s handling of students’ belongings during move-out. She wished Emory had communicated specifics regarding move-out earlier and allowed students to store their belongings in their dorm rooms throughout the remainder of the semester. To avoid risking exposure to COVID-19, Mahaa wouldn’t have come back to campus at all if this were offered, she said.

Aisha said she and other fellow Rollins Public Health students had been predicting Emory’s decision to close campus, but didn’t think the announcement would be so abrupt. She admitted that graduate students mostly live off campus and were not as affected by Emory’s eviction. Though she didn’t need to move, she said that losing access to important resources, like libraries, has been difficult. She also has not received sufficient financial assistance as a graduate student.

Mahaa and Fizza now live in seperate dorms at Clairmont and are able to have most meals together, with Aisha visiting regularly.

The University has implemented measures to assist low income students, and Fizza and Mahaa are two of many low-income undergraduates who received a $1,000 Student Support Stipend. Fizza, however, was disappointed with how her federal work-study pay-out was calculated. 

Fizza said she thinks Emory could have waited to create a more coherent plan before announcing the closure of dorms. She believes that “Emory Together is supposed to be a streamline of information,” but many of the University’s emails fail to include substantial details. Mahaa also criticized the university’s stream of inconsistent communication.

“Information was never centralized, and trickled down in different ways,” she said.

On top of the stress of securing housing and financial resources, the Mahmoods are adjusting to online learning. All three sisters say that there has been a spectrum of understanding from their professors. Aisha says that while some professors have been more accommodating, others “didn’t move a single deadline and just sort of told us to deal with it.”

Aisha explained that she chose to stay at Emory for graduate school because of the resources and community, which have been compromised during the pandemic. She is currently taking Evidence-Based Decision Making, a course about pandemic preparedness and evidence based decision-making. Although she enjoys the material, online discussions are less meaningful to her. Her sister, Mahaa, agreed that Emory’s environment is not conducive to remote learning.

“Learning is disengaging … group work is less impactful … and it’s really hard to say I’m retaining information,” Mahaa said.

In addition to overhauling academics, COVID-19 has also claimed important Emory ceremonies, including graduation. After the University cancelled in-person commencement, Mahaa drafted a petition to hold it at a later time. She has joined the impromptu Commencement Task Force to see this petition through.

In regard to her own upcoming graduation from Rollins, Aisha was hurt by the fact that she will not be able to meet up with many of her friends again.

“I’m not going to see some people who I’ve gotten really close to over the last two years again … it’s very sad,” she said.

Other future plans have also been significantly impacted for the Mahmoods. The sisters had planned to return to Pakistan this summer to visit their grandfather for the first time in about six years. With travel restrictions and an unpredictable trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic, the trip their family had looked forward to for six years will most likely be canceled or postponed.

As the pandemic has forced the cancellation of numerous events, the sisters’ academic plans have also been derailed. Mahaa, a philosophy major and political science minor, hopes to pursue law. She had planned to attend a seminar in Chicago as a scholar in the Sidley Prelaw Scholars Program, which would have helped her get a better sense of what law school and careers in law are like. The date for the summer event has not yet been scheduled, and Mahaa fears it may be canceled.

Fizza is an international studies and Arabic double major on the pre-med track. She planned to apply to medical schools this summer, but because Medical College Admission Test exams have been canceled until the end of May, it is unclear how the application timelines will change. She hopes campus will re-open in the fall for her senior year.

Aisha will receive a master’s in public health and is excited to start her job with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has not been affected at this time. She is hoping to start earlier than planned to ensure financial security.

Though it’s stressful to be apart from their parents and younger brothers during this tumultuous time, the sisters are grateful to have each other and their extended Emory communities.

“A lot of people have friends that we would see on campus that we don’t anymore, but we still find ways to connect,” Fizza said. “We find ways to continue things even if they can’t really happen anymore.”