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Harvard’s Undergraduate Council faced censure in the past month for its poor handling of Wintersession funds, the dispersal of which students say was marred by delays and privacy failures.
Each year, between the fall and spring semesters, the UC solicits applications for its Wintersession funds — a pool of money it distributes to students in the form of winter internship stipends, grants for workplace attire, and more.
A December email addressed to students who had applied for the fund drew criticism after the sender failed to blind-copy applicants, a mistake students said violated first-generation, low-income students’ privacy. Those who were granted funds also voiced complaints about delayed disbursement, accompanied by lackluster communication from the UC finance committee.
Former Financial Chair Rukmini “Mini” Ganesh ’22 attributed the emailing error to a rocky hand-off between her and the incoming financial chair, Daniella M. Berrospi ’24.
Ganesh said she did not have adequate time to train Berrospi because Ganesh's mom was diagnosed with Covid-19.
“I think a lot of the complaints, the animosity is coming from people that don't understand,” Ganesh said. “[Berrospi is] working really hard, but she doesn’t know what to do yet… I wasn't able to kind of help her as much as I would have liked.”
Berrospi explained that she had to learn everything on her own when she stepped into the role — “a very individual process.”
Following her mistake, Berrospi said she fell into a “panicky situation” that she was not sure how to remedy. Around a month later, she sent an email apologizing to the applicants.
“As a first-generation low-income student myself, I understand how sensitive information that is supposed to remain confidential but is released on accident can cause harm and cross privacy lines,” Berrospi wrote.
Vivian Zhao ’24, a Wintersession fund applicant, said that she “personally wasn’t too affected” by Berrospi’s mistake. She said, however, that she knew of applicants who “did mind a lot.”
Zhao said she thought Berrospi’s apology was “satisfactory,” but urged the UC to be more careful in the future.
The email fumble was not the only factor that frustrated students, who complained about dispersal delays over social media. Though students said online they had expected to receive their grants over winter recess, funds are still being distributed after the start of the spring semester.
UC Treasurer Edwin B. “Eddie” Jin ’24, who is responsible for distributing the funds, acknowledged that the dispersal process was taking longer than recipients might have anticipated and admitted that the finance committee could have operated with greater transparency.
He said the delays arose because the services the UC traditionally uses to disperse money, such as Venmo, have limits on how much money can be sent in a given period of time.
“There's about a $5,000 cap on the amount of money that we can disperse through Venmo per week,” Jin said. “We prioritized using that money for the internship stipend, since that was the most urgent over Wintersession.”
Jin also said a preexisting $35,000 backlog in other UC grants exacerbated the situation.
Though Jin said Venmo is ideal for protecting student privacy, he said he thinks it would be worth identifying an alternative distribution method, such as PayPal, to avoid backlogging issues in the future.
In the meantime, Jin said he is working diligently to disperse the remaining Wintersession grants.
“We hope to have the vast majority of Wintersession grants done by next weekend,” he said.
—Staff writer Mayesha R. Soshi can be reached at email@example.com.
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