Fourth-year biological sciences student Skyler Brooke Villanueva was unsuccessful in dropping Bio Sci lab N123L for the fall 2020 quarter. Throughout her correspondence with the Biological Sciences administration and UCI officials regarding dropping the lab, Villanueva posted a three-part series titled “Exposing UCI” on TikTok, which has amassed over 312,000 views, to voice her frustrations with the Bio Sci department.
Expecting to graduate at the end of the fall quarter, Villanueva had originally registered for the lab thinking it was a necessary class for her to graduate. Before classes officially began, Villanueva realized that was not the case and attempted to drop so that another student in need of the class could take her place. She started her attempts to drop the lab online during week zero and continued to correspond with Biological Sciences and UCI officials over email and Zoom well into week six.
“Everyone I emailed had basically said the same thing, ‘this was the deadline’ and basically that I missed it, which I completely understood. I was just hoping someone would see the situation out a little more, seeing that this was during COVID … I guess I was just expecting someone to be a little more empathetic and I was surprised when they weren’t,” Villanueva said.
In her efforts to drop the class, Villanueva corresponded via email with several Bio Sci and UCI officials, including Biological Sciences Dean Frank LaFerla, Undergraduate Education Associate Dean Raju Metherate, Biological Sciences Student Affairs Director Jennifer “Jenna” Bague-Sampson, Biological Sciences Academic Counselor Alejandra Gutiérrez, Student Affairs Vice Chancellor Willie L. Banks Jr., Undergraduate Education Dean Michael Dennin and Dr. Craig Stark, who is the professor for the lab in question.
Villanueva provided the New University access to these correspondences to corroborate her story.
Villanueva first reached out to Gutiérrez on Oct. 5. Within their email thread, Villanueva explained that she’d been referred to Gutiérrez from a UCI counselor and asked for assistance in dropping the class. Gutiérrez informed her that the drop deadline had passed on Sept. 25 at 5 p.m.
Dissatisfied, Villanueva emailed Dean LaFerla later that day to seek assistance. In her initial email, Villanueva informed LaFerla that she was “extremely taken aback” at the response from Gutiérrez. According to Villanueva, Gutiérrez was “rude” and “not helpful” in the email.
LaFerla expressed his apologies and forwarded Villanueva’s email to Associate Dean Metherate. Minutes after this, Gutierrez replied to Villanueva’s email thread and reiterated that the Bio Sci department had taken steps to make lab drop deadlines as clear as possible to students. She then referred Villanueva to Bague and asked her to contact her with further information about her situation.
Metherate emailed Villanueva on Oct. 6 to emphasize that Bio Sci would be sticking to policy, and an exception would not be made. Metherate also informed Villanueva that he had not found her email exchange with Gutierrez “extremely rude,” to which Villanueva clarified that her problems with the encounter were the lack of resources offered to her and the lack of inquiry into her personal circumstances.
Later in the day, Metherate contacted Villanueva to again reiterate that a lab drop exception would not be made. He then advised her to lighten her course load another way.
“You may wish to consider dropping a lecture course with a later drop deadline, though I understand that this may delay your progress toward graduation,” Metherate wrote.
This response was the only email included in Villanueva’s “Part one” video and became one of the main points behind her argument that UCI Bio Sci simply does not care about their students.
“After emailing with the Vice Dean, I emailed Jenna Bague and I was honestly upset by some of the things she had told me. In her emails she had mentioned that I was taking time away from other students with my emails trying to figure this stuff out, that me reaching out to different people was unprofessional,” Villanueva said.
Later that day, Villanueva contacted Director Bague regarding her options for either withdrawing from the lab or submitting excusable documentation due to COVID-19. Bague then informed Villanueva that a student may only receive a “W,” a withdrawal notation, after the sixth week of classes, and “for an exception to be considered, it must be an extenuating circumstance beyond the student’s control, that affects only the course being requested to drop.”
After seeking clarification on receiving a “W,” Villanueva received a reply from Bague restating that Villanueva would not be able to drop Bio Sci N123L and that the decision was final. The email also contained guidance she intended as constructive for Villanueva.
“I encourage you to reflect on this situation and how you could have approached it differently. Your interactions with Bio Sci Student Affairs staff, Dr. Metherate, and Dean LaFerla were not appropriate, nor productive. Contacting multiple people with the same request, multiple times, and not disclosing you had already corresponded with others about this issue, resulted in a great deal of time being devoted to your e-mails, at the expense of other students who also needed assistance,” Bague wrote.
Villanueva was deeply upset by this response and decided to contact higher authorities. She emailed her concerns and situation to Vice Chancellor Banks on Oct. 7.
Banks eventually referred her to Dean Dennin, who Villanueva reached out to on Oct. 9. Unlike her previous email exchanges with Bio Sci, Villanueva was no longer only concerned about dropping the lab.
“It is extremely frustrating, as not being on campus already has many issues, but I really do feel like I have been left to deal with the stress of my situation alone and have not been properly heard. I have been trying to reach out to many people, but being a student now feels like my voice doesn’t matter. As someone who takes academics and education extremely seriously, I am very disappointed in the lack of assistance and understanding I have received from the UCI staff,” Villanueva wrote in both communications with Banks and Dennin.
In response, Dennin connected Villanueva to Michael Chennault, the ombudsman for UCI. According to their webpage, the Office of the Ombudsman is “an alternative channel for confidential, neutral and informal dispute resolution services for the UC Irvine campus and medical center.”
Villanueva and Chennault corresponded over confidential Zoom meetings, culminating in one with Bague.
“I had actually emailed Jenna Bague before and asked her if she would meet with me over Zoom, but she had never responded,” Villanueva said. “Michael Chennault and I had met over Zoom a few times. He listened to what my situation was and it seemed like he was understanding of that, but it’s not up to him to make the decision so he had said ‘Oh, Jenna Bague is the one who’s in charge of this.’ I did tell him that we communicated before and it didn’t go very well, so he reached out to her and they decided that it might be best if we do meet over zoom, which we finally did.”
During the meeting, Bague firmly restated that Villanueva would not be able to just drop the class. The three went over Villanueva’s options for either dropping with a “W” or a possibility of Pass/No Pass (P/NP), which both seemed non-existent.
“[Bague] did tell me in that meeting that there was one other student who was able to drop their lab because they submitted the proper documentation and the student had gotten a job that prevented them from taking the lab, and they found out about this job after the drop deadline,” Villanueva said.
Villanueva happened to know the student who was able to drop and discussed the situation with them. The student in question requested to remain unidentified.
Villanueva emailed Bague on Oct. 30 to inquire what work documentation she would need to submit to receive the same exception as the student. While waiting for a response, she also contacted the student who had successfully dropped their lab.
“They provided me with the documentation that they had submitted,” Villanueva said. “I was in the same situation as this student and I was able to provide that same documentation.”
Villanueva provided Bague with documentation of her employment after the drop deadline on Nov. 3. Bague responded on Nov. 9, informing Villanueva that her documentation did not meet the criteria they’d discussed to allow an exception to the drop policy. She also informed Villanueva that she would not be able to take the lab P/NP.
Villanueva was even more upset with this outcome.
“This was frustrating on a different level because there’s another student who submitted the same exact information and was able to drop their lab, but now for some reason I’m not able to drop mine. Even though, from what I heard from the student, I submitted the same documentation,” Villanueva said.
Part two of Villanueva’s TikTok series was posted later that day, featuring this correspondence with Bague.
Villanueva reached out to both Chennault and Metherate on Nov. 10 regarding her work documentation and Bague’s rejection of it.
Metherate quoted her email within his response and wrote the following:
“I can appreciate that you have tried ‘since day 1 of week 1 to get this sorted out’ and that you ‘hope that this can get resolved before the end of this week.’”
He reiterated that the school’s position remains the same, that she would not be able to drop, and that they cannot discuss the situations of other students.
This email was also featured in part three, the final part of Villanueva’s TikTok series which was posted later that day.
Villanueva’s TikTok series has garnered over one thousand comments, including some from UCI alumni, current UCI Bio Sci students who have had similar experiences and even prospective UCI students who have begun to reconsider.
“I’m not trying to bash UCI in any way,” Villanueva said. “I chose this school, I think it’s a beautiful campus, and I think it has a lot to offer. But I am really glad that I did bring this to social media because I do feel like a lot of people have said they’ve gone through something similar.”
Villanueva also expressed that she posted the series hoping that a UCI staff member would find it and genuinely want to help her.
“I was hoping that maybe somebody [from the Bio Sci administration] would see online and see this from my perspective,” she said. “It’s really unfortunate that hasn’t happened, but I guess I don’t know how widespread it’s really become,” she said. “
She sincerely hoped that this short series would reach Bio Sci administration in a constructive way.
When asked for a statement regarding the situation, Dean LaFerla and Associate Dean Metherate told the New University that exceptions are only granted in very rare circumstances.
In their joint statement, they stated, “While we cannot provide details of any particular case, we can tell you that we strive for consistency and fairness in the way we apply the rules.”
LaFerla and Metherate also explained the necessity of early drop deadlines.
“Bio Sci lab courses are in high demand, and spaces in those courses are limited. This has been true for years and is again true this year … Because of the elevated demand, early drop deadlines have been in place for many years to help all of our students enroll in the lab courses they need. We make those deadlines extremely clear in the schedule of classes and in many other student communications,” they said.
Currently, Villanueva’s concern is not just about her inability to drop the lab, but rather about the Bio Sci administration demonstrating care and concern for their students.
“Really, I am hoping that in the future Bio Sci will consider their policies and not just ‘say this is what’s written down so this is what we’re going to stick to,’ really listen to their students and take a human perspective and think about what is right and fair in that moment, and think about what the exceptions might be if something else like this does happen again,” Villanueva said.
Bague, Gutierrez, Chennault, Banks, Dennin and Stark were not available for further comments.
Dhanika Pineda is a Campus News Editor for 2020-2021. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org