The first post appeared in early July: an image of a bird cradling two eggs. The caption read, “Hey you! If you want help in finding a roommate, send us a bio and we will post you on this account.”
As Los Angeles County shattered records for single-day increases in new cases of COVID-19, the Claremont Colleges announced, one by one, a virtual fall semester. The incoming class of 2024 was left to confront the reality that the moment of independence they had been anxiously awaiting for months would be delayed indefinitely. They would be stuck at home for the foreseeable future — unless they sought out housing on their own.
In the months that followed, @5C_roomiesss — an Instagram account created by Claremont Colleges students with the intention of helping first-years find housing with fellow classmates — rose to the forefront of Claremont conversation. As a number of new COVID-19 cases took hold of students in the Claremont area around Halloween, the account grew infamous, and for many, it became the flash point of frustration they felt toward those not heeding public health measures.
@5C_roomiesss began with innocent intentions: to connect low-income students who received housing stipends and sought better living situations. But the account gradually morphed into a neutral platform that posted everyone looking for roommates — regardless of their circumstances — and two of the administrators said they regretted what it eventually became.
By the end of December, @5C_roomiesss had shut itself down, leaving the more than 750 people who followed the account to wonder: What went wrong?
@5C_roomiesss’ beginning: A resource for low-income students in need of housing
The Instagram account’s start was nurtured by a web of virtual communities connecting the class of 2024. Shortly after receiving their acceptance letters, incoming first-years across the 5Cs used GroupMe chats, Discord servers, Facebook groups and Snapchat to get to know their fellow classmates, much as previous classes did before them.
Historically, these large post-acceptance, pre-semester chats of first-years go quiet by move-in day, where virtual communication is swapped for mostly in-person exchanges. But with move-in pushed back indefinitely, the importance of virtual spaces only grew.
As admitted students grasped for connection, Instagram emerged as a focal point. Multiple class of 2024 accounts were created and rapidly gained hundreds of followers. They posted photos of incoming students with short autobiographical captions, dropping students’ personal social media handles for further connection.
@5C_roomiesss quickly became a mainstay of the class’ communication.
The account was created in the wake of Pomona’s announcement that its campus would remain shuttered for the fall semester and that all classes would be held virtually. Two account runners — Pomona students who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retribution — felt that it could serve as a resource for students who, with neither comfortable living situations nor open campuses, had no other place to go.
Students were encouraged to send a short caption to introduce themselves, photos of themselves and their potential living location. The account, the first admin said, was meant to be open and inclusive — instead of private group chats, peers would connect through social media and get the chance to put faces to the names of the students who would soon be their classmates.
The posts started slowly. But as students reckoned with the reality of an upcoming virtual semester, they poured in. The account boasted one post on July 9, six on July 10 and then a steady stream of listings throughout the summer of 2020 advertising housing for the fall semester.
At first, the account seemed like it was helping those they wanted it to serve, the first admin said. They themselves are a low-income student who dealt with unstable Wi-Fi even with a Pomona-provided hotspot, and thus had difficulty attending classes and completing assignments from home. They wanted the account to help people like themselves, and it seemed like it was working.
Jocelyn Jimenez CM ’24 was one of those students. With her crowded living situation, which included a sister also doing full-time school and a parent working remotely, Jimenez knew she couldn’t stay at home. Without regular access to a car, Jimenez chose to remain close to home and stay in Southern California. During the fall semester, she was able to secure Claremont McKenna College-provided housing at the Alexan Kendry apartments, but for the coming spring term, she was looking to move out.
“I think that I wanted to keep my bubble a bit smaller … I had to find my own place that was close to my small group of friends so that I wouldn’t have to travel far [and] so that I could visit my family occasionally, because they are pretty close,” she said.
After posting on @5C_roomiesss, Jimenez was able to quickly find a roommate for the spring semester. She was excited but said finding a roommate wasn’t just a luxury for her.
“It’s not necessarily that I’m looking for a roommate just because I want to move out of home. It’s more of a necessity.”
The posts were also a way for members of the grade to get to know each other, from hobbies to majors. Some posts advertised the residents’ comfort with substances; others listed favorite movies, television shows and music. All posts reviewed by TSL reporters were submissions from the class of 2024.
For first-years who face the possibility of an entire year of college without ever stepping foot on campus, the benefits of posting on @5C_roomiesss went far beyond finding roommates.
“It helped me make friends. There were people in the Claremont area this whole semester that I did not know of, and they reached out to me and said, ‘I’m also looking for a roommate, and even if we don’t become roommates, we should still stay in touch’ — and I still stay in touch with a few of them,” Jimenez said.
With traditional avenues to making friends closed off, @5C_roomiesss laid the perfect foundation for first-year students turning to spontaneous direct messaging to socialize.
“I’m not really sure if we were so willing or eager to get to know each other on social media before the pandemic,” Kaitlyn Chen SC ’24, who used the account to find housing for the spring, said. “But now, from what I know, I feel like people are more interested to put themselves out there, because we feel really isolated at home and just don’t feel like part of the student body. It’s actually been pretty common for me to talk to random people since April.”
A publication or a platform? With more posts, a position of neutrality
As the summer continued, the admins said they began to receive submissions from people who didn’t seem to really need alternate housing — students moving to Claremont for social purposes or to escape the bounds of homes that might still be accommodating.
The admins weren’t sure whether to curb posts that seemed geared toward the social — the account, after all, never advertised itself exclusively for students with limited options. It was a consideration, but they didn’t end up following through on the idea, the first admin said.
Besides, the admins had a hard time wrapping their minds around the idea of students spending money to leave stable and safe housing situations. The second admin said they didn’t even consider that students would try to move if they hadn’t been allotted the housing stipends or boosts in financial aid packages which the 5Cs gave to some qualifying students, according to the colleges’ websites and emails sent to students.
“I didn’t realize until way later in the semester that there were even people who would have not been receiving the refunds who would be doing this,” they said. “I had always assumed — even though it was nothing that we ever really openly discussed, it was just an assumption — that it would be for anyone who was receiving the refunds.”
Real alarm bells began when a listing advertising a move to Hawaii was submitted, the second admin said. “That was kind of the first sense that people were doing it for more of a vacation.”
“We don’t want to be the people who have to determine whether or not you’re worthy of getting to move out of your house.” — A @5C_roomiesss account moderator
The admins both felt uncomfortable about enabling moves regardless of the posters’ personal circumstances but said they were in spotty communication with each other and rarely checked their shared messages. Besides, the second admin said, they didn’t feel it was appropriate to decide who did or didn’t have a right to move. It was difficult to tell who was moving for the “right” reason.
“I just didn’t want to go out and be like, ‘OK, now we’re only for low-income students,’ because then it becomes a question of: Who qualifies as a low-income student? We don’t want to be the people who have to determine whether or not you’re worthy of getting to move out of your house,” the second admin said.
And so the two admins said they became a sort of a platform: uneditorialized and unfiltered, assuming good intentions from those submitting posts.
They began posting new listings without reading descriptions, simply uploading the photos and tagging accounts. Posts advertised locations across the country, like Vermont and Seattle, while many sought to rent or sublet in Claremont or surrounding areas of Los Angeles County.
“It was just more of, like, a good faith thing, assuming that people wouldn’t go and do stupid things,” the second admin said. “You know, we just had good faith in the Pomona and 5C community, which, unfortunately, was maybe unfounded.”
‘It’s too dangerous’: 5C community urges that students stay home
Through the fall, posts continued to go up on the account, and captions were updated with “UPDATE: ROOMMATES FOUND” once first-years found their matches. All the while, the decision to move to Claremont became increasingly polarizing.
Becca Zimmerman PZ ’21, Pitzer Student Senate president, urged students to stay at home rather than moving to Claremont in a forceful July opinion piece. The piece was one of TSL’s most read opinion pieces of 2020, according to backend website analytics.
Some students still chose to move, and community discourse — at least, the discourse available via social media comments — largely subsided as students began their full-time course loads. That changed when coronavirus began spreading among 5C students in Claremont — the potential result of Halloween parties, CMC officials said in an email to students living in the Inland Empire for the semester.
The heat continued to grow after TSL published a story called “5C students in Claremont navigate pandemic pods, partying.” In the story (written by Gabriel Sherman, one of the authors of this article), students described a culture of “pods,” wherein people from multiple households socialize inside without masks.
A student confirmed that parties occurred, saying that “people are seeing people; people are being inside houses and dancing.” She admitted that despite getting tested regularly, her house was not taking optimal precautions: “I won’t act like we are.”
Backlash erupted, largely in the virtual pages of TSL, in the comment sections of TSL’s public Instagram account and among Claremont students on Twitter.
“The night that we decided to post the announcement and close the account was a really stressful night … It just made me wish I could take it all back and have not created the account in the first place.” — A @5C_roomiesss account moderator
One opinion piece titled “Claremont is not your personal playground” directly responded to the students in the piece. The story, written by Uma Nagarajan-Swenson SC ’22, was in the top five of TSL’s most read opinion pieces of the year, according to backend analytics. It garnered an explosive social media reaction, with 4,535 impressions, 563 likes, 30 comments and 119 shares on Instagram as of Jan. 13.
“I am writing this to ask students living in Claremont to act as if you care about the community you are now a part of. I, along with many of you, read the article about Halloween parties, and from word of mouth, I realized that ‘breaking pods’ is much more far-reaching than even these articles described,” Nagarajan-Swenson wrote.
Perhaps the most intense backlash came on Dec. 3, 2020, when Pitzer College President Melvin Oliver broke the news that none of the 5Cs would bring students back to campus at the start of the spring 2021 semester. Fights broke out in TSL’s Instagram comment section, sparked by a commenter who wrote, “I hope your Halloween ragers were worth it! 🤩🤩,” accumulating nearly 200 likes as of Jan. 10.
Commenters accused students who moved and partied of being the reason the decision was made to keep campuses shuttered, while others pushed back and blamed rising COVID-19 numbers and decisions made by the LA Department of Public Health.
The class of 2024 was particularly subject to insults. “LMAO WAIT how u arguing in tsl comments before u even step foot on campus… bro don’t even go here 😂,” one commenter wrote, accumulating 90 likes.
The @5C_roomiesss account and those who used it were also directly lambasted on Twitter, garnering likes and comments from peers in the Claremont Colleges Twitterverse. But the first admin said because they did not have a Twitter account and knew no upperclassmen, they were unaware of the vitriol the account sparked. If they had been aware of the public criticism, they said they might have shut the account down sooner. (The second admin said multiple people messaged the account privately with concerns but claimed that none had been people who criticized the account publicly).
In December, another opinion was penned urging students not to move to Claremont this spring, citing @5C_roomiesss as an example not to follow.
“We realize there are some students with nowhere else to go and do not begrudge anyone who is returning because it is their only option. But everyone else who has a choice in this matter needs to think long and hard about what they are doing. It’s selfish, foolish and violent,” Donnie Denome CG ’21 and Zimmerman wrote.
“As of the writing of this piece, the Instagram account @5C_roomiesss has posts from multiple people looking to move back to Claremont, presumably for the spring semester. We understand people desperately want to have some semblance of a normal year, but now is not the time. It is too dangerous.”
After the Halloween outbreak and TSL’s reporting, Denome and Zimmerman’s piece was the final straw. The admins began considering what action to take.
‘It just made me wish I could take it all back’: A decision to shut down and a public apology
It’s impossible to know the extent of the coronavirus spread — if any — caused by those who moved to Claremont using @5C_roomiesss. But the admins said they wished they could take everything back.
“Neither of us had expected it to be this big of a deal, for the account to get this big or for people to have any negative emotions towards it. I was just really regretful. I had never wanted to do anything negative,” the second admin said. “I never wanted to hurt the Claremont community or the Inland Empire community. And it was painful to know that we had done that and just to see that people felt like that.”
The admins decided to halt posts advertising housing in late December, a decision that was a long time coming — and not a result of public heat directed towards the account, the first admin said. They planned to shut down the account weeks before and were gathering their thoughts on the best way to do it.
“The night that we decided to post the announcement and close the account was a really stressful night for both of us,” the second admin said. “A really regretful night. I can only speak for myself, but it just made me wish I could take it all back and have not created the account in the first place.”
The Instagram story announcement went live on Dec. 27.
“We started this account primarily to help primarily [low] income students with unstable, dangerous or otherwise negative housing situations who would benefit greatly in moving out and finding community with fellow 5C students,” the post said.
“Unfortunately, it has not served that purpose as well as we hoped. Although we tried to be apolitical and post all ads regardless of circumstances, the world is not apolitical and we do not exist in a vacuum. We realize we may have done more harm than good by encouraging people to move into areas where they could potentially spread [COVID-19] to vulnerable communities.”
The first admin said the response to the announcement was largely positive, with multiple students direct messaging the account and praising them for halting posts. Others, though, reached out to express sadness; the account had helped some seeking to escape their previous housing situations, and they were sad to see the resource gone.
The admins began deleting posts, dropping from 59 on Dec. 28 to 13 on the afternoon of Dec. 29. The account’s description was changed to “Not currently accepting submissions. Please check our highlights before DMing.” Then a TSL article link was added to the description: “OPINION: Don’t come back to Claremont.” Then it was removed, and the description was changed to simply ‘Not accepting submissions.’
Eventually, the admins made the decision to shut the account down for good.
As of Dec. 30, the handle was changed to @deleted5croomies, and the description was changed to “Will be deleted.” The announcement was made in a series of colorful Instagram stories where the admins explained their decision, apologized publicly and urged students not to move, “especially to high risk areas (Claremont, Hawaii, New York, etc…).”
“We know that it is hard and some people showed disappointment that this account will be deleted, but we believe that this is the best action in keeping Claremont, the residents, and everyone safe.”
The posts then turned to the original intention of the account: to help those in need of safe, secure housing for a semester away from home. “But if you are someone who seriously needs help to find housing for any personal reasons, please contact someone from 7C talents and we would see what we can do to help you.”
As of this article’s publication, the account has been renamed @deleted_update. It has no posts, no bio and 610 followers. The first admin said they plan to make it into a fundraising account for mutual aid.
‘It just got out of control’: Now, a fresh start
The interviews with the account admins were poignantly regretful. Both said they had reflected on mistakes they said they made and expressed hope to do better. They hoped that interviewing with TSL would be a chance to explain their original intentions and show how a goal to help could spiral out of control.
“I just really wish that people, especially the upperclassmen on Twitter, know that we are also first generation, low-income students who are managing this account,” the first admin said. “And we’re not doing this for fun, but we [did] this because we actually wanted to help others. And it just got out of control.”
In the place of @5C_roomiesss, an account called @7C_Talents was created. The account’s first admin said they will continue to be involved, while the other will take a permanent break from Instagram account moderation.
For those that run the account, it is an attempt to start fresh. They have already begun encouraging mutual aid donations via their story and have featured a singer and a photographer.
“We [want] people to connect, to have fun virtually while encouraging people to stay home,” a @5C_roomiesss Instagram story said of the new account.
“We believe that this account can help people create friends, feel less lonely, and inspire them.”
This article was last updated January 15, 2021 at 10:02 a.m.
Maria Heeter SC ’22 is an economics major from Dover, New Hampshire. She previously served as TSL’s fall 2020 editor-in-chief.