I live on your campus. And I definitely wish you were here.
My family and I live on one of the thousands of college campuses across the globe that abruptly closed in the wake of the pandemic.
When I say that we live on campus, I mean we literally live in one of the residential colleges that houses hundreds of first and second year student at a private mid-western university. I am accustomed to the sights and sounds of scores of undergraduates living their lives within a few feet of us at all hours of the day and night. Between our lives and theirs is one single doorway, and every time we leave our apartment and enter the dorm it’s a hilarious joy ride.
It’s bananas here. We love it.
We were invited to move into a faculty apartment attached to the “res college” in 2018 for a four-year stint. The university does this to build community between faculty, of which my husband is a member, and students. We’re here to inject a neighborly, civilizing influence in the dorms. We’ve consistently done our part by baking cookies and passing them out during finals, and the students have upheld their end by teaching my kids that college is pretty much just an endless stream of a Capella concerts and publicly dolled out advice on avoiding STD’s.
Of course, this isn’t currently the case. Not right now.
The order to close the university came in March. Three days before, such a scenario was inconceivable. Two days before, there were rumors. One day before, Harvard fell, and by then we assumed it was coming. Unlike some schools, it was the middle of Spring Break for us, and the announcement unleashed frantic chaos.
At first, I was horrified by the number of people who swarmed back to campus to empty their rooms as quickly as possible, despite emails from the administration begging them to stay away. It took all my frayed and remaining self-restraint to keep from public shaming on social media. I expected that our entire community would experience an outbreak as whole families accompanied their students on desperate cross-country sprints to pack. But this frustration eventually yielded to shell shock as the flow of traffic slowed to a trickle and a stunned stillness settled over abandoned piles of useless belongings and dorm room trash. While some student suites were empty, debris-filled husks, many more were sealed time capsules of students who were unable to get back before the doors locked for good.
Once the dust settled in our building, which normally houses 200 students, a small handful of international and otherwise homeless students remained. They literally had nowhere to go, so they were given permission to stay. The university requested that we give them as much social distance as possible, so I immediately left post-its on each of their doors reminding them that we were there if they needed us, but I didn’t knock. My daughter made cupcakes and left them on paper plates by their doors, but we soon decided even that was unwise.
That was six weeks ago. Now, we are living in a relative sea of silence.
So, what happened next? I’m glad you asked!
It has taken some time to get over the shock of seeing this large and thriving community suddenly evaporate, leaving us uniquely isolated among eerily empty dorms, laboratories, and lecture halls. There are a few other families living here, and we check in with each other across courtyards during several walks every day. It feels like we should be having parties, throwing frisbees, and allowing our dogs to chase each other through carefully groomed landscaping, as we normally do when the students are away, but of course we can’t. We chat long enough to confirm that nobody has started seeing dead twin girls in the hallways of their buildings just yet, and then go about our solitary business.
Every family here has fallen into a routine, the size of our old lives suddenly feeling like a limitless universe compared to our quarantine inside the ivory tower. We aren’t caretakers — that job has gone to the small crew of dedicated employees working to maintain buildings and grounds, and see to the very limited needs of the students who remain. We are residents, limited in purpose, on a campus over which we feel very protective. We are witnesses to countless interrupted student lives, surrounded by their rooms, their footpaths, their bicycles, and the gaping spaces they once filled. We are living ghosts with no idea how long we will stay.
But it isn’t all loneliness and isolation! The stillness is definitely some Stephen King psycho thriller bullshit, but we adapted. The campus has moved forward and pulled us along, like barnicles on a whale.
Here’s what happened next.
The massive trash heap left behind threatened to bury us all
Students left an epic amount of useless garbage. Unopened Ramen and Pop-tarts, empty plastic storage bins, mostly unbroken full-length mirrors, discarded posters from landscapes they’ve never visited, and an endless assortment of semi-functional electronic equipment made up the majority of the temporary landfill in the quad. My children picked it over for snacks that I would normally never buy and the odd lava lamp, but mostly the housekeeping staff made careful piles for donations to local organizations, and filled dumpsters to the brim with whatever couldn’t be salvaged. Despite their efforts, it looked like horrifying waste. The pile of abandoned belongings should have given any rampant consumer pause. The key take-away is that 90% of the things college students own is totally unnecessary, and 100% of them who evacuated in a hurry knows it.
We’ve all become dogs now when it comes to campus traffic
Trucks don’t drive themselves, and if one comes thundering by, that means something is happening! We get so excited, you’d think they were each here to pass out ice cream. Fire trucks, tow trucks, moving trucks, delivery trucks, and even armored trucks all have a reason for being here, and watching them grind by breaks the monotony. The noisiest of them trigger us to pause Netflix and wonder aloud about their purpose. Fedex and Amazon trucks still arrive like clockwork, though in much smaller form factors. Their white and blue vehicles are greeted with the greatest fanfare of all because it is overwhelmingly likely that whatever they are delivering is for us.
Campus dining has never been more awesome. For real.
We’re incredibly lucky that the university has continued to operate minimal food services for those left behind, but it’s taken some creativity. While the meals-ready-to-eat on order from the student center are quite delicious, my family and I are stretching the bounds of creative meal prep based on what we are able to buy at the campus convenience store, which has remained open. The good news is that I haven’t had to go to an actual grocery store in two weeks. The bad news is that I am now totally comfortable pounding Scoops as a healthy snack and raw cookie dough directly from the cellophane tube for dessert.
Campus cops are the coolest people here and I don’t care who knows it
The Campus PD is an essential service. This place is way too big for the small number of people living here, and we definitely need supervision. I warms my heart every time I spot a member of the force. They roam the halls so frequently that I’ve stopped screeching in surprise when I run into one of them while padding around in my bare feet emptying my trash. They are busy running a tight ship and breaking up some large outdoor gatherings, but I’ve also seen them cracking down on locals who have been using campus as their own personal off-leash dog run. But that might be because some crazy woman has been screaming like a banshee at people about their damn dogs from her patio for weeks.
Oh wait- that crazy woman is me.
Wildlife moved in and they don’t give a fuck
Mostly the birds.
Although we have nothing larger than an ornimental fountain on campus, the campus is a huge aviary now. A flock of ducks took up residence outside our bedroom window and they start quacking at 5am. Robins have been nesting in doorways and window sills that would have usually been disrupted by rowdy students to safely hatch their eggs. And birds of prey are perched everywhere, scanning campus for something to eat. Presumably, they are finding what they are looking for. It isn’t unusual to see birds here, but it’s bordering on Hitchcock these days.
Before campus was abandoned, we made an effort to play the role of cohesive family that never yelled at each other and always wore pants. Now, the gloves are off and we’re letting our freak flag fly. I no longer hush my children when they scream bloody murder at each other while doing dinner dishes. I have started taking my dog out to pee in the quad wearing a bathrobe and little else. And my husband and I barely bother to stifle our own arguments now that there aren’t 200 other-peoples-kids in very close proximity to witness our marital breakdown. The few students left in our building can be sworn to secrecy, I figure. What happens during quarantine stays in quarantine.
So, what happens next?
Honestly, we have no idea. I wish we did. I was hoping you might…
Students, we never expected to live here like this on your campus. We never expected to be the ones left behind. This is your place, and we were the ones who were privileged enough to be invited to enjoy it alongside you. We know it broke your hearts to leave, and it broke ours too to watch you go. But we’re here, and so are many, many others whose actual jobs it is to keep things up and running. Your campus and community are surviving for you so that you’ll have the homecoming you deserve when the time is right.
Keep yourself and your loved ones safe. Make the very best decisions to contribute to the greater good. Do your homework and look to your futures. Your university is warm and alive and planning for the road ahead. And we cannot wait to welcome you home.