Guest Writer Sophia Gates delves into the lives of Barnard students staying on campus during the pandemic to share some of their experiences.
As soon as Barnard announced its decision to move to online classes for the two days prior to Spring Break, Lynn C. was worried. A self-described “disaster movie freak,” she felt certain that the situation was only going to escalate. And her first thought was about what this would mean for her housing.
Lynn, who is a sophomore and wants to be identified by her middle name, has not been back to her hometown in Alabama since her family unexpectedly withdrew emotional support for her at the beginning of her freshman year. She says that she hasn’t had any meaningful communication with a family member in two years, beyond discussing logistics about topics like insurance and financial aid.
Her suspicion that classes were going to be held remotely for the remainder of the semester made her ask an important question: would she be able to continue living on campus? Though initially reassured by the language in President Beilock’s email on March 12th, which said that students whose “personal circumstances necessitate” that they stay on campus could do so, Lynn says she was concerned again when a suitemate, who she saw as having valid reasons to stay, was not granted the approval needed to remain in Barnard housing.
When asked via email, Barnard declined to comment on the details of the criteria used to determine which students could stay on campus, citing privacy concerns.
During this era of stay-at-home orders and social distancing, many Barnard and Columbia students have left campus to isolate themselves with their families. But for some Barnard students, staying with family is either not a viable option or not a safe or desirable one. There are currently 126 students remaining in campus housing, out of the 2,635 undergraduate student population. These students are facing unique pressures and stresses as they navigate living in dorms without most of their peers. They say that the anxieties that have come with this new life—concerns about housing, financial worries, and even fears of catching the virus—have been affecting their work in class.
Lynn now feels secure that she has housing for the rest of the semester, but she still worries about the future. With Barnard suspending all summer programs, she had to find somewhere else to stay by herself. And she is very concerned about the possibility that the college may decide to continue operating remotely for the fall semester, saying that she doesn’t know what that would look like for her.
“My biggest problem has been that I have not been able to sleep at all,” she said, mentioning that her insomnia has been caused by anxiety over summer housing and the challenges that have arisen with the situation in general. She added, “I don’t have a fallback if shit doesn’t work out.” Lynn also said that not being able to go out as much has contributed to her sleeplessness, as she is using less energy during the day.
Her trouble sleeping has had a big impact on her classes. She described herself as in a “constant state of delirium” for weeks and said that she struggles to get work done when she is this tired.
Like Lynn, A. Silerio, who chose not to use her first name, said that she did not feel secure about her housing in the beginning because Barnard did not send out official approval letters letting people know that they could remain on campus. At home in L.A., A. lives in a small apartment with her parents and grandmother, which factored into her decision not to go back. When she decided to stay, she had to think about how she would support herself.
“One thing that was really scary was not knowing if I was going to be able to work,” she said, saying she worried about buying food and essentials. She has ultimately been able to keep working shifts at the Barnard store for some income.
At times, it has felt like her peers do not fully grasp her situation.
“When I was talking about it [staying on campus] in class and people were like, ‘wait, how did you get to stay?’” she remembered, indicating that the question surprised her. She added, “I’m not trying to make people feel bad that I’m here, but I literally couldn’t go home.”
Anxieties and Stresses
Cindy, a Barnard senior, says that as an international student, she personally was not worried about being forced to leave. But the uncertainty surrounding the future was a huge source of stress.
“After the anger and then after the sadness, I started getting really anxious,” Cindy said. “There was a period where I’d cry every night.”
She describes getting heart pains due to anxiety, which she says she has never had before.
Cindy’s roommate, Cheyenne, who is also still living in the dorms, says that she has been very forgetful and that it has been difficult to stay focused and motivated. She said that the lack of routine did not fully explain her distractedness and partly attributed it to the unique stresses on seniors like herself, who have to think about jobs after graduation.
Sophomore J. Madden said that they have felt anxiety about catching the coronavirus while on campus, an anxiety they say Barnard has played a role in contributing to. J. says that residents of Plimpton Hall were asked to move into different residence halls all at the same time, leading to people congregating in the lobby with seemingly no administrative leadership there trying to keep people apart. According to J., they all used the same pen to sign a waiver form.
“Being insecure in my physical safety has made classes a second thought,” they said. They noted that it has been hard to focus in class, something other students also brought up.
When asked why Barnard decided to move students from their original residence halls, the College said that students being near to campus resources, including Primary Care Health Services and the Diana Center Cafe, was an important consideration, both for the sake of making these resources more easily accessible and to “limit risk of exposure” as students walk around campus and Morningside Heights. They also noted that “reducing the number of open residence halls was also a critical step to limit the number of Barnard’s essential employees who must travel to campus every day.” They added that the College has been working hard to educate people about health guidelines and maintaining mental health, as well as paying for movers to help students move to different residence halls.
For J., who is a low-income student, the cost of buying groceries has also been a worry now that they are unable to work. They try to minimize their reliance on dining halls, only eating there for dinner because they are trying to practice social distancing.
On top of having to deal with their own situation, J. feels the strain of being apart from loved ones.
“I can’t stop thinking about my family and my community,” they said. “Just, you know, working class people who are working at the grocery stores back home.” J. said that concern about their family’s safety has been one of their big anxieties.
The Transition to Online Classes
Several students emphasized that they felt supported by professors, who made changes in the syllabus to show students flexibility and ease up on the workload. Cindy said the majority of her professors have responded to her with “kindness and with love” when she communicates with them. One professor has even been delivering baked goods to her every other week.
However, the response to the situation from faculty has been varied. Cheyenne characterized her professors as “scattered.” Once or twice, she says, her professors forgot they had class. And she has noticed that professors don’t seem to be getting the same emails as students. Cindy said that weeks after the mandatory Pass/Fail policy was put into place, she had a professor who still seemed confused about the policy. She said that this professor has not changed the syllabus at all, despite the fact that the class has a heavy workload.
Bwog reached out to a professor to get another perspective on the transition to remote learning. Just as students are struggling to adapt, faculty members too are experiencing challenges in the new reality of online classes. Professor Daniela De Silva, Chair of the Barnard Department of Mathematics, mentioned in an email that, like many students, she too has felt anxious and had trouble focusing. She said that encouraging class participation and interaction have been a challenge when teaching remotely.
Professor De Silva also mentioned that pressure on faculty has increased and that professors also have to deal with their own personal lives at the same time. Despite this, Professor De Silva, like many other professors, has made an effort to be reachable for her students, which includes frequently checking email and being available for Zoom meetings at any time. She emphasized that “any effort to support the students is more than worth it” no matter the challenges.
For some students, their understanding of what being supported would mean did not align with their professors’. Cindy said one of her professors checks in with how everyone is doing at the beginning of class, but she is incredulous that she is expected to open up about her feelings in such a public forum, with around thirty students listening and the class being recorded on Zoom. The gesture feels empty to her, as the professor takes about thirty seconds per student and then moves on to start class.
“If you really, really cared,” Cindy said, “you would reach out to us individually.”
Cheyenne, listening to Cindy speak, agreed. “There’s definitely a disconnect between what we feel and think and what the professors think we feel,” she said.
Socializing on Campus
Some students said that they feel judgement from others about continuing to socialize with other students who are also living in residence halls. J. said that they think it can be upsetting for friends who are at home to see them with a group of friends on campus. “The reality is,” said J., “I would just be alone if I wasn’t with this group.”
Lynn feels guilty about continuing to see the two friends she has on campus, as well as for feeling unmotivated academically. But she also knows that there are limits to what she can cope with on her own.
Though she is often praised for her independence, Lynn says that she can’t “do it all” in the current situation. She said that being completely socially isolated and also being fully committed to her schoolwork was just not feasible for her.
“There are many people who would be quick to point out all the things that I’m doing wrong,” Lynn said. But, she said, “This is often even more traumatic for the people that … aren’t supported.”
Student Reflections on Their Situation
Several students made a point of saying that they were grateful for aspects of their situation. Cindy was upset by the idea that anyone would think that students still in residence halls are taking their situation for granted, saying that they know they are lucky to be able to stay. She said that she knew several people who were forced to leave campus. A. Silerio said that she has felt supported by her friends, who know that she is still at Barnard. And J. Madden spoke with concern and gratitude about the essential workers who still come to work on Barnard’s campus.
“ I hope the workers feel like they’re being fairly treated [by the school],” said J., “because they’re putting their lives at risk [by coming into work].”
J. feels thankful for all that these workers do to make staying in residence halls possible for students. Despite all the upheaval that has come with living at Barnard right now, J. says that Barnard is their home. They say that they feel supported by the Barnard community, something others also said. J. knows that members of their family are upset that they decided not to come home, but they are confident that they made the right decision.
“When I think of home, I don’t think about going back somewhere that doesn’t feel like home,” J. said. “I think about being here and making my home here.”
Editors’ Note, 5/12 6:20 PM: This article was changed to reflect the correct date President Beilock sent her initial email.
Sultz Tower via Bwog Archives