Undergraduates Reflect on a Spring Semester in Quarantine

Two FHI students shared their thoughts on coping with a semester upended by the threat of COVID-19

With daily lives that are typically intrinsically tied to a campus community, the experience of undergraduate university students has been drastically altered by the global onset of SARS-CoV-2 - or, as it is often referred to, coronavirus or COVID-19. During the week of Duke's Spring Recess (March 6th - 14th), the university administration issued a message to all its students that they should not return to campus at the end of the week if possible, effectively extending the break by another week. Over the following days, while faculty and administrators wrestled with the implications of a global pandemic, it became clear that this order would persist past a single week and would end up drastically reshaping the campus landscape for the remainder of the semester. Crowded classes shifted to remote instruction, while libraries, quads, and dinning halls remained all but empty. Both instructional and social paradigms were suddenly transformed into something most of us hadn't experienced or anticipated. Friends and colleagues were scattered to the far reaches of the country or even across the globe. However, what followed was an unprecedented movement to adapt to the situation. As a generation that is perhaps more connected in the digital sense than any to come before, young college students across the world began to come up with new and inventive ways to make the most of a less-than-ideal situation. A few weeks ago we asked some of our undergraduate work study students to reflect on the later half of their spring semester, and on the unique solutions they came up with to combat the limitations of physical isolation.

Lizzie Butcher
Senior, English

As a senior whose final semester at Duke has been cut short, I decided to remain in Durham and to try to make the most of my time here. My past few weeks here have certainly been marked by emotional tumult as I’ve grappled with the reality of being unable to reach sick family members overseas and being separated from my nuclear family in New York, but I have found peace in the quiet streets of Durham. The garden shop on Ninth Street remains open to curbside deliveries and has packed the sidewalks with bouncing tulips and bright hydrangeas that remind me of my mother’s garden at home. The sky is almost always a deep blue and I am woken up every morning by the sound of birds. It is comforting to run the familiar East Campus loop and spot the faces of friends, classmates and professors who are seeking similar solace in the sunshine. In pursuit of new terrain, I’ve begun exploring the neighborhoods beyond East Campus and the nature trails past the School of Science and Mathematics. Whereas I’ve previously felt like a guest in Durham, only temporarily residing here while I finish my studies at Duke, it has truly come to feel like home within the past few weeks. As the hum of Duke’s campus activity has been temporarily muted, the colors and comforts of Durham have shown brighter than ever before.

I’ve been quarantined with a few friends in my apartment building on Ninth Street. We’ve each taken to our own routine of sorts to fill the spaces between Zoom lectures: one housemate has accounted for her entire week in twenty-minute intervals, while another has committed herself to going on at least an hour long solitary walk every day, while a third has created an Insanity exercise account and rallied us all to participate in the sweat-inducing festivities. Another friend previously attended Wilson’s weekly kickboxing class so often that she remembers the routines and has become our instructor every Friday morning. We’ve rolled up the carpets and stacked the furniture against the wall to make room for an improvised kickboxing studio. We’ve seen the living room converted to a movie theater with the help of a borrowed film projector and the recently acquired skill of air-popping popcorn kernels in a heated pot over the stove. Our kitchens have never been cleaner (because what else is there to do?) and we’ve taken to cooking communal meals, assembled from various pantry items and frozen Trader Joe’s delicacies, and suddenly there is no rush to leave the dinner table. Takeout-inclined friends have tried their hand at preparing their own meals, we’ve collectively gotten very creative with canned-food combinations and I’ve tried vegan cooking. We’ve found comfort in each other’s company because, as my Mom put it over the phone, “you’re each other’s family now.” Indeed, we stand as a “household” as we wait on line at the grocery store before it opens at 9 am. We’ve taken each new day as an opportunity to make an activity out of any mundane task.

It has certainly been an adjustment to reconfigure discussion-based, intimate classes to fit Zoom technology. It can be difficult to focus on writing papers and finishing problem sets when our email inboxes and phone notifications are flooded with ever-changing news headlines and rumors. Yet there is also a certain solace to be found in reading the words of authors and thinkers who lived through worse. I’ve begun Mrs. Dalloway and been awed by the subtle ways in which Virginia Woolf honors the victims of World War I, explores the repercussions of trauma, but finds merriment and community in the streets of London. Paper deadlines, however daunting, have forced me to focus on realities other than my present one and have infused my afternoons with purpose. Completing assignments allowed the weeks to pass more quickly and provided interval senses of accomplishment at a time in which it seems we are being forced to stand entirely still.

As I look towards leaving Duke in the coming week, it is disappointing to think that graduation will pass with little ceremony (for now). My friends and I have assembled the ingredients to bake a ridiculous cake and decorate it entirely in Duke Blue to commemorate the occasion in our own way. Although I have missed the traditional rhythms of LDOC, Perkins all-nighters, weekend day-parties and the end-of-year migration to Myrtle beach, I have relished in the quiet moments shared between friends as we all grapple with a new reality together, and I truly do believe this time has strengthened our bond. I try to take comfort in the thought that, even though I will pack up my apartment and drive away from the city I’ve called home for four years, it is not goodbye yet. I know that we will all reunite on campus at some point, whenever that may be, to celebrate our legacy as the Class of 2020.

Alexandra Rivera
Freshman, Engineering

I could have never foreseen this ending to my freshman year. I was just getting into the swing of things in terms of classes, friends, and extracurriculars. There were so many activities on campus that I was looking forward to. Becoming a remote student took away much of that, and brought its own academic and social challenges. For starters, learning from a computer does little justice to what much of Duke classes have to offer. Especially for me, as an engineer, the hands-on projects and labs that defined most of my classes were disrupted. My final Civil Engineering project, for example, was to create a large tower on the quad in front of Hudson Hall with my classmates. No longer able to do so, the project has been minimized to miniature towers each person builds on their own. Learning online, therefore, makes it difficult to connect with people in the same way that we were able to the first half of the semester. And lastly, without clubs, sports or jobs during the day it can be discouraging if the only focus is waking up, doing homework, and going back to sleep. With all of this free time, it can be difficult to stay motivated and easy to lose track of schoolwork.

More than ever, it is important to embrace optimism. I try to frame my days in the mindset of waking up with determination, and going to sleep with satisfaction. The fact that I am no longer at Duke is hard, but it has allowed me to really focus on improving myself in that way. To keep myself busy, I have made it a point to exercise every single day. Some days I go on walks and runs with my sister. Other nights I FaceTime my younger cousin and we keep each other company as we do workout videos on YouTube together. Exercising has given my day a sense of structure, and it has also helped improve my mood. During these past few weeks, I also have found some new hobbies. I have always enjoyed drawing, but I have never been particularly great at it. Now since I have had the opportunity to practice, my skills are improving and I am enjoying it even more. Another artistic element of my day includes bullet journaling. To me, bullet journaling is a creative organizational tool for managing my time. Each week, I create a layout of my tasks and goals. Each page has its own color scheme, theme, and unique personality. All the colored pencils and markers I have been accumulating over the years are finally going to good use! Creating and maintaining these pages is something I look forward to. Through journaling, I have taken a productive and positive outlook on the way I approach my weeks.

Exercise, drawing and bullet journaling have allowed me to stay true to my goals of being productive. In addition, another meaningful consequence of this situation is that staying home allows me to spend time with my family. For me, the transition from high school to college went by in an instant. One minute I was going to high school each day and staying in the comfort of my own home at night. Before I knew it, I was in a new state with new people, living on a large campus far from home. I kept in frequent contact with my parents and my younger sister often, but it was still not the same. Now that I am home, I see this as a time to reconnect with my family and my childhood. I miss Duke more than I can state in words, but honestly this is a chance I might have never otherwise gotten in college.

This time will pass and normalcy will resume. But in the meantime, my connection with Duke is far from severed. I have still been able to keep my work-study job. I have kept in touch with faculty, and I FaceTime with my friends from school almost every other night. Exercising will keep me in shape for my next club lacrosse season, and drawing and bullet journaling will become habits that will serve me well next school year. Life goes by so quickly that it can be hard to take a step back. While it is necessary to understand the gravity of this pandemic, I also encourage everyone to take this time to evaluate and embrace what is meaningful to them.