On one of my first days as a freshman at Brown, I remember standing in line for the dining hall by myself. I was petrified to go in alone.
I found comfort when the first-year in front of me told me he didn’t know anyone, either. Neither did the guy behind me. We all ate together. None of us are close today, but the ability to just sit with each other at lunch helped me feel like I could make it in this new landscape. That’s what I remember most from my first year at Brown: a perpetual pit in my stomach that could only be eased by constantly surrounding myself with people in order to feel less alone.
The freshman class this year doesn’t have that option. Frankly, neither does the rest of the student body. The COVID-19 pandemic snatched away socialization, and the impacts are brutal — a crisis of social, emotional and mental health. A recent survey found that 63 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds reported symptoms of anxiety or depression. Twenty-five percent reported increased substance use, and 25 percent said they'd “seriously considered suicide.” In another survey, loneliness and social isolation during the pandemic were found to be top contributors to mental health issues. Meanwhile, several research teams found that younger people fared worse emotionally than older people did throughout the pandemic.
Yet Brown has failed to implement enough safe and sufficient options for social interaction, leaving many students isolated, depressed and unsure of how to follow Brown’s COVID campus safety policy while still seeing friends. According to campus rules, students are only allowed to socialize indoors and without a mask if they are with members of their pod.
Since the semester started, first-years have flooded Dear Blueno — a Facebook page for students to make anonymous posts — with the emotional impacts of isolation and the immense difficulties they’ve faced making new friends in the COVID environment. First-years I’ve spoken to echo these same sentiments.
“I’m basically stuck here in my room all day, which is not good for making friends,” one first-year told me. “I have a lot of friends from high school and online that I still keep in contact with, and those people are the people who are saving me emotionally right now.”
And what of those who don’t have that support system? Even for an upperclassman living off campus, like myself, it can be a struggle to find safe ways to see people outside of the roommate pod — one I unknowingly committed to when I signed a lease back in 2019 — due to freezing temperatures, snowy weather and limited daylight. Must we rely on the whims of the Providence weather to socialize safely outside?
It seems a University with a $4.7 billion endowment should have solutions. But it has come up remarkably short. Several first-year students I spoke with indicated that they felt University-sponsored opportunities to explicitly meet other first-years dropped off since orientation, even though none of them had yet found their pod or felt they were given much direction on how to do so. This leaves them in a position of sacrificing COVID safety for social interaction, or vice versa.
“It feels like — and maybe this is partially because the school hasn’t given us any other alternatives — in order to meet people, you have to make a COVID risk tradeoff,” another first-year said. “You just have to hang out with a lot of people in a basement lounge. There’s not really an alternative when it’s really cold outside.”
As for the senior class, the Class Coordinating Boards hosts Zoom events, like trivia nights. And I thank them for this, but I am Zoom-ed out. Throughout this winter, I’ve been waiting for good weather so I can see my friends comfortably. Given that it’s the last year before my friends and acquaintances are scattered across the world, I fear I’m wasting precious time.
But when I started looking into it, I realized that universities facing similar wintry weather to Providence are finding ways for students to see each other safely outside. In New York, Columbia erected tents around campus to use for social gatherings, dining spaces and leisure. Notre Dame University in Indiana added string lights, fire pits and heated tents to its quad. Villanova University in Philadelphia also made heated tents available. Brown put up tents early fall semester, but they disappeared this semester and did not offer any heating.
Say the University feared this infrastructure might mean too many interactions between different pods (though preliminary studies find that coronavirus transmission occurs at much lower levels outdoors). The least the University could do, then, is provide something for pods to do other than sit at home. After all, Brown barred on-campus students from going off-campus to go shopping, to bars, to dine or to recreation facilities. But without things to do, students who are trying to follow the rules find themselves stuck at home, and may rely more heavily on substances to have fun on a Friday night.
So, why not get creative? The University could buy and distribute board games, meal prep packages, projectors for students to watch TV together or offer more streaming services. It could offer vouchers for students to order dinner from off-campus restaurants on weekends.
Yet Brown has not implemented these options — not the outdoor gathering spaces, nor the smaller activities. Instead, they’ve focused on enforcing its COVID campus safety policy, without offering students channels to thrive socially while abiding by restrictions. By providing campus heaters, lights and tents, as well as social activities for pods to take part in, the University may minimize the number of students breaking its safety policy in the first place, all while giving students a chance to maintain community and retain some semblance of a social life.
Celia Hack '21 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.