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One year later: Brown’s journey through COVID-19

A year after COVID-19 upended University operations, students reflect on last days on campus, pandemic’s continuing effects

At this time of the year in 2020, College Hill woke up to its typical bustling scene. Students left their doubles and triples and headed to packed lecture halls and huddled around eight-person tables at the Sharpe Refectory.   

Colin Olson ’23 was just getting acclimated during his second semester at the University. Olson divided his time between taking classes, playing field hockey with his club team and teaching soccer at a local community center, carving out time to enjoy the first glimpses of sunlight from the early New England spring.

While Olson’s father was visiting him on campus right after his birthday that February, he gave Olson a couple of N95 masks. “Why would I need these?” Olson wondered at the time. ”My dad was just like, ‘Hold on to them in case something crazy happens.’”

Before an unprecedented time 

That March, Annie Wang ’22 was buried in midterms. Wang, a Chinese international student, said she was already “pretty scared” and concerned about COVID-19, as she had family members under strict lockdown at home. Still, she went on with her daily life.

Initially, the virus did not really worry Anna House ’20, who had first heard about COVID-19 from a friend studying abroad in China.

But as the spring blossomed, so too did concerns about a pandemic that would soon take root in the United States.

Rumors about positive cases on College Hill pervaded campus. 

Between March 6 and March 12, students’ inboxes were saturated with emails from the University administration. In a span of six days, the University went from restricting events of more than 100 attendees to canceling varsity sports along with the rest of the Ivy League, to fully canceling classes on March 12.

“It kind of felt like a wave of everything starting to close,” said Tommy Bellaire ’23. “My brother’s high school was closing; my mom and my dad’s work was closing, and it became apparent that Brown was going to close too.”

A series of closures and announcements

“We were just waiting for the ball to drop,” said Aanya Parikh ’21. 

From March 6 onward, Parikh and her group of friends were awaiting the inevitable from Brown as colleges across New England announced new shutdowns every day, feeling increasingly concerned by the University’s seemingly delayed response.

As an international student from India, Parikh scrambled to buy flights back home amongst a sea of uncertainty about the University’s plan, as well as misinformation and questions about whether or not her country would lock down. Her last few days on campus saw a rushed trip to Home Depot to buy boxes as campus faced a temporary shortage right before the announcement. She tried to pack two semesters worth of belongings from her New Dorm suite into a series of boxes that she couldn’t even put in storage because of the timing of her flight.

“I was honestly just stressed,” Parikh said. “I was really sad that I couldn’t see my friends … and felt like I couldn’t say goodbye to them.”

A continent away, Elizabeth Wells ’21 also scrambled to find her way home from her study abroad program in Granada. 

Whispers of Wells’ program shutting down arose with the closure of the Brown study abroad programs in Italy, Wells said. With cases in Spain hitting the thousands that week, Wells was told by her program director that ongoing travel bans would likely send them home, as Spain would soon reach Level 3 of the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 risk assessment. Still, at that time, Wells and members of the Brown in Granada program were given the option to stay one more week. 

Planning to return in a few days later, Wells culminated her last days in Granada by eating delicious meals with her host family and spending her last night with her friends overlooking the south of Spain  from the Alhambra, a mid-13th century mosque open to the public. Later that evening, Wells headed to a local club to reminisce on her last days in the Iberean Peninsula.

“I will never forget that because I remember we were in the club and then Trump made the announcement” that all American citizens must return to the United States as soon as possible because of a newly issued travel ban to Europe, she said. “Everyone started crying.”

Luckily, Wells’ mother was awake in the United States when the announcement came out, and was able to “rebook the already rebooked” flight to bring her daughter home.

“We were all in kind of fight or flight mode. All that we wanted was to get home,” Wells said. “I just remember being on the flight home completely booked to the brim, people packed next to each other, half of the people who were on Spring Break in Barcelona or Madrid and the other half were just study abroad students.”

Soon after she left, Spain enforced a national lockdown that closed down its borders and prohibited anyone from leaving the country.

In Providence, House watched campus pack up as she and the members of her house planned to stay in College Hill for the rest of the semester.

In one last gathering on March 14, House, her housemates and some other friends were celebrating the last few moments they had together when the University announced that a member of the community had tested positive. Surrounded by drinks and treasuring these final fleeting moments together, her friends who lived on campus desperately called their parents as they tried to understand what the announcement meant for their plans.

Like Parikh, Bellaire’s last days on campus were occupied by “putting everything into boxes” and trying to say goodbye to all of his friends a semester sooner than he expected, not knowing when he would be able to see them again.

“It feels kind of like a fever dream that actually happened, that life just changed so dramatically in the span of a week,” Bellaire said. “I am impressed that I was able to actually pack up and move so quickly.”

Olson also said that his final days on campus were filled with last meals on the Andrews terrace and conversations on the Main Green, which was still populated with students playing Frisbee and Spikeball.

“If I am being honest it didn’t feel like campus was shutting down in stages,” Olson said. “It wasn’t like everything occurred in steps, where one day we wear masks, the next day were six feet apart … it seemed like we went from being relatively out of a COVID era to just being in one overnight as soon as we got sent home.”

The new normal

After she arrived at the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, Wells started “bawling her eyes out” when she saw her parents waiting to pick her up.

After a nine-hour flight, Wells had to wait in line in customs for more than three hours right after she landed. She had no personal protective equipment since most of the PPE had already been sold out in Spain, and she tried to cover her face with a jacket while stuck in a packed room where social distancing was not enforced.

Ten days later, Wells tested positive for COVID-19.

“It was even more unknown (at the time) what the virus was like and what the symptoms you could have (were),” Wells said. “There was no immediate remedy for having COVID.”

Wells contracted a severe case of COVID-19, uncommon for people her age, which left her unable to complete her remote classes from the University of Granada for two to three months. She still feels the effects of the sickness to this day.

Olson, who attended boarding school for all of high school, said that being back home and having to entirely migrate his school life to his home felt displacing. 

“It had been the first time I had used my desk to do my homework since eighth grade, so it felt like I was almost living in a sort of doll house — like everything was shrunken down,” he said.

Wang felt a similar feeling of peculiarity as she stayed on College Hill for the remainder of the spring semester in a University dorm. Because her visa would expire in August, Wang stayed in Providence on a campus that now was only sparsely populated by some passing local community members. Wang had to acclimate herself to grab-and-go meals and a pared down social life. 

The last days on campus for House meant sheltering in place with her nine housemates as they watched apocalypse movies over the first weeks after the University canceled classes.

For House, the rest of the semester “just felt really depressing.” She tried her best to finish her two other classes, as both her Independent Study lab and Capstone project were canceled, unable to be replicated online.

As the semester ended, House and her friends gathered around their living room to watch their virtual Commencement ceremony. 

“It’s such a major event, and most people didn’t experience what my class got to experience,” House said. 

365 days of a pandemic 

A year later in 2021, College Hill woke up to a new — but changed — bustling scene. Students lightly sprint around Wriston Quad with brown paper bags in hand and  masks donned as they rush to sit in distanced classrooms or back to their single rooms to start a day of packed Zoom rooms.

“Everyone automatically adapted to it,” Parikh said. She recalls thinking, a year ago, that life may be back to normal in a matter of months.  

Olson also had similar expectations, believing that by the summer or fall the pandemic would have subsided.

”The idea that it could last for more than a year was something that was really shocking,” Olson said.

As a public health concentrator, Wells felt more pessimistic about the course of the crisis. Still, she was surprised by the duration of the pandemic and its lasting effects on her and society more broadly. Because of her experience with COVID-19 and the healthcare system, Wells plans to pursue a master’s degree in public health at the University.

The pandemic also brought new meaning to the concept of home for Wang, who has stayed in the United States since the start of the pandemic. “Before COVID, I saw going home as something that was really easy,” she said. Wang added that the pandemic has allowed her to develop skills like cooking, cleaning and self-care.

Bellaire echoed a similar feeling, adding that the pandemic has made him “more aware of issues related to …  education and related to social justice,” and also about accessibility and his own mental health.

The anniversary “makes me reminiscent of when things were in person and I could talk to people outside of my cohort and not wear a mask everywhere and have classes in person that are bigger than 20 people,'' he said. “It makes me long for a sense of normalcy to think back especially to that time that normalcy stopped.”



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