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This week, we look back on the weeks leading up to Brown’s announcement that campus would close down because of COVID-19, and the experiences that students had after that announcement. One year after Brown sent students home, we speak to University News Editor Livia Gimenes, who interviewed half a dozen students about how their lives changed after March 12, 2020.




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Ben Glickman 

I'm Ben Glickman, and you're listening to The Bruno Brief, from the Brown Daily Herald and WBRU. Each week, we take you inside one of The Brown Daily Herald’s top stories. On March 12, 2020, just over a year ago, Brown announced that campus would shut down. Most had to go home, as a pandemic that had already reached most of the world began to spread across America. This week, we look back on the chaos, confusion and fear students felt in the days before and after that announcement. We're joined by University News Editor Livia Gimenes. Livia, thanks for being with us.

Livia Gimenes 

Thanks so much for having me on the show, Ben.

Ben Glickman 

So Livia, take us back to the beginning of March 2020. COVID-19 was ravaging other parts of the world, but cases hadn't really started to rise in the United States yet. What was campus like back then?

Livia Gimenes 

Yeah, so basically, campus in spring 2020 seemed vaguely normal, like most years. The spring was coming up. And most of the students that I've talked to, they were having a really good semester. Most of them described being involved and engaged in their classes. The two students who were first-years at the time, who I talked to, Colin Olson and Tommy Bellaire, they described to me just getting a sense of being acclimated and feeling part of the community for the first time.

Ben Glickman 

Here's Colin Olson.

Colin Olson 

I was really enjoying the spring semester. I had a good set of classes, I was playing club hockey, I was doing some work for the local soccer team in Providence. I was feeling really happy about being on campus and really plugged into the community.

Ben Glickman 

When did students' concerns about a pending pandemic start to take hold on campus?

Livia Gimenes 

So different students that I spoke to had different perspectives on the pandemic. One of the students that I talked to, Annie Wang, she's an international student from China and when she returned from China, in that January, the pandemic was already hitting China and causing a few close-downs there.

Annie Wang 

Back in January, my parents and my family, they were locked down. COVID was quite bad in China, so I already know how bad it could be. But I think personally, I wasn't super cautious of it. I didn't wear any masks before Brown sent us home. It was really after Brown sent that email that I began to wear a mask and treat it seriously.

Livia Gimenes 

One student that I talked to — Colin — he mentioned that it was mid-February, a few days before his birthday, his dad had come up to campus to visit him and his dad had handed him a packet of N95 masks.

Colin Olson 

I was kind of like, ‘Why would I need these? This isn't going to be a real issue.’ But my dad was sort of convinced like okay, just hold onto them in case anything kind of crazy happened. So I just sort of didn't really think too much about it. But obviously as COVID became a bigger and bigger issue and more of a local issue, I remember being pretty scared.

Livia Gimenes 

Also, Tommy described to me at the beginning of the semester a similar situation with masks.

Tommy Bellaire 

I remember very vividly when I came back to Brown after winter break that I kind of heard about the coronavirus in the news and really hadn't thought much of it. And then one of my friends who lived down the hall from me, her mom had bought her a giant box of masks for her to keep in her dorm. But it was crazy because we all, including her, kind of dismissed it, like ‘Oh, this is not going to be anything of note.’

Livia Gimenes 

It was mainly when the virus was getting close to the community that most students started to think and started to talk about masks and the coronavirus — now things that we considered totally normal in the pandemic. 

Ben Glickman 

As the situation of COVID-19 in the United States and even in Rhode Island began to ramp up, what announcements did the University make to the student body about this pending crisis?

Livia Gimenes 

The first time the University had made its announcement relating to COVID-19, it was February 1. They made an announcement that students should be precautious of the virus, but that risk overall in Rhode Island remained low. It was in a faculty meeting on March 4 that President Paxson had addressed faculty telling them that there should not be major concerns about the virus, but that the faculty should be ready to move their courses online. On March 6, President Paxson wrote in an email that events with more than 100 attendees, besides classes, should be offered virtually, and all international travel was suspended. And then it was on March 12 that the University had announced that classes for the remainder of the semester would be virtual. Most of the students that I talked to described, basically, the virus not playing much role into their lives until those announcements. Brown wasn't alone in most of the decisions that it was making. Two days before Brown shut down, Harvard and MIT had canceled (their) classes, and Brown’s announcement did not seem much like a surprise. Most students kind of saw the writing on the wall as these other shutdowns came. And also, as the University slowly staggered its operations, it seemed like the University could not stay open in the capacity that it was in the rest of the spring semester. At the end, the University was the last of the Ivy Leagues to shut down.

Ben Glickman 

Here's Anna House, a student who (was) living off campus in the spring of 2020.

Anna House 

I was just predicting that Brown would also shut down and I was waiting for that, especially because I was so stressed with classes, I just wanted classes to be canceled. It felt like an in-person semester for the whole rest of the semester wasn't going to happen, and we were gonna at least need a short break. So it was very uncertain and stressful, but I think before the school shut down, I was mostly looking forward to it shutting down and frustrated that the admin was taking so long. We were just waiting for them to tell us that they were canceling classes because we knew it was coming.

Ben Glickman 

So how did the students that you spoke to spend their final days on campus after they sort of had this understanding that campus would be shut down relatively soon? 

Livia Gimenes 

Yeah. So the students that I talked to had showcased (to) me different experiences. A lot of students were just figuring out where they would go and what their next plans would be. Colin told me that it kind of felt like it was a fever dream. Like it wasn't really real that that was happening, because in the span of weeks, everything just had changed so quickly.

Colin Olson 

It wasn't like it all occurred in steps where one day we wear masks, the next day, we're 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.

Livia Gimenes 

Tommy described eating at dining halls and just reminiscing on the strange time they were feeling. 

Tommy Bellaire 

I remember very vividly the night before finding out that campus was closed and walking to the Ivy Room and then getting smoothies, I guess for the last time. And then, like, I remember saying something along the lines of 'Why does the coronavirus have to exist?' and then leaving the Ivy Room and just some random person telling us this, like, fact that kind of symbolized a lot of the feelings I was having at the time about the pandemic.

 Livia Gimenes 

Another student that I talked to — Elizabeth Wells — she was studying abroad. She faced a bit of a different situation because studying abroad, her announcement didn't necessarily depend 100 percent on the University's shutdown letter on March 12. But she had spoken previously with her program director. It was most likely that her and the other people at the program should leave the following day. 

Elizabeth Wells 

So there's this beautiful building in Granada called the Alhambra, that overlooks the whole city. And I just remember everyone in my program going up there and hanging out our last night. And that was really wonderful. It just kind of put a cap on the whole experience. And then also having homemade meals with my host family. We went clubbing the night before we left, so that was fun. I will never forget that because I remember we were in the club, and then Brown made the announcement. Everyone there was a study abroad student, and everyone started crying.

Ben Glickman 

A lot of students had to scramble to figure out how to move out from their dorms on short notice and how to figure out travel plans on short notice. Can you tell us about what students did to move out given this timeline for when they had to be out of the dorms?

Livia Gimenes 

A few students already had to move out earlier because they had to, for example, return to countries where the borders were reclosing. And students just tried to pack and to gather their things as fastly as they could. One of the students that I talked to — Aanya — she's from India, and she mentioned that as the University's plans were kind of uncertain, that left a sense of not knowing what she was going to do next.

 Aanya Parikh 

I booked my flight back to India on a Monday but then (there was) a lot of misinformation about when borders were shutting and stuff like that and one of my friends said that they were shutting super quickly, like over the weekend. So because he said that, I had to push my flight back and leave that Saturday. We had to go to Home Depot, get boxes, pack everything up in super, super quickly organized storage units. Luckily one of my friends was staying for a bit longer because he was an American citizen so he took all my boxes and put them in a storage unit because if he hadn't there's no way I would have been able to leave when I did. 

Livia Gimenes 

For the student that I mentioned that (were) studying abroad, being sent home was really a hustle because you had to deal with all the travel restrictions, scrambling to rebook her own flight.

Elizabeth Wells 

Everyone in our program pretty much rushed to get to go home. The next day, Spain decided to shut the borders on Sunday. So everyone then had to rebook their already-re-booked flights and try to find a flight to scramble home to. There was even someone in my program who almost didn't make it across the border. So I personally was lucky because my mom was awake during the announcement so she re-booked my flight as the announcement was occurring. At that time, all the masks in Spain had sold out. Very few of us had masks on the plane. I tried to cover my jacket over my face and airport, but that was pretty ineffective. And I just remember being on the flight home completely booked to the brim, people parked next to each other. And then when we got off the plane, they made us wait in this line for three to four hours to go through customs. They weren't even taking people’s temperature. People were not socially distancing at the time. I ended up testing positive 10 days later.

Ben Glickman 

So Livia, how did students adapt to the so-called 'new normal' that was waiting for them when they arrived home? 

Livia Gimenes 

Like I said again, students arrived to very different situations. Elizabeth Well, she had tested positive for COVID-19 when she got home. 

Elizabeth Wells 

I was bedridden for two months after I got COVID. I had a really bad case of COVID. I wasn't able to start my classwork until probably mid-May. It was pretty scary. At the time, I mean, it was even more unknown, what the virus was like and what symptoms you could have. I remember I was sent to the hospital probably three, four weeks into having it, and I just remember when they released me, the doctors were like, 'Okay, well, we don't really have any recommendations on how to help you.'

Livia Gimenes 

Other students also described a great feeling of estrangement and of taking classes from their childhood bedrooms.

Ben Glickman 

Here's Colin Olson.

Colin Olson 

I went to a boarding school for high school. So the thought of going home was so strange to me just because I remember sitting down for the first night of at-home homework, and it had been the first time I used my desk to do my homework at home since I was in eighth grade. So it felt like I was sort of living in almost a dollhouse. Like everything was shrunk-down in size. It was just so weird for me to be back in a space that I hadn't really used in that way for five years.

Ben Glickman 

What did the students you talked to take away from a year of this pandemic?

Livia Gimenes 

For Wells, who caught COVID and had to go through a struggle with the healthcare system, which was still adapting to COVID, at the time, said that the experience was really challenging for her but her pursuits with the healthcare system and COVID kind of inspired her to now pursue a master's degree in Public Health at the University, which is what she's going to be doing after she graduates this spring. For Wang, the student who stayed back, from China, she described to me a feeling of reinterpreting what home meant. She said that she just thought going home was really easy, because each semester she would just do it on breaks. But now, not being able to return home for almost over a year, she appreciated it more.

Ben Glickman 

So lastly, Livia, I want to ask you about your experience writing this story. I'm curious what it felt like for you to revisit all these memories from a year ago. We all went through this, so tell me a little bit about your experience.

Livia Gimenes 

Yeah, so I guess for me, writing the story was a very cathartic experience. It really made me appreciate how much I like writing, how much I appreciate journalism because of being able to communicate and revisit these stories and being able to tell them that really moves me. Revisiting these memories brings me back to my own memories: spending the last days on campus, scrambling for flights back home, and just being back home and wondering what I was gonna do.

Ben Glickman 

Livia, thanks so much for being with us.

Livia Gimenes 

Thank you. Thanks for having me, Ben.

Ben Glickman 

In other news, M. Grace Calhoun, the current director of athletics and recreation at the University of Pennsylvania, was announced as the new vice president of athletics and recreation for the University on March 5. Calhoun will take over the position vacated by former Director of Athletics Jack Hayes in February. But unlike Hayes, Calhoun will report directly to the office of President Christina Paxson. This has been The Bruno Brief. Our show is produced by Libby Burnett, Corey Gelb-Bicknell and me. The Bruno Brief is an equal partnership between WBRU and the Brown Daily Herald. I'm Ben Glickman, thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

____________________

Produced by: Olivia Burdette, Ben Glickman and Corey Gelb-Bicknell

Music: 

Denzel Sprak by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

KeoKeo by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

Bauxite by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

Waltz for Zacaria by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

Special thanks to Emily Teng and Olivia Burdette for cover design.



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