Future Tense

Coronavirus Diaries: I’m a College Student Still Living on Campus. It’s Weird.

A mask saying "Coronavirus Diaries" is stretched over a picture of a dorm room containing empty bunk beds, desks, and chairs.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

In a cluttered dorm room, my best friend and I sloppily packed his belongings into plastic tubs. Moving out is usually a bittersweet moment of accomplishment after a long week of finals and an even longer semester. But not this time. Like so many others, he’s going home midsemester, in enough of a hurry that he almost forgot his tiny aloe plant. We both laugh-cried a little. We likely won’t see each other again in person until August.

I am a junior at Arizona State University studying journalism and public policy. (ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.) Like many universities, ASU has made the switch to online learning in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, and almost everyone else has left. The school hasn’t officially kicked out the students. At least not yet. I am still living in my room, at a dorm called Taylor Place on ASU’s downtown Phoenix campus, but I don’t know for how much longer. Taylor Place’s housing office says that it usually accommodates about 1,200 students, but only a couple hundred of us are left here.

Back in January, ASU had one of the first confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. At the time, nearly 27,000 students signed a petition to cancel in-person classes by early February. I didn’t sign the petition, but I think some students signed it as a joke to get out of class. I don’t think the magnitude of the situation was clear at that point, especially not to me. Nonetheless, stores around the Tempe campus soon ran out of masks. By spring break, which was the week of March 9, ASU announced that it would hold classes online until March 27. Then it announced that online-only classes would be extended through the end of the semester. Sports and other events were canceled. About a week ago, I received an email from university housing recommending I reconsider my living situation.

I haven’t gone home for a few reasons. I have older parents, so I am afraid of bringing something back from the dorms or otherwise home and making them sick. My mom, who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer for the second time, starts chemotherapy next week, making her more susceptible to illness. I know she wants me home, though. I’ve communicated with her with more frequency over the past two weeks than I have over the past two years. As much as we need to be apart, this situation has also brought us together.

I also don’t have internet at home, making the shift to online learning that much more difficult. In high school, I went to the library or friends’ houses to do assignments. The university has offered to provide hot spots (and devices) to students who need them, but my neighborhood doesn’t get strong-enough reception to stream my classes.

So I stay at Taylor Place, which has become a ghost town. It’s weird. Empty.

On a normal day before the COVID-19 outbreak, I would grab lunch in a packed dining hall. At night, I might hear in the halls groups of friends loudly returning from college parties. I usually had to battle for a washing machine on my floor.

Now if I see a friend, it is usually because they are moving out or saying a rushed goodbye. Occasionally, I see a rogue pack of three or four freshmen wandering outside of Taylor Place or someone picking up their Domino’s pizza order. Sometimes I go down to the dining hall to grab a to-go meal or a snack from the Pod and head back to my room, but I always eat alone. I have been guilty of pulling all-nighters in the journalism school’s building across from the dorm, but the edit bays have since been cut off from student access. Like everyone else, I join my classes online, except they’re all at home.

My roommate didn’t return from New Jersey after spring break. She and I have been trying to work out how she’ll get her things before ASU’s regular move-out deadline of May 1, especially if things get any worse in the coming weeks. As her friends have slowly moved out, they’ve left borrowed things of hers outside our door.

There are unexpected moments of happiness despite all of the uncertainty. Time normally spent with others in the dorm lounge or at games (and other college-experience rites of passage) has entered the digital space. I downloaded Minecraft for the first time ever through the goading of my friends, most now at home. We’ve been using our freer schedules to build a replica of our campus, complete with chicken Michael Crow (ASU’s president). I’ve received an invitation to a Zoom birthday party. I’ve strapped on my roller skates at least once a day. My photojournalism professor reached out to me after our first online class, offering to bring anything I might need in an emergency to my dorm all the way from his home in New River, a 40-minute drive.

My boxes are packed just in case. But for now, I’ve chosen to stay.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.