We’ve all made adjustments to our lives in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and those on the Hill are no exception. While classes are continuing online for the rest of the spring semester, some students remain in Gambier, watching changes to the campus unfold first hand. Vibrant and lively just a few weeks ago, Kenyon has since become a ghost town. Social distancing practices and changes to multiple operations on campus have shifted the familiar spirit that many of us associate with Kenyon.
Vahni Kurra ’20 isn’t currently on campus, but was in Gambier during the second week of spring break. At the time, classes were expected to resume after break and the news of semester-long remote learning hadn’t yet reached the Kenyon community.
When the information about the switch to remote learning spread, Kurra recalled how the energy on campus changed. “There was this silence that felt so heavy because we were all thinking the same thing,” she said of the students who opted to stay on campus during break. “The feeling was crushing,” she said. “For seniors, it was the last day that we spent on campus as students.”
Many of the seniors who stayed in Gambier over break had planned to work on their senior capstones. Sarah Stewart ’20, a senior studio art major who stayed on campus during break, said that her senior capstone is due in April.
“I also work at the [College Township] Fire Department, so I was working a few shifts [there],” she explained. According to Stewart, students on campus were initially excited when they found out about the extra week of spring break, but the general reaction quickly shifted after more news updates.
“There’s this overwhelming feeling that people want to come back here,” she said. “We don’t leave breaks expecting to be gone for more than two weeks.” At that point, students who were on campus were required to fill out a petition form online describing their circumstances for wishing to remain there.
Both Kurra and Stewart emphasized how emotional the energy on campus became.
“There were a lot of goodbyes,” Stewart said.
“As a senior,” Kurra added, “I’m not getting any closure.”
Kurra was taken aback by the rapid changes that seemed to occur overnight on campus. New social distancing practices began in the College Bookstore during the extended week of spring break, where cashiers stopped taking student K-Cards in order to reduce risk of infection. Anna Zheng ’23 remembers reading her student ID number out loud instead.
For many students, going to the Bookstore became a surreal experience.
“There were six different signs that said, ‘do not touch the handles of the doors,’” Kurra recalled from her visit there to return rental books. “There was also a barrier between the checkout counter and where you’d stand to check out in order to keep a six-foot distance to the cashier.” This was one of many changes that the College enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It dawned on me then that it was really serious,” Kurra explained. “This place I called home was alien and unknown. It felt so dystopian.” She remembered the frantic atmosphere in the Bookstore: While returning her rental books, she noticed that deliveries had arrived at the Bookstore, but new instructions made it confusing for both the cashier and delivery employee to interact.
Zheng echoed this sentiment of uncertainty on campus. Despite careful social distancing measures, the Bookstore recently closed, she wrote in an email to the Collegian.
The Bookstore isn’t the only building that has closed indefinitely. Most buildings on campus have closed their doors, including the Library buildings and Wiggin Street Coffee. Students have access to the North study space next to the Gambier Deli, but only for printer usage.
Currently, due to the many closures, Zheng spends most of her time in her dorm room.
“I have lost my place to read books and do research,” Zheng wrote.
One challenge remaining students face is the uncertainty of relocating on campus. Zheng expects to be moved out of Norton Residence Hall any day. “Specific instructions have not arrived,” she wrote. “I’m not sure when I need to pack up and leave [my] quiet, well-decorated room.”
Concerns about communal dining have also prompted a series of changes in Peirce Dining Hall. The most recent one, according to Zheng, is that students have the opportunity to place grocery orders, starting next Thursday. For the past week, Peirce had been offering to-go boxed meals twice a day at restricted time intervals.
The dining timeframe is limited and conflicts with her schedule, so Zheng opts for online food shopping. She hasn’t been to the dining hall since spring break. Her friends, who rely on Peirce for their meals, have been satisfied with the changes. Additionally, the Village Market, which had closed for a short period of time, plans to reopen in a few days. Zheng explained that remaining students who plan to access the Village Market in the coming weeks can expect to be given $20 coupons for their purchases.
As Zheng remains on campus, she has said goodbye to many friends who returned home. “As my friends returned to China or other countries, I just can’t help worrying about their health,” Zheng wrote. “Checking in with them is now part of my routines. When they’re asleep somewhere miles away, I find myself speechless.”
There is no denying that Kenyon’s campus is lonely in these strange and trying times. It is easy in a time of social distancing for students in Gambier’s already remote location to feel even more isolated. Despite the solitude, however, there is a feeling of “warmth that comes from people who stay,” according to Zheng. “Despite social distancing, I don’t think I lack communication with close friends.”
Even from a distance, compassion and kindness is as prevalent as ever. “Kenyon can be a bit scary on a stormy night when nobody is around,” Zheng admitted. “But I know there are many people at Kenyon that care about me, like all of my professors, especially Professor Mood, who left some pork at her porch swing last night.”
Daily life on the Hill certainly looks and feels different, but Zheng is one of many students who feels the community’s familiar compassion during this difficult time.
“I find it unbelievable to be treated with so much respect and courtesy as a Chinese student,” wrote Zheng. “Especially during a pandemic that instigates racism against Asians in the United States.”