Towards the beginning of the pandemic when safety measures still seemed temporary, many Kenyon students found themselves recounting campus crises of years past. Among these was the two-part, two-day-long power outage in November of 2018, which resulted in a day of canceled classes, or when the polar vortex hit the Midwest in January of 2019, and students were shuttled from their dorms to Peirce Dining Hall to avoid the extreme cold. But for current seniors and recent alumni, the most memorable and Kenyon-specific of these campus emergencies are the boil alerts.
A boil alert occurs when tap water is deemed unsafe to drink. This can happen as a result of burst pipes during construction, pipe erosion or drops in pressure at treatment plants. In order to consume tap water during these emergencies, students must first boil the water to purify it— hence the name.
The first documented boil alert in Kenyon’s history occurred in 2008, when a water main break caused a three-day boil alert. According to one April 2008 Collegian article reporting the alert, the school went through more than 5,000 plastic water bottles in that three-day span.
From April 2016 to May 2017, boil alerts became a regular occurrence on campus; during this period, Gambier experienced six boil alerts. At first, students were unsure of what precautions to take.
“There initially was confusion about [boil alerts]: ‘Can we brush our teeth [normally], or do we have to boil water before we brush our teeth? Can we shower as long as we don’t consume the water? How bad is it?’” recalled Mary Liz Brady ’18. “In talking to other people… [we gathered the alert] was more of a precaution.”
Audrey Neubauer ’19, who once drank contaminated tap water in protest of the alerts’ high plastic waste production, agreed. “[After six boil alerts], they felt unnecessary, and it was clear that the school didn’t want to be held liable for anything.”
Boil alerts had a way of occurring at the worst possible times. The first in this string of boil alerts, for instance, happened to coincide with Admitted Students Weekend 2016, when many, including Lizzie Boyle ’19, were hosting prospective students.
“[My prospective student] just really was not impressed when we were like, ‘Welcome to Kenyon! Don’t drink the water!’” Boyle said. Unsurprisingly, the student did not choose to attend Kenyon in the fall.
The class of 2020 was introduced to boil alerts before they even set foot on campus. On July 7, 2016, Alexis Reape ’20 received her third-ever Kenyon email, second only to her advisor and roommate assignments: It was a boil alert. At the time, she and her fellow incoming first years did not know what this meant. But by November 3, 2016, when the class of 2020 experienced their first boil alert on campus, they had their answer.
“[For first-year students,] first semester is so weird, because everything’s so new,” Reape said. When the first boil alert occurred, she said, “I think a lot of us were [thinking,] ‘What did we get ourselves into?’”
During this particular boil alert, Reape recalled her Community Advisor putting masking tape on the water fountain to discourage anyone from using it. But it’s unlikely that students were drinking much water at this point; when the boil alert went into effect at 11:44 p.m., many students were engrossed in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, when the Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years.
Despite the circumstances, students managed to find humor in boil alerts; campus was abuzz as students laughed at the situation. Only days after the Celebration of High- Impact Practices (CHIPs), the academic fair known to hand out free bags of chips and reusable water bottles, the College had yet another boil alert. In hopes of avoiding disposable plastic water bottles, many students used their brand new CHIPs bottles, with less than ideal results.
“People would boil their water in tea kettles, and then dump it into these cheap water bottles, and they melted,” Brady laughed. “Clearly, they were not made for that.” A photo of one melted bottle quickly went viral on the Kenyon Thrill’s Instagram page. The following Halloween, Boyle even dressed up as a “Boyle alert.”
Although boil alerts were cumbersome at times, the circumstances fostered a sense of absurdity that united the student body, which is ultimately what made them memorable.
“All small institutions [like Kenyon] are kind of culty in the same way,” Boyle said. “It’s the weird, oddly specific stuff [like boil alerts] that—[though they] ultimately have no bearing on your overall college experience—is a bonding exercise.”