“It’s not traditional college life”: On-campus students share their experiences

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Eating Marketplace pizzas outside at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Jessica Li.

Siddhant Jain (senior) has maxed out his to-do list during his extended stay at Occidental. He watched the whole Star Wars series for the first time and read and worked out plenty of times. But now, his life revolves around school deadlines and occasional video games. Since the college’s March 13 decision to continue classes remotely amid the coronavirus, Jain, an international student, has stayed on campus. His family is in India, 12 and a half hours ahead and over 9,000 miles away.

“All I have is my walk to the Marketplace and that’s it. Otherwise, I haven’t been leaving my room that much,” Jain said.

For a variety of reasons, some students stayed on campus, while most students went home in March. According to Sara Semal, senior director of student wellness and special advisor to the president on health and safety, on-campus residents are currently consolidated in Berkus Residence Hall so the reduced facilities staff can monitor fewer buildings. Semal said Berkus was the optimal choice for fall housing because most rooms contain their own bathrooms.

Di Hu (senior), who has been on campus since the beginning of the Spring 2020 semester, has kept busy by watching movies and grocery shopping with friends. Originally from the Zhejiang province of China, Hu has had seven flights home cancelled due to travel restrictions.

“A lot of my friends are scared to go to China and not be able to come back or of having difficulty studying at home, so many of them just chose to stay,” Hu said.

Hu said she suffered from loneliness and homesickness at times, but has found relief by hanging out with several friends who are also on campus.

Sylvia Lou (junior), whose family lives in China, echoed Hu’s sentiment and said she gets especially lonely at night. Lou said her family is worried about her, but they speak on the phone every day, sharing tidbits of their days. Their main concerns include her safety on campus and when Lou goes out to stores. More recently, they have been concerned about the fires in LA.

Jessica Li (junior) said the hardest part of being on campus is not being able to see her family. She speaks to them weekly.

Photo courtesy of Jessica Li.

“They know I’m safe because Oxy is a small community. They also remind me to take care of myself all the time,” Li said. “They wanted to visit me but they can’t because of the travel ban.”

According to Isaiah Thomas, who joined Occidental as the Director of Residential Education and Housing Services (REHS) and Student Conduct in the spring, there are 100 students currently living on campus. Thomas said students who petitioned for on-campus housing were reviewed by a committee consisting of the Dean of Students office, Disability Services, REHS, Emmons Wellness Center and the Intercultural Community Center.

Annalea Racibarskas (sophomore) stayed on campus to work at FEAST and maintained the garden space throughout the spring and summer.

“I’m really thankful that Oxy has let me stay for this long. Being at Berkus, it’s been quiet,” Racibarskas said. “I love being here and having work at FEAST was really nice because a lot of people lost their job during quarantine and I was able to keep mine.”

Lou also said things have been quiet. Students spend long periods isolated with limited entertainment. To keep herself busy, Racibarskas has been listening to music, doing art and learning guitar. Li began jogging around campus with several friends.

Lou said she is thankful she lives down the hall from some of her friends. They often share afternoon tea in one of their rooms.

“Some of my friends have cars, so we have been going out,” Lou said. “One time we went to watch the meteor shower.”

Jain said he believes there was a sense of shared experience among those on campus. Because of the pandemic, Jain said he was able to reconnect with his friends from the Multicultural Summer Institute (MSI) that took place before his first year at Occidental.

“During confinement and isolation, we all found ways to be around each other or get a meal together from the MP and socially distance,” Jain said.

Racibarskas has gotten dinner with her friends on campus and ate with them, socially-distanced, on the quad.

“Any kind of contact that you can have with people when you’re living alone in a dorm room during a pandemic is meaningful,” Racibarskas said.

Mojitos without alcohol at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Lijia Li.

Throughout her stay, Li has been enjoying eating at the Marketplace with friends.

“The MP staff is trying to make us feel good. They asked us if they can cook us something we like,” Li said.

While Racibarskas is having fun, she said the summer on campus was atypical, given the pandemic and its general emptiness.

“It’s not traditional college life. It’s not like, ‘Oh, getting to be here on campus over the summer, it’s one big party!’ Definitely not the case, at least this summer,” Racibarskas said.

According to Li, since school started again, homesickness and loneliness have been on her mind less.

“After school began my life became much busier and I don’t feel like I miss home as much compared to the summer,” Li said. “I don’t go outside a lot.”

Jain said his time in his single room in Berkus has been very self-reflective. He said one of his epiphanies was about his future.

“I had my own place for the first time, so that was a good experience. I would say [there was] a lot of self-realization and learning about our society, learning about my role in it. It was transcending,” Jain said.

In his large swath of alone time, Jain said he realized he did not have to “chase the bag,” meaning he did not have to work to make tons of money in his post-college life. His plans of being a doctor have transitioned into ambitions to work with Doctors Without Borders, an international organization devoted to humanitarian work.

Li has taken to redecorating her single in Berkus. She said she initially wanted to dismantle the unused second bed but has settled for turning the frame on its side, creating a makeshift gallery wall on the springboard. Li said she hopes to go home next summer if possible.

In terms of going home, students’ plans remain undecided, dependent on the cost of flights and travel restrictions in place due to COVID-19.

Hu said she plans to return home after graduation, but is also considering graduating early and going home over winter break.

Jain does not know if he can afford to go home for winter break, if allowed, while Racibarskas said she would like to be in LA as long as possible.

“I’m taking it mostly one day at a time, because there’s just a lot of unknowns. I’d like to stay in LA, in theory, possibly [get] an apartment here for the summer,” Racibarskas said. “I’m probably planning on staying here if everything works out well and keeping my jobs here.”

Jain said he felt a strong connection to the group of students who were on campus in the spring.

“During COVID you have certain relationships with people that you will look back on and cherish,” Jain said. “You will be thankful for them.”