CBU freshmen move in with usual fears, plus pandemic

By , Daily Memphian Updated: August 14, 2020 9:43 AM CT | Published: August 13, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Emma Clark missed graduation and prom and all the year-end highlights of her senior year at St. Benedict at Auburndale High School.

Wednesday, she moved into her dorm room, what stands to be the larger-than-usual base camp of her new world at Christian Brothers University, and the quiet, anti-climatic feel continued.

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Classes start Monday.

Clark, 18, is optimistic about lies ahead. But the reality for a day that usually includes waits for elevators, shrieks of joyful reunions and the sound of drill bits in wood, passed quietly, if not soberly.

“There’s a lot less community-building going into it,” said Clark, 18, sitting on a couch in the common area of Living and Learning Community dorm with her parents, Sara and Matt Clark.

“We didn’t meet at orientation. I don’t have a roommate. The most I have is one suite mate. Instead of having three possible new friends, I have one possible new friend,” she said.

“When I make friends, we won’t be able to hang out in our suites together. Or hang out here together,” she says looking around the wide open commons.

“It will be very limited what we can do in person.”

CBU, a small, private liberal arts college, makes a significant portion of its budget through residence halls and food-service programs.

Opening and to what degree has consumed the leadership since the pandemic began.

“We looked at this first and foremost at what was in the best interest of the student and the larger campus community,” said Jack Shannon, president. “But there are fiscal implications for CBU and every other college and university.

“Our modeling indicated we could sustain losses of over $4 million in the event we shifted totally to remote learning.”

Beyond the revenue loss the pandemic has meant for colleges and universities, they are also having to spend additional money to provide safe environments.

“We are still tallying those costs,” Shannon said.

CBU, like all colleges, also lost money when it had to refund students last spring for their unused food and board plans. For it, the cost was around $1 million, which Shannon at the time said would be difficult.

Clark was scheduled to move in between 9 and 11 a.m. Wednesday with a handful of other students who were trickling onto campus as the morning passed.

By shortly after 9 a.m., all her possessions, including a new, pink upholstered headboard with plug-in ports for her laptop and phone, were in her two-bed dorm. She will be the only inhabitant.

“They had so many awesome helpers that we got all her stuff up to her room in one trip,” said Sara Clark.

The parking lot outside the dorm was dotted with a few cars. Clusters of volunteers looked around for the next arrival.

“It’s been slow,” said Jenna Robbins, a sophomore volunteer. “They’ve lined it up pretty well so just a few people at a time are coming in.”

Ninety freshmen were scheduled Wednesday, the first day.

Shannon greeted them as they arrived. While he and the rest of the staff are “excited” to see students return, he had also been awake at 3 a.m. anxious about “where this goes. None of us know.”

He also said that he had heard firsthand from many returning students how difficult online learning was for them, and how much ground they felt they had lost.

Clark’s parents, CBU alumni who met on campus 25 years ago, are determined their daughter get as much out of campus life as they did.

“We wanted to make sure, regardless of where she went, that she got the collegiate experience and wasn’t necessarily penalized because she decided to stay local,” said Matt Clark, director of development for Hilton Hotels.

“There’s just so much value to being on campus in the environment of university than there is being at home.”

Campuses moving toward opening with reams of safety protocols

For whatever additional danger it may portend, the Clarks will leave Emma at CBU Thursday for what likely will be the longest period they have ever been apart.

All CBU students are being asked to sign a compact, saying they will abide by the campus’s new safety directives, which include limited trips away.

“It’s not jail; we can’t force people to stay on campus,” said Leslie Graff, associate vice president for communications & marketing.

The compact, she said, is a promise that students and staff will look out for the community, “recognizing that when I take a risk with my behaviors, I put other people in jeopardy.”

About 500 students are registered to live in the CBU dorms this year, down several hundred by necessity from last year. They represent less than half of the roughly 1,200 student body.

The rest are commuters. A large percentage also have off-campus jobs, creating a permeable environment CBU and the University of Memphis are going to try to navigate.

“If you have to go back and forth to work at Kroger, we support that,” Graff said, “but then, maybe limit other risks you are taking.”

Clark, who has friends who are living at home and attending and CBU, notes they will not have the same restrictions.

“Commuter kids can go wherever they want when they leave campus and come back on.”

She worries that if she does decide to go home or meet her parents for dinner, she may be judged for her decision.

The U of M expects 2,300 students will be living on campus this fall, although for the first month, almost all classes will be remote. The U of M will revisit its plans in early September.

Last week, U of M president M. David Rudd said case numbers would have to show a significant downward trend for several weeks before the campus leaders could allow more in-person classes.

Some of the U of M’s confidence comes from the fact that it had hundreds of students living in dorms on campus all spring and summer because those students had nowhere else to go. There were no outbreaks.

CBU has contracted with the U of M for quarantine space in its dorms if it has an outbreak.

Dr. Marius Carriere, longtime U.S. history professor at CBU, is teaching his entire schedule online this fall.

“I think it’s going to be a challenge to avoid having an outbreak of COVID-19. There are so many challenges they will have to overcome,” he said.

Classes at Rhodes College are online for fall. LeMoyne-Owen has postponed the start until after Labor Day.

About 20% of CBU classes — 147 class sections — will meet in person.

Clark, a business/accounting major, is enrolled in four. Two other classes will meet through Zoom.

She is quietly aware of how much time she will be in her dorm room alone, either in online classes or attending campus activities, which will be conducted remotely.

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“I am going to have to make myself meet people,” she said. “They are trying here, but they can’t do all the icebreaker kinds of things, the games, the things that would help you meet people. It’s all online or distanced. You have to make yourself make friends, instead of just kind of letting it happen.”

In orientation events this weekend, resident advisers will go over the new rules with students living on their floors in a distanced event on the soccer field.

An outdoor movie will follow.

“Emma will meet people in a socially distanced, safe way,” her mother, Sara Clark, said, “and then will know people when they go to class.”

She’s hoping that. But she also says the lead-up to move-in day was a wild ride of emotions.

“Yes, we’re worried. She is a healthy, young person and with the precautions the university is putting in place, I think I’m less worried about her catching COVID and more just anxious about her having a college experience and enjoying it.

“We want her to have the typical experience or as good as we can make it,” she said.

Outside every dorm room Wednesday was a cache of cleaning supplies, including brooms, toilet bowl brushes and cleaners the students will be expected to use to keep their areas clean.

“When we do our rounds once a week, we have to check the bathrooms and make sure they are clean,” said resident adviser Kyler Leasure.

“You can get a lot of germs from a bathroom.”

The dorms will be professionally cleaned once a month, he said.

What worries Leasure is that one student will think it’s OK to have a party.

“That is the worst-case scenario,” he said, trying to talk the anxiety down. “I’m am pretty sure everyone knows corona is serious.”

For as much as the virus has changed everything about campus life, including reducing the number registered to live on campus, it also has offered CBU small tailwinds.

More than 80% of last year’s underclassmen are returning, a 6 percent increase, which Shannon attributes to staff staying in touch over the summer and when necessary, finding funding so students with financial issues could come back and finish their degrees.

But the number of transfer students is also up. Campus leaders say many of these students were attending large state universities outside the region and decided it was better to be closer to home now and in a smaller school.

“We’re at 175% of our five-year average for transfers,” said Shannon. “I think that is going to be an opportunity for us to continue to build upon.”

CBU was founded by the Christian Brothers in the order started by French priest, Jean Baptiste de la Salle.

They came to Memphis after the Chicago fire in the fall of 1871 upended many of their schools. By late that fall, they had established their first school here.

Shannon, educated himself in schools run by the Brothers, finds himself never fall from their philosophy.

“St. John Baptist de la Salle has this beautiful prayer,” he said. “The gist is that you focus on the present moment, and that while you prepare for the future and learn from the past, if you stay focused on the present, you will somehow find your way moving forward.

“I think that has probably never been more valuable to me than under the current circumstances.”


Emma Clark Matt Clark Sara Clark Jack Shannon Christian Brothers University University of Memphis Marius Carriere
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers business news and features for The Daily Memphian.


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