For students stranded in dorms, world is quiet, smaller and anxious

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 29, 2020 12:18 PM CT | Published: March 29, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Yufei Zhang, 21, takes a shower before it gets dark now and lies in bed at night in her emptied dorm on the nearly desolate Rhodes College campus, listening to the monkeys squawk at the Memphis Zoo.

“I’m not a fan of the dark, personally,” she said. “There are always other girls in the hall, chatting. That’s all gone.”

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On Monday, March 30, at Christian Brothers University, Luiz Dutra, 21, will say goodbye to his sister, Amanda, also a student there, and settle in for what’s expected to be a long, quiet sojourn at Rozier Hall, where it’s hard to know how many are isolated behind floor after floor of closed doors.

“I am about to graduate,” Dutra said. “I’m trying to get OPT (Optional Practical Training) that allows me to stay and work for one to three years on my F-1 visa. If I go home to Brazil, I might not be able to come back.”

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Since March 21, the Centers for Disease Control has not recommended travel to Brazil.

He doesn’t want to risk losing the chance to work for an engineering firm in the United States. But with few contacts and a plummeting economy, the voice in his head is anxious. And he’s alone.

Zhang, a senior at Rhodes, has been accepted at the Royal Veterinary College in London for the fall. The nights she spends in the distant company of primates remind her how oddly two-dimensional college is in isolation.

“It’s so quiet. What we wonder is how long it might go on,” she says, sighing.

She is from Beijing. While the situation is improving in China, going home would mean layovers in places where it is not. 

“I just don’t want to stop in any of those big cities right now.”

As of Thursday, 92 students were stranded at Rhodes, down from 170 on Monday, March 23. About 40 more were at CBU. Both campuses are refunding room and board for the nearly 95% who have left.

Rhodes estimates it will cost $3.5 million.

“We’re fortunate we have a well-managed institution. We do have reserves we can draw upon in times of crisis,” said President Marjorie Hass. “They are not unlimited. The longer this drags on, the more difficult the choices will become.”

CBU is looking at close to a $1 million shortfall.

“We’re working through each student account to try to figure out what it will be,” said President Jack Shannon. “This is not going to be an easy thing for CBU to fund.

“However, it’s the right thing to do,” Shannon said. “This institution, for the last 149 years, has done the right thing, and the right thing has always been something that has worked out in the end.”

At the University of Memphis, the number stranded is larger and fluid. The university did not have a count Thursday.

“We’re finding money here and there to help get students home,” said Chuck Gallina, spokesman. “It’s changing all the time.”

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For planning purposes, it’s been a moving target for weeks. Rhodes canceled campus classes March 11 and asked students to move out early the following week. Online learning started March 23.

CBU followed suit, but hoped to be back in session April 14.

“Our residential housing team is now consulting with each student to get additional details on their situation. In some cases, it is relatively easy to get them home,” Shannon said. “Some decided to stay since we were planning to resume after Easter. That is no longer a possibility.”

Rhodes is maintaining full employment. CBU’s board is committed to that through May 31, and is encouraging vendors who supply contract employees to do the same.

The campuses need food service, custodial, health care and security staff to serve the stranded students and the sprinkling of staff running the offices.

“We have to maintain the buildings. We have to continue to provide dining services for the students who remain as well as faculty,” Shannon said. “We cannot simply defer those costs or eliminate them entirely.”

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The mix of stranded includes students with concerns about visas or crossing borders. There are students who couldn’t afford last-minute tickets home, those who have no safe home or were wards of the state when they applied and now, older, are on their own. There are students who are afraid to go home due to COVID-19 levels in their home countries.

“This is a moment when all of us in the community are aware of the wide range of needs those around us have,” Hass said.

At Rhodes, students could petition to stay in the dorms without having to disclose their personal circumstances in face-to-face meetings.

“We attempted to be ahead of the process so students didn’t have to go through a period of worry. They just hit a link,” said Darrell Ray, interim vice president for student life.

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“It positioned us not to have students disclose information they didn’t want public. It positioned us to maintain pride and dignity,” he said.

A small panel of staff reviewed the petitions and went to work making connections, sometimes finding off-campus housing with Wi-Fi or cash for tickets or vacant rooms where students could stay.

The several dozen who remain have settled in, living day by day in the quiet. Almost all their contact is through social media or classes and labs meeting through Zoom.

The dining hall is about the only place those hunkering down around quads might hope to see another and that presumes they meet as they are picking up their food. At Rhodes, there are no tables and chairs or milling in line.

“We order at the counter. The food is put into a go-box,” Zhang said.

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“I think Rhodes is being very cautious,” she said, noting that an attendant usually swipes meal cards.

“Now, we swipe them ourselves.”

But for as quiet as it is, it’s not a mental isolation.

“We still have exams going on,” Zhang said. “I am going to study with a friend online today with FaceTime. I have an on-campus job doing animal care in the biology department. Because I’m an international student, they wanted me to keep it.”

The college is trying to move students to rooms with bathrooms.

Rhodes is making virtual contacts with each student and is getting ready to launch a pen-pal project through the chaplain’s office, plus social events like a virtual student life tea.

“Our students are in contact. We hope these are particularly meaningful connections for our students on campus,” Hass said.

Now that online classes have begun at CBU, Amanda Dutra’s parents in Brazil want her home. She leaves Monday. “The school has been saying if we can, it is better for us to leave.”

She bought a plane ticket Tuesday.

“I’ve been trying to control the panic. If you are panicked, it’s worse,” she said.

This is a busier semester than normal for Luiz Dutra because besides his online classes, he is interning at Smith+Nephew, which has now turned into a 20-hour-a-week commitment by laptop.

“I’m looking for a full-time job. Thankfully, I have an internship. Hopefully, that will help me,” he said.

“It’s already stressful as an international student. I think I have about the same chance of finding a job here as I do at home. It’s very low both places. Right now, I am trying not to freak out, I guess,” he said.

In Brazil, COVID-19 is bad enough that many people, including his father, are working from home.

“It’s getting worse, but not as bad as it in the U.S.,” Luiz Dutra said. “My family really wants me to come back if I can.

“If I can a get job here, I have to stay,” he said. “That was the whole plan when I came to college. I don’t want to change the plan.”

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Rhodes College Christian Brothers University Jack Shannon Marjorie Hass
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 healthcare and higher education for The Daily Memphian.


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