On March 6, Cornell students learned that the local Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit system, known affectionately as the TCAT, would be undertaking preventative measures to guard against the novel coronavirus which could disrupt routes around the Ithaca campus. Just the day prior, they had been informed of new travel restrictions and students studying abroad were given the option to leave their programs. Little did anyone know that every 24 hours for the next week would be accompanied by new change as parameters and information became temporary and school took a back seat to figuring out what exactly was going on.
Colleges and universities are meant to bring people together. Their very purpose is to manifest a space of shared learning for young adults amongst dorms, classrooms, libraries, and other non-socially distanced spaces. Thus, the decisions on the part of administrations across the country to suspend classes, extend spring breaks, and send students away felt jarring and bizarre.
Undergraduate students were quick to work together to address the multitude of information coming from a myriad of sources. Students struggled to solve storing their lives in boxes while navigating local, state, and federal measures. The Student Assembly’s Office of the Student Advocate worked to provide information and guidance on health insurance, financial aid, and housing and dining. Meanwhile, the Access Fund administered by the Office of the Dean of Students took center stage aiding the purchase of tickets home, storage for student belongings, and laptops for online learning.
Even with the valiant efforts of student leaders, individual life was no less disrupted. Seniors and freshmen alike were left with feelings of confusion and dismay. Despite directions from state, local, and school authorities, many students chose to get together one last time with their friends prior to departing. While endangering the world around them, congregating amongst friends seemed a human response to the upending of lives that took place simultaneously.
Parents were asked to maintain the rules of social distancing as students hurried to pack their belongings and book flights amidst domestic flight cancellations and hours on hold with airline companies. Dining halls shut down and campus took on an eerie feel as it emptied out.
Students not only dealt with frequent university administrative changes but also governmental flux and development. Different responses in countries ranging from Canada to South Korea to Italy added to the uncertainty. Students traveling across countries to get home became stranded as immigration regulations changed mid-flight. A Vietnamese student found out about his home country’s travel ban while landing in his connecting flight from JFK to Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea. Students became trapped, and some still are, stuck between Cornell and home.
While many are “home,” or at the very least elsewhere now, the effects of COVID-19 for students remain pervasive. Those who lived in off-campus housing are hoping for a rent freeze and students from a range of backgrounds and living situations are asking for a universal pass/fail grading system to be implemented to provide for accommodation and destigmatization of student academic performance.
As the Federal government, the state of New York, and Cornell’s administration continue to disseminate directives, for now, students remain scattered across the country and globe, with a sense of uncertainty prevailing as they adjust to their unexpected new lives and anticipate what the coming months might bring as a student during the global pandemic.