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‘Depressing and boring, but manageable:’ What life is like for the 437 Duke students on campus

Bryan Center Plaza on Thursday, March 12 around 1:30 p.m.
Bryan Center Plaza on Thursday, March 12 around 1:30 p.m.

Welcome to Ghost Town—also known as Duke University.

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the world, sophomore Winston Yau is one of the fraction of students who received permission to stay on campus after spring break. He described it as surreal and post-apocalyptic.

“When you walk on campus, it feels like there are only 30 people still here,” Yau said.

He compared his situation to the 2015 comedy TV show “The Last Man on Earth,” in which one man survives the apocalypse and roams aimlessly across North America looking for fellow survivors.

Yau is not entirely alone, however. Although the University told students not to return to campus after spring break, a measure intended to stop the spread of the outbreak, the administration approved 463 students’ requests to stay. An additional 195 students were approved to stay beyond March 16, when most students lost access to residence halls, so they could make travel arrangements. As of March 24, Housing and Residence Life confirmed that there are 437 students living on campus—less than 10% of the undergraduate population.

Students who were approved to stay on campus included those facing health and safety risks, as well as international students from Level 3 risk travel countries. These decisions allowed Yau, who is from Hong Kong, to stay on campus. Other students, however, found themselves scrambling to look for a place to live. 

Moving from East to West

First-year Yijia Liu from Singapore, who was denied permission to stay, was able to inherit an apartment lease and a bicycle from a graduating senior, whom he found on the All Duke Facebook page. Liu wrote in a message Friday that he had successfully moved into the apartment, though he wasn’t aware that the house didn’t have a washing machine.

“I’ve got to figure out how to get to the laundromat without a car,” he wrote in an email. 

The apartment is in the Trinity Park neighborhood, Liu said, just off of East Campus. He didn’t receive any financial help from Duke to assist his move off campus.

While Liu transported his things off campus in an Uber, other first-years moved their belongings to West Campus on the C1 bus. All students living on East Campus were required to relocate to West on Friday, according to a March 18 email from Joe Gonzalez, assistant vice president of student affairs and dean for residential life. 

“This relocation is being implemented to allow for a more secure environment and the increased ability to deliver services (housekeeping, dining, etc.), while maintaining the important principal of social distancing,” the email read. 

There were approximately 90 students relocating from East Campus, Gonzalez said in an interview with The Chronicle. Gonzalez confirmed that all students successfully moved into a fully vacant room—meaning both roommates had moved out—on West Campus. 

Students were encouraged to only move items needed for them to live comfortably on West for the remainder of the semester, according to the email. Although students will not have access to their dorms on East Campus after the move, Gonzalez mentioned the idea of offering a later opportunity for students to access their old dorms. 

Adela Guo, a first-year from Henan province in China, took four trips on the C1 bus and carried her belongings up a flight of stairs in Crowell, which has no elevator. She said the Friday relocation was the most stressful day of her semester. 

“I have my whole life in that tiny room,” she said.

Since she didn’t have a car on campus, Guo used the bus and a moving truck provided by Duke to relocate nearly everything to her new room. She explained that she didn’t feel secure leaving a lot of her belongings in her old dorm, both for safety reasons and in case she suddenly needed something she’d left behind.

Even though the experience was stressful and tiring, Guo said she was amazed by how much people helped each other. 

“It’s a nice chance to see the mutual care we have in such a time,” she said.

Life on campus

Plenty of students are still living at Duke, but campus feels ghostly all the same, Yau said. The realization that most of his classmates have left is slowly settling in, and he said it’s difficult to find the motivation to be productive.

“There’s definitely a sense of lethargy,” Yau said. “Suddenly you don't really know what to do.” 

Most of the time, Yau stays in his room in sweatpants and pajamas and only leaves once or twice a day for food and some fresh air. He bought disposable gloves to wear when he goes out, and he frequently wipes down his room’s door handles.

He has been trying to be productive and occupy his time with hobbies like reading and drawing. He’s also been writing cover letters for summer internships.

Liu agreed that motivation to do schoolwork is in short supply and that most students are keeping to themselves. Now that he’s living off campus, and not technically approved to be at Duke, he’s worried that he won’t be able to see his friends on campus. 

A March 20 email from Gonzalez outlined the new operational changes on campus that may restrict access to campus, including road closures, eliminating package delivery to rooms and limiting access to the Blue Zone parking lot. 

For first-year Angikar Ghosal, life now is “very boring.” On a typical day, he wakes up, gets ready for the day, watches movies, reads some books and occasionally studies. He leaves the dorm to eat, comes back and goes to sleep. 

Ghosal echoed Yau and Liu, saying that it was hard to find motivation to do school work.

“I know what work I have to do, but I don’t really feel like doing it,” he said. 

Social distancing may dominate the campus atmosphere, but Guo has taken advantage of the extra time. 

“This is a precious time for me to connect with my family,” she said, explaining that because of the 12-hour time difference, she could only call her family on weekends because she’d been so busy. Now, they talk every day. 

Guo said the vibe on campus has been generally positive for her, because she’s been able to do things that she used to not have time to do. 

“I chose to look on the positive side just to give myself energy,” she said. 

Ghosal, too, is looking for silver linings. 

“As long as I have a roof over my head at night, I’m fine,” Ghosal said. “The atmosphere is pretty depressing and boring, but manageable. We are holding on tight!”

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