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Isolated before isolation: The Duke students without their phones during spring break

The Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico, where one Duke student was without Internet access during spring break when the University announced it was closing down for the semester.
The Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico, where one Duke student was without Internet access during spring break when the University announced it was closing down for the semester.

Just one month ago, Duke students on spring break received a notice to not return to campus due to COVID-19. Some students didn’t get the message until days later.

They were traversing the world and their minds, toppling over red rocks or lost in private reflection, committed to spending a week—just one week—away from the Internet.

Sophomore Amanda Padden was among the disconnected. She spent spring break hiking in southern Utah with a cohort of Robertson Scholars. None of them had a phone. 

“We missed a period of escalation and uncertainty,” Padden said. “When we came out, decisions had been made.”

Another sophomore, Seun Oguntunmibi, was similarly off the grid when the news hit. 

Oguntunmibi was staying at the isolated Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico with a group of fellow Chapel Scholars.

“There was a bunch of additional stress,” he said. “Being at the monastery, I didn’t have to deal with that.”

In isolation before isolation

Life at the monastery followed a strict routine that mostly involved eating, praying and sleeping, Oguntunmibi said. He had seen reports that the coronavirus might spread in the United States like it had in Italy before he entered the monastery on March 8, but knew little beyond that point.

And a big thing didn’t happen at the monastery: talking. He spent the retreat in silence.

“For me, it was mostly about reflection,” he said. “You’re just kind of left alone with your thoughts. Your mind runs wild.”

Oguntunmibi couldn’t talk about the coronavirus at the monastery, but as he wandered trails  through mountains and desert, he wondered what the world would look like when he got back. 

“Being on the grid wouldn’t have helped,” Oguntunmibi said. “I just would’ve gotten a bunch of scary phone calls and texts from my parents.”

Padden said that in between scrambling over rocks, repelling, pitching camp and playing hacky-sack, her group thought about the coronavirus too.

“Everyone had their prediction of what the situation would be when we got out,” she said.  

Coming back to a new world

It was hard for anyone to imagine how quickly the world would change during that week away.

On March 10, the Tuesday of spring break, President Vincent Price informed students that in-person classes were suspended until April 20. On Wednesday, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. By Thursday, all Duke residential activities had been canceled for the semester, and students were told to not return to campus.  

The changes—received by students in a barrage of emails—forced many undergraduates to quickly re-plan their lives. Unaware that the world was not the same, Oguntunmibi and Padden reassessed the lives they assumed they would continue to live.

“It felt good to not be perpetually in-contact,” said Padden, reflecting on schoolwork’s dominance in her life.  

“I just wanted to be a lot more intentional about prioritizing things that made me happy, things that made me feel mentally and physically well,” she said.  

Oguntunmibi, who is pre-med, agreed that time for reflection is hard to come by at Duke.

“I’m never really taking time to think about how I’m doing mentally, or emotionally or socially,” he said.

For him, the monastery offered pause.

“It made me feel way better going to sleep thinking, ‘wow, I accomplished a lot of things today, but also, I took a lot of time messing around, and life is great,’” Oguntunmibi said.

Returning to the grid

The two left their respective deserts March 14.

After a seven-hour drive from the Bears Ear National Monument region to Salt Lake City, Padden arrived at a storage locker and got her hands on a phone. Her National Outdoor Leadership School tour guide cautioned the group as their devices began to ring.

“I was told to warn you that there's going to be some emails from your schools about coronavirus, and to not panic,” Padden recalled the tour guide saying.

“Trying to catch up on all of it at once was confusing because if you read an email from Wednesday, it would tell you something different than an email from Thursday,” Padden said.

Some of her hiking companions struggled with the news, she said. There were vague emails to pour over, international flights to book home and a new world to accept.

Padden, who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., and headed home via Raleigh-Durham International Airport, said she was worried about social distancing as she flew through Chicago. For the most part, however, she felt that there wasn’t too much to stress about—everything was out of her hands.

“I wasn't there for the process of debating what to do. The universities were going to make a decision and it was out of our control,” she said. “I just knew I needed to land and get my stuff and go home because that's what the situation was now.”

Oguntunmibi realized something was up when the Duke faculty member traveling with his group got a call on the monastery’s lone phone on that Thursday.

“‘We might not have a school to go back to,’” Oguntunmibi recalled hearing. “‘I’m not really sure what’s going on, but we’ll find out more when we get back.’”

He tried to keep his mind off the hazy prescription for the rest of his stay. It was raining when he left the monastery, but somewhere along the 15-mile dirt path toward home, his phone caught a signal and the news hit.

“I just got an influx of emails from Vincent Price. I started from the top,” he said. “I hopped on Twitter and they were all talking about Zoom.”

His group was told they should avoid returning to Duke if possible. Instead, the University booked a flight for him back to Savannah, Ga., his hometown.  

“I was so excited to go back to Duke and just get back into it. I was ready to go back,” he said.

Oguntunmibi is home now. With dishes to do, chores to check off and an “abundance of Zoom meetings” to hop on, Oguntunmibi said this new isolation isn’t quite like what he experienced in the desert. Still, his moment of disconnection prepared him for being stuck in the house.

“This definitely would suck a lot more if I wasn’t used to being quiet and feeling—to some extent—trapped and isolated,” he said.  

Padden took lessons from her spring break into quarantine too.

“Coming from that week, I remember all these things I like and get joy from, like walking outside,” she said. “I’m glad I have a little more motivation to do those things.”

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