Throughout the summer, Weinberg first-year Madeline Southwell tried “not to get [her] hopes up.” With a pandemic sweeping the world, it was unlikely she would be on campus fall quarter. But in emails and updates, Northwestern administrators kept reassuring her she would be.
When she tested negative for COVID-19 August 28, living on campus seemed like a reality, and her family toasted her send-off at a celebratory dinner. Fifteen minutes later, she came back to tell them she wouldn’t be allowed on campus.
Across the Atlantic Ocean in the United Kingdom, Antonia Carlsson was awake at 6 a.m. with questions running through her mind. She spent three hours sending emails, she said, worried her visa would force her to go to the U.S. if she was unable to have it deferred.
After months of ensuring first-years and second-years they would be able to live on campus, President Morton Schapiro sent an email August 28 retracting his plans — a mere nine days before move-in.
The decision left these students like Southwell shocked, questioning everything: What motivated the change? Why hadn’t students been informed earlier? Although she believes the University acted in the best interest of its community, Southwell questioned why only upperclassmen were allowed.
During the final installment of Northwestern’s Return to Campus Discussion Series, held on September 1, Shapiro acknowledged the last-minute decision. He said he made the choice to walk back plans August 27.
“Till the middle of last week, I was absolutely convinced we could pull this off,” Shapiro said during the event.
Associate Vice President of Research at Northwestern Medicine Dr. Richard D’Aquila said administrators decided to reverse the decision due to rising cases and a new estimation of the required number of quarantine beds. According to Shapiro, the school’s latest calculations suggested the 609 rooms the school had available for quarantine would be full within seven to 10 days.
First-year Chloe Chow was surprised that the university underestimated quarantine numbers, noting the school “knew how many students there would be.” The email surprised everyone, she says: “People called into housing on Friday, and they said to bring your stuff in.” Chow’s dorm belongings now lie in a pile in her basement.
Several members of Northwestern administration did not respond to requests for comment. By email, Phil Asbury, Northwestern’s Director of Financial Aid, said “These topics are too easily misunderstood, so we are being careful and fairly sparse in our response.”
Now, first- and second-years in remote social isolation lead strange, exhausting lives, with some affected more than others. International students like Carlsson found themselves isolated by their timezone. “I feel like I’m on the outskirts, looking in,” Carlsson says.
Carlsson, who has chronic fatigue syndrome, now “gets up with the sun,” with the heavy coursework making it hard for her to sleep some nights. “It’s kind of like you’re ill until the point where you can’t move,” she says.
“I just generally feel pretty lost and unmotivated,” Southwell says, describing the experience as “disorienting.” She said she can sometimes “drift away” from feeling like she’s part of the student body at all.
For Maggie Sullivan, a first-year in Nashville, Tennessee, motivation is a struggle without tangible connections to teachers and classmates. She says she can’t shake the feeling that “my professor is a series of pixels and a handful of emails, rather than a real human person.”
On Oct. 28, Schapiro emailed the student body to confirm that first- and second-year students would come to campus in winter, “based on where we stand today.” He acknowledged a surge in cases in Evanston, but committed to keeping positivity rates low on campus as more students moved in.
As these students consider whether they will come to campus, some also wonder whether they can trust this decision at all. Chow predicted the administration would “take it back in late November,” resolving not to get excited “until a week before.”