Risk of return

Risk of Return

While governments issue "safer at home" orders, for some students, home is no safe haven.


When Northwestern notified students they should plan to depart campus following winter’s final exams, Jane* knew she couldn’t go home.

Home for Jane is a small town. And earlier this year, she was sexually assaulted there. She says her community makes her attacker’s presence more noticeable; its size makes it more likely she could run into him.

But by the end of winter quarter, Jane had few alternatives. The reality of returning home to a place she dreaded loomed closer.

“It’s already a struggle being home doing classes because your family is there, and it might not be the most accommodating situation,” Jane says. “But when you add in the stress of anything similar to what I’m going through, it’s just a million times worse.”

She, along with over a dozen other girls, hoped to stay in her sorority house during what, at the time, was only an extended spring break. It was unclear how long the house would stay open — or if it would remain open at all. Jane says improper communciation from her sorority’s housing board made the process even more stressful. Just a week before the girls had to leave campus, they got their answer: The house would be closed indefinitely.

As an alternative, Jane’s sorority gave them the option of staying with local Evanston families, but Jane was uncomfortable with the idea. Still, she knew she wouldn’t be able to complete any schoolwork in her hometown, so Jane reached out to the sorority’s housing board and asked if Northwestern would help her. They said no.

It was her last resort. She packed everything and braced herself for the return home.

The day she was moving out, she received an email from her housing board that the Title IX office was now involved, and they would help her find a place to stay. It didn’t specify any further details.

Hours later with no follow-up, Jane knew she couldn’t sit around to wait. She left campus, only to receive a response once she’d left.

“I spent spring break at home, and it was pretty awful,” Jane says. “I was getting maybe three hours of sleep a night. I just couldn’t imagine doing school there.” Jane sent hurried emails back and forth with the office to coordinate a plan for her return. With a rule in place that prevented those who had already left campus from returning, Jane was afraid she wouldn’t be allowed back. Due to her circumstances, though, the school made an exception. She’d be allowed to stay in Engelhart Hall, an apartment complex for graduate students.

Affordability quickly became a concern. Fifty dollars a night, or $1,500 a month, gave her a kitchenette, a small bathroom and a bedroom. She turned her focus to applying for financial aid. Three different forms later, she still had to pay for the housing on her own.

But while Engelhart was overpriced, it was a refuge from the place where she had spent two weeks of sleepless nights. Jane accepted the housing and packed her things to make the journey back to Evanston.

The repercussions of a solution

While Jane was able to find a place to stay in Evanston away from the difficult situation home created for her, other students didn’t have the same option.

On April 30, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker re-issued multiple executive orders, including an extension of stay-at-home restrictions until May 30

In response, Northwestern sent almost all of its students home for the rest of the quarter. While stay-at-home orders became the default, for some students returning home was more of a problem than a solution.

According to research collected by the National Domestic Hotline (usually referred to as The Hotline), from March 16 to May 17, in cases of physical or domestic abuse, some perpetrators have manipulated stay-at-home orders to further control. Some domestic violence survivors have told them abusers have used COVID-19 as a scare tactic to keep them away from their kids or prevent them from visiting family.

For Avery**, a respondent to NBN’s anonymous form, home poses threats to mental health and safety.

“I’m subject to the same emotional/psychological abuse I experienced growing up. Except this time, there’s no end date,” Avery writes. “Now, not only am I unexpectedly back here for an indefinite amount of time and with no resources to go back to Evanston, but I’m isolated in my house with abusive family members.”

In New York, a hotspot of the pandemic, calls to the state’s domestic violence hotline have risen by 30 percent this past April compared to April 2019. Other police departments throughout the country have also reported recent spikes in domestic violence calls.

In instances of physical, emotional or psychological abuse, stay-at-home limitations have placed a new burden on victims. With usual places of escape — from school and work to mere visibility in public — eliminated, doors closed to shield against disease may also shield violence and abuse from outside eyes.

“Whereas in high school I’d spend a lot of time at the library or with friends, due to the pandemic, my connections to the outside world are limited to digital interactions,” Avery writes.

Dr. Stewart Shankman, the chief of psychology at Northwestern Medicine, says that avoidance of harmful situations may be adaptive. If someone has nowhere to evade trauma, staying in one’s room or hiding in a certain area may become new forms of escape. Of course, Shankman says, avoidance sometimes isn’t possible.

Despite expected increases in abuse during these times, earlier in the pandemic, The Hotline didn’t report an increase in contact. Closer proximity to abusers, they say, have made it more dangerous to reach out for help.

As stay-at-home orders are being lifted in some areas, the National Domestic Hotline is beginning to see a small increase in contact volume. In recent weeks, their contact averages have increased by 12 percent, though they anticipate an even greater spike as more orders are lifted.

The burden of decision-making

For some, deciding where to go during stay-at-home orders involves settling for the lesser of two evils. According to Shankman, it can be extremely stressful or even psychologically damaging to live in a context without acceptance or that has a history of abuse or trauma.

“If you quarantine with people who you have traumatic history with, that might be worse than being alone,” Shankman says. “On the other hand, being alone you’re socially isolated, so it’s going to force people to have to weigh the pros and cons.”

Jane had to choose between paying $1,500 a month for an apartment or being in a community that is a source of trauma, a decision that included both financial and psychological factors.

While Jane says it was the best option for her, living in Engelhart has also brought new and unanticipated obstacles. “I live completely alone. I don’t talk to anyone. I’m inside most of the time. My room’s pretty small. So there are new challenges,” Jane says. “But I feel a lot more isolated than I would if I was with my family.”

Alex**, another respondent to NBN’s anonymous form, knew that living at home for a long period of time would be harmful for their mental health, but couldn’t express that to their family. In the end, they had to make the decision to not go back home.

“It was difficult for [my family] to come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t be going to visit for spring break out of fear of not being able to return to Evanston,” Alex writes.

Alex’s apprehension reflects the larger uncertainties that surround COVID-19. No one knows how to combat it, when it will end, or what it means for the future of human interaction.

“We know that uncertainty is the biggest inducer of stress and anxiety, and this pandemic is filled with uncertainty,” Shankman says. “And that uncertainty just exacerbates any stressful contexts that we already happen to be in.”

In a new context

After adjusting to the often stressful school environment, Northwestern’s student body suddenly had to pack up and leave. For many, the added requirement of schoolwork in what may be an unsafe or difficult environment hasn’t abated this anxiety; some students have felt they must prioritize family over academics. One respondent to NBN’s anonymous form wrote that they have to care for their two much younger half brothers and navigate a difficult relationship with their stepmother and father.

Communication second-year Julianna Lee says her home life was chaotic up until a few months ago. She lived in a three-bedroom house with five other people: her dad, her stepmom, her sister and her two stepbrothers. Sharing a queensized bed with her sister limited personal space and added another layer of interpersonal tension.

Lee says that before this past summer, she and her stepmom were not able to speak to each other without a verbal fight breaking out, which she partly blames on a lack of communication. While her relationship with her stepmom isn’t toxic, there was potential for re-escalation.

In early April, Lee and her younger sister moved from Nashville, Tenn. to Dayton, Ohio to live with her stepmom and dad while her stepbrothers stayed in Tennessee. She says things are much better now, especially because her relationship with her stepmom has improved and she no longer has to share a room with her sister.

“I was slightly nervous though, when corona[virus] happened,” Lee says. “I was like, ‘What if it reverts back to the explosiveness?’ But luckily, it hasn’t.”

However, others remain in strained relationships with family members or places of residence that aren’t big enough. Some students who indicated difficulty at home in NBN’s anonymous form cited family issues as a major contributor, which they would have to deal with without much outside support.

Shifting support

"I'm subject to the same emotional/
psychological abuse I experienced growing up, except this time, there's no end date."


Beyond leaving a safe and comfortable place, students returning home have also lost the in-person support of their Northwestern community, including peers, educators and campus services. Just as Northwestern’s educational model adapted for spring quarter, so, too, did its student services.

Senior Associate Dean of Students Mona Dugo, who oversees Student Assistance and Support Services (SASS), says her office had about 48 hours to figure out what going remote would mean for them. She says she’s proud of how quickly SASS adapted and leveraged technology, including shifting to Zoom meetings and implementing “language lines” in order to interpret for non-English-speaking parents whose children remained on campus. Since the beginning of spring quarter, SASS has worked with 215 individual students (169 of them undergraduates) to assist them with adapting to situational changes.

“We’re talking to a lot of students who, as they’ve gone home, have resumed a lot of responsibility in their houses,” Dugo says. “[When] you come to college, you get to be a college student and focus on yourself. But if you’re particularly a [first-generation], low-income student, and you typically had a lot of responsibility in the home. Going back to the home means that those responsibilities are there again.”

SASS consists of a team of four (including Dugo) plus additional administrative support. Since they tend to work with the students who have the highest need levels, Dugo says her focus at Northwestern Is often on the students who experience systematic barriers to success — often lacking resources and support systems other students may have.

“I think one of the things that this pandemic is doing is it’s showing some great cracks that we as a world have in terms of global inequality,” Dugo says. “What we’re seeing is really showing up in some of our more vulnerable students: some of our highest-need students financially, or if it’s not finances, it’s more complicated.”

"The care and support of our community has been really sustaining."

-Mona Dugo

During the pandemic, however, SASS has also responded to more rapid changes.

“In the past two weeks, we’ve heard from about 10 students who are facing homelessness due to COVID-19 because their families have lost enough income that they’re facing eviction,” Dugo says. “And that’s not usually typical for us, to have families experiencing homelessness so rapidly.”

For students who are facing homelessness, SASS offered ways to come back to campus and provide them with basic necessities such as housing and food. Still, there are some problems where SASS’s support is more limited. If a student has to care for their younger siblings, for example, SASS may discuss realistic course loads with them but is unable to do much else.

Dugo says when it comes to a student who may be re-triggered by being placed back in a toxic environment, SASS is severely limited.

Shankman says that many support systems, including mental health counselors and support groups, have shifted to alternative methods such as telehealth opportunities and Zoom meetings.

“It’s better than nothing,” Shankman says. “The studies showing the effect of telehealth versus in-person therapy [show] the effects are pretty comparable. So talking with a counselor over Zoom is as effective as sitting in the room with them face-to-face.”

When students were on campus, SASS had the ability to intervene and help in a more direct way. In the past, if a student was experiencing distress and lived in a residential hall, a member of SASS could ask a residential director to personally check in on them. Now, Dugo says, being remote diminishes that effectiveness. Still, SASS continues to persist with the resources they have.

“I think one of the things that heartens me right now is every conversation I start with anybody right now — with students, with staff, with faculty — I kind of feel this sense of ‘We are Northwestern strong,’ and that’s been helpful to me,” Dugo says.

Other support services, like the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), are also continuing to work toward keeping students safe. On April 22, Marc Smith, the acting director of the Illinois DCFS, sent an email to Illinois educators to address the dramatic decrease of hotline calls since the closure of schools in March. In it, he asked educators to continue checking on students and reporting as necessary, noting that educators “report abuse and neglect more than any other group of mandated reporters.”

At Northwestern, Dugo says professors and academic advisors have continued to do their part in supporting students during distance learning and remain in constant conversation with SASS.

“The level of concern and care that I’m getting from faculty members all over the place when they have students they’re worried about is extraordinary,” Dugo says. “The care and support of our community has been really sustaining.”

Dugo says that SASS — and Northwestern as a whole — will continue to support students during this time while looking at how to improve student experiences until remote learning comes to an end. To her, with the problems students are currently facing, typical issues at Northwestern hardly compare.

“There’s this buzzword around resiliency, and I think I see it a lot,” Dugo says. “I talk to students, and I see what they’re enduring during this time, and they’re still showing up to class. It kind of amazes me. I think that our students are demonstrating a lot of character right now in what they’re dealing with. And you can’t really measure that.”

It remains uncertain whether in-person instruction will return in the fall. Despite the uncertainties, however, Dugo and Shankman are both hopeful.

“Even though there is uncertainty regarding when this will end, it will end at some point. There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Shankman says. “We’re not sure when that’s going to be, but there will be an end, and I think it’s important for people to remember.”