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A time capsule from the end of the world: Students return to campus 10 months later

<h6>Denise Applewhite / <a href="https://www.princeton.edu/news/2021/01/22/university-focuses-health-and-safety-undergraduates-return-campus" target="_self">Office of Communications</a></h6>
Denise Applewhite / Office of Communications

Ten months after the end of the world as we knew it, the Orange Bubble is almost entirely unrecognizable. Prospect Avenue, once home to upperclassmen dining and campus nightlife, now boasts shuttered mansions and unusually clean sidewalks. Paw print stickers placed six feet apart line every building entrance. The dining hall tables that used to barely contain the chattering and hungry masses now allow seating for only one or two. Under COVID-19 restrictions, 2,887 undergraduate students have been discovering what it means to live on campus without the elements that typically make up the quintessential college experience.

For these students, being back on campus is like opening a time capsule from March 2020. Camille Reeves ’23 described the “movie-style flashback moments” she experienced while going through her boxed-up belongings, which had remained in storage while she was away.

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“The thing that cracked me up the most was seeing all of my going-out shirts,” she said.

“I saw the top I wore to TI [Tiger Inn] formals, and the top I wore to my birthday party,” she continued. “I was so lucky to have a community that gave me those experiences. It made me realize that Princeton spirit is going to look a little different this semester.”

Despite mourning large social gatherings, Reeves still feels that spirit on campus. After having spent the last 10 months isolated in the Midwest, she described seeing people in person as “heavenly.”

“The first hug I had post-quarantine, I’m still thinking about it.”

Reeves is not alone in her nostalgia for the simple pleasures of a campus community. Chris Luo ’23 even longed for the communal showers while away from campus.

“They were kind of something that I missed, even though my shower from home is obviously bigger,” she said. “It feels pretty ritualistic. I need my robe and my shower caddy, and people might see me flash, and I hope they don’t. ”

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For many returning students, campus feels far more empty than usual. 

“You can tell that there are a lot of people missing,” said Reeves. “You can feel their absence.”

Last March, campus was anything but empty. Despite warnings from the University to socially distance, students took part in festivities by way of saying goodbye in their last week on campus. The remnants of student antics in Henry Courtyard can still be seen today, according to Reeves.

“If you walk by it, you can see how much work they had to do to regrow the grass — there’s still sand, there’s still fertilizer. 10 months later, they’re still trying to regrow the grass,” Reeves said.

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Older students may be grappling with the many changes to the once-familiar campus, but first-years have no standard for comparison. With spring orientation events and campus tours occurring online since March, many had never seen Princeton in person. Rachel Chen ’24 described her initial intimidation during move in. 

“Everything is so historic and beautiful. It’s a place that tourists go to look at the outside… it took me a minute to realize I could just use my [student ID card] and walk in; it didn’t feel like I should be allowed to,” Chen said.

Sekinat Aliu ’24 echoed Chen’s awe, saying, “I think I spent my first walk just wandering around and taking pictures.”

Most first-years have never seen their fellow students in person and, though excited to see their classmates, have also found it a little strange.

“Nobody looks how you expect them to look in person, which is so funny because you’ve seen their face like a million times,” said Isaac Owen ’24. 

Aliu agreed, noting that “people are so much taller or shorter than you think they are gonna be.”

Sophia Duchateau ’24 explained how typical first-year anxieties have been exacerbated by the current situation.

“Seeing people is weird. Really weird. But at the same time, I want to meet everyone, and it can be overwhelming because I feel like I haven’t been socializing for so long, that I wonder, ‘Did I forget how to make friends?’”

Returning students share in these uncomfortable first interactions as well. Luo explained what it was like to see her boyfriend again for the first time in 10 months.

“It was so awkward,” she said with a laugh. “The first day, when I hadn’t gotten my test results back yet, I was by my second-floor window and he was just in the courtyard. That’s how we were talking. Honestly, that’s the closest in proximity that we’ve been in months.”

Most students agree that, be it their first move-in or their last, arriving on campus was far more somber and stressful than usual. Instead of the usual celebratory welcome activities and stalls at the Lewis Arts complex, students found themselves rushing their belongings into their dorm rooms before entering quarantine.

Several students, especially those coming from farther away, shipped essential items to campus. However, Frist Campus Center has faced a massive influx and subsequent backlog of packages.

Aliu, who flew in from California, was unable to receive her bed linens and hygiene products like shampoo and soap for the better part of a week. Duchateau, traveling from Puerto Rico, had packages with clothing go missing.

International students have faced issues in addition to shipping while coming to campus in the middle of a pandemic. Chen recounted getting “scammed” as she and her family attempted to cross the U.S. border. A domestic car rental service wanted an extra $150 as a “border charge.”

In the TigerConfessions# Facebook group, one student wrote anonymously, alleging an unusually aggressive interaction with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers when they were escorted into a separate room at the airport for additional “administration checking.” 

The anonymous student wrote, “[The officer] kept my passport & I-20, and I was taken to an inner room where no phone use was allowed (so I couldn't let my partner waiting outside to pick me up know that I'm taken in). In the room was... every other international student on the flight.”

In this room, the student was asked a series of “increasingly hostile questions,” with the officer even sarcastically questioning the necessity of the student returning to campus given their major.

The student recalled the officer saying, “Computer science seems like a very difficult major to do entirely online, huh?”

For some students, move-in became even more complicated as a result of the mandatory arrival testing. Those who tested positive for COVID-19 were moved into isolation in 1967 Hall and had meals delivered. Students were unable to go outside, missing out on the standard quarantine walks.

Jose Ortiz ’23 described his experience in quarantine, stating he’s “been managing, long story short.”

Ortiz said, “The isolation coordinators (ICs) are actually pretty helpful… as I was moving into isolation, I had actually forgotten to bring toothpaste with me, and I was like ‘oh no, what am I gonna do?’”

After a quick email, the ICs were able to leave Ortiz toothpaste with his next meal. And Ortiz was also able to do what many other students could not: request more canned water.

Ortiz had COVID-19 in January and has since been moved out of isolation. Despite having no symptoms, Ortiz received an outpouring of messages and calls of support.

“I got a call from my Director of Student Life, which is also kind of unexpected, but it’s nice to see that people were there for me if I needed them,” he said.

A frenetic move-in, misplaced luggage, and isolation have all made being back on campus more challenging than in a typical year. But for those who returned, the on-campus residential experience is still very much worth it.

“For the longest time, I had convinced myself that Princeton had sunk into the ground, it no longer existed,” Reeves said. “But I walked by [Dod Hall] and every window was lit again. Student life has returned. The soul of campus is back.”

Similarly, Chen felt the idea of Princeton suddenly become tangible as she set foot in Jadwin Gym.

“On the first day here, there was a moment, and I’ll remember it forever, where it just finally struck me: I’m actually at Princeton. That’s pretty crazy,” said Chen.

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