With the start of the spring semester, students flocked to a socially distanced campus in droves, willing to undergo the arrival quarantine, adhere to social distancing requirements, and rejoin the on-campus community. Others chose not to.
Roughly a quarter of enrolled undergraduates decided to continue their studies off campus for the time being; their reasons for doing so range from parental pressure to health concerns to desires for quality family time.
“The harsh truth”: Health concerns and staying home
Based out of Florida, Valeria Zuluaga-Sanchez ’24 cites the COVID-19 pandemic as her primary reason for choosing to study virtually from home this semester.
“When I was deciding whether to go or not,” said Zuluaga-Sanchez, “I took a step back and had to recognize that the safety risks were too high. With the number of new cases still rising, and new virus mutations developing, I realized that I can wait for my campus experience.”
Zuluaga-Sanchez was resolved that living on campus presented few benefits and remains enthusiastic about her virtual experience this year.
“My classes first semester were great, honestly,” she said. “My professors have been really understanding, and they’ve helped out a lot during this situation that is new for all of us.”
For Mollika Singh ’24, pandemic-related risks also played a major role in her decision to stay home. Having two parents who work with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has made her acutely aware of the dangers the pandemic poses.
“Tony Fauci is two or three bosses above my dad, as he loves to tell people, and my mom works at the NIH [National Institute of Health] Clinical Center,” Singh said.
“They feel very connected to the pandemic, and if I had gone to campus, the mindset informed by my parents would have limited my experiences,” she continued. “I would have been so careful — maybe even more careful than the average student.”
Singh worried that this eye towards caution might prevent her from making the most of the social experience promised by on-campus living.
“I would feel like I was missing out on people socializing right outside my window, as opposed to in an entirely other state,” Singh said.
To Singh, staying home is not just about exercising caution, but it is also an opportunity to help her younger brother transition from middle school to high school and catch up on her ROTC physical regimen.
Singh is an Associate Opinion Editor for The Daily Princetonian and the Chairperson for the 145th Editorial Board.
Based out of Princeton Junction, Masha (Maria) Khartchenko ’24 says she is both tantalizingly close to, and insurmountably far away from, her peers on campus.
“Since my family is high risk, I haven’t seen anyone in person, at a distance closer than 20 feet, since last March,” Khartchenko said. “I was really hoping to go to campus in the spring, so I could get a hug or something. I had high expectations to be able to go.”
However, Khartchenko was thinking outside of herself when she decided not to return to campus. With an immunocompromised family, the risk of carrying the virus back to them at the end of the semester was too great.
“I talked to my parents and [they] made me think it through... I guess it was the harsh truth I had to face, and that’s why I’m home,” she explained.
Still, Khartchenko is doing her best to stay connected to her campus friends and stave off loneliness virtually.
“I guess I thought my friends would cut me off more, but they haven’t,” Khartchenko said. “I’ve been in very close contact with all of them through text, FaceTime, and Zoom. I still feel included even though I’m not with them physically.”
Teaching in person, rooming with siblings, and suburban living: Other reasons to stay
Some students, like Sara Alway ’24, chose not to return to campus for reasons largely unrelated to the pandemic. Alway had started working at a kindergarten enrichment program near her home in Marlton, N.J last semester and was eager to continue in person.
"A lot of the kids are only-children, so they don’t get social interaction often, especially with virtual kindergarten,” Alway said. “I love teaching them, and they love the class, and I really didn’t want to leave them in the middle of the year.”
Going to campus would have required Alway to give up her kindergarten class, as well as her job as a tutor for high-school students, for a campus experience she viewed as having few benefits.
“I would have had to give it all up to live in a dorm I wouldn’t have had much freedom in, and still attend classes virtually anyway,” Alway said.
Julia Chaffers ’22 decided to stay virtual for the semester after weighing the respective benefits of campus life compared to her life in the apartment she leased with her brother and twin sister at the beginning of the fall semester.
Convenience was one of many considerations that led to her decision. Proximity to her parents, the severity of campus restrictions, and the fate of her brother’s lease with two absent roommates all tipped the scale in favor of staying.
Equally important was the knowledge that Chaffers would not be missing out on her extracurricular activities.
“Because I’m president of Whig-Clio, I felt like I wanted to go back just so I could be with everyone. Since there weren’t going to be any in-person activities anyway, I wasn’t going to be missing out on much being virtual,” she said. “Same with stuff for the ‘Prince.’ I wouldn’t miss out on being in the newsroom because everything was going to be virtual. It made it easier to stay behind.”
Chaffers feels that her current living situation is far from isolated, and she is making the most of spending these months with her siblings.
“I came to realize that most of campus life would just be me in my single. It would be a lot of sitting inside with one or two other people — I have my two people right here!”
Chaffers is a Senior Opinion columnist for the ‘Prince.’
For Claudia Frykberg ’22, studying virtually is not equivalent to studying from home. As an international student from Australia, Frykberg decided to stay in the United States due to travel restrictions and time zone concerns, but remain off campus to retain freedom from University regulation.
Frykberg is an Opinion columnist for the ‘Prince.’
“I was thinking it would be hard, considering if you stayed on campus, you wouldn't be able to travel or leave,” Frykberg said. “There were people in my life who couldn’t be on campus that I wanted to see, and I wanted the freedom to be able to do that.”
Frykberg found living accommodations in Oakbrook Terrace, a suburb of Chicago, to stay within a reasonable time zone for attending her classes at Princeton. Reflecting on what she described as the “strangest year of [her] life,” she noted the benefits of travel and unconventional living arrangements — even if she has lost time on Princeton’s campus.
“Last year, I lived in nine different places throughout the year, which is very atypical, and even ironic, during a pandemic,” she said. “I’ve had weird experiences I never would have been able to otherwise, and I’ve learned a lot.”