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Dispatches from the Edge

6 voices from college: Alone in a dorm, what a coronavirus diagnosis feels like, and more

In their own voices, these students and staff talk about fearing for undocumented parents, missing graduation, and other personal stories.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 18 — BU student Joel Lau walks down a hallway of his nearly-empty dorm before the university ordered dormitories closed.
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 18 — BU student Joel Lau walks down a hallway of his nearly-empty dorm before the university ordered dormitories closed.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Editor’s Note: These stories are part of a Globe Magazine special report, appearing in print on Sunday, March 29.

I WAS DIAGNOSED WITH COVID-19

> This speaker, a Tufts University student diagnosed on a day that the state’s number of presumptive positive cases reached 108, was granted anonymity to protect their medical privacy. This story has been edited and condensed from two conversations.

“ON MARCH 12, I became the first person at Tufts University with COVID-19. One week earlier, I had traveled to London. I connected with several old friends at a reunion, which had close to 70 attendees. I flew back to Boston on Saturday evening, feeling completely fine, and had a typical few days by college standards.

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On Monday night, I developed a slight cough. Hardly concerning. When I woke up the next morning with a full-blown fever, however, I went straight to Health Service. After I described my symptoms and my travel history, the nurse excused herself to put on a different protective mask.

I tested negative for the flu, and my high fever ruled out the common cold. COVID-19 seemed the likely culprit, but I wasn’t sure if my shortness of breath was a true symptom or an unrelated result of my preexisting respiratory condition. (I’ve always had difficulty breathing through my nose.)

After nearly three hours, the Department of Public Health authorized a test for the coronavirus. Officials also suggested that I remain in quarantine until the results came back, which I was willing to do — in my apartment.

But Tufts insisted that I be quarantined in a residence hall, away from my housemates. I was ushered to a drab first-floor room reserved for health emergencies without time to grab my belongings.

My housemate came by at one point to drop off two days’ worth of clothing, but I never saw them. The room itself has its own bathroom, so I never have to leave. I can e-mail a Tufts employee to request specific food from a nearby dining center, and it appears outside my door after a knock. Even in prison, you can take a walk outside — I cannot.

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All of this has taken a toll. While my physical condition improved steadily after the first day in isolation, quarantine has been remarkably boring. All I have for entertainment is my laptop.

I say this with the perspective that the virus is much more harmful to others. I’m still relatively healthy; some people have become very ill. I’m not financially unstable; some people depend completely on being able to continue working.

On Thursday afternoon, the Health Service told me I had tested positive for the coronavirus. I hesitated to share the news with my family. We’re not very close, and I considered waiting a couple weeks for things to blow over. Eventually, I told them.

It was easier to share the news with friends. I gave Tufts a list of places I’d been since Saturday and people I’d seen, while also reaching out to my closest friends — some of whom were already isolating. Their reaction was part laughter, part shock. I’ve also kept in touch with Tufts administrators, who are doing their best to alleviate my sense of isolation but are also limited by the situation. To be honest, I’m overwhelmed by the number of calls, messages, and texts every day. It sounds ridiculous, given my situation, but I just want some time to myself.

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I’ll need to test negative for the virus twice, with at least 24 hours in between tests, to be released from quarantine. Given the limited number of tests available, I’m concerned they won’t have enough for everyone.

Meanwhile, my housemates are quarantined together. It’s easier to handle isolation knowing there’s an end date. My friends will be free if they don’t show symptoms for 14 days. I’d like to join them for dinner then, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to.”

As told to Caleb Symons

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Monday, March 16

SOCIALLY DISTANT ON CAMPUS

Joel Lau works in his dorm, which had fallen oddly silent after BU moved courses online, before he had to leave campus.
Joel Lau works in his dorm, which had fallen oddly silent after BU moved courses online, before he had to leave campus. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

By Joel Lau

THE FIRST THING I NOTICED was the sound — there wasn’t any. I attend Boston University and live in the Warren Towers dorm right on Commonwealth Avenue, which normally houses nearly 1,800 undergrads. The soundtrack on the BU campus is near-constant — tens of thousands of students in transit to classes, laughing and talking over meals at any time of day, the squeal of the T, the shock of freshmen yelling out their windows at 3 in the morning during exam week.

Only after Saturday, March 14th’s frat parties finally sputtered to a halt would the noise recede into a church-like hush that lasted until students started dragging themselves up around 2 p.m. on Sunday.

Every hour is church hour now. BU moved all its courses online and urged students not to come back from spring break. Within a week, the population of my hall dropped from 24 to four.

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All the disadvantages of communal living disappear when the community is eliminated. I like not having to wait to board one of the few working elevators, to take a shower, or to get a washing machine on a weekend night. Finding myself alone last Sunday, I thought about running all 20 washers at once, just for the hell of it.

Dorm life is easier, but I don’t feel like celebrating. It’s hard to in a room that feels increasingly like a cell. Visitors are banned. Gathering with other students is highly discouraged. With high-fives outlawed and hugs a biohazard, I haven’t had physical contact with another human for nearly a week. Even the dining hall is empty: Dining Services puts our food in takeout boxes and we eat alone in our rooms.

Thank God for the Internet, my one connection to the outside. I video-call my parents in Hawaii, sometimes multiple times a day, although they’re six hours behind me. Church is streamed live over YouTube, and we greet each other through the chat box. Weekday mornings, I roll out of bed, boot up my laptop, and start working. I don’t miss the horror that is the Green Line at rush hour. I do miss my roommate’s greeting when I’d come back after work (he’s stuck in rural New York), and cracking up with friends over the latest episode of Bon Appétit’s Gourmet Makes.

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The highlight of my morning? Seeing my co-workers on Zoom’s teleconferencing software. We’re our very own Brady Bunch, nine self-quarantined souls along with a loud dog and one very fat cat.

I tell myself that it’s peaceful now. But really, I miss the noise.

* Joel Lau, a sophomore at Boston University, is the Globe Magazine’s co-op. The day after he wrote this essay, BU ordered students to leave dorms by the end of the week. He now lives in an apartment in Cambridge.

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Tuesday, March 17

I’M LIVING THIS NIGHTMARE WITH ALL AMERICANS

> Rodrigo Pimentel, 22, a Dreamer and college student in East Providence, Rhode Island

University of Rhode Island student Rodrigo Pimentel.
University of Rhode Island student Rodrigo Pimentel.

“I WAS ALREADY living a nightmare with the Trump administration’s attempts to end DACA. But this far surpasses that.

[Before this] I was more concerned with doing well in my computer science studies at the University of Rhode Island than anything. My concerns have shifted to wondering if I might lose a friend or family member. I have health insurance, but my family, like millions of other undocumented immigrants, doesn’t. This is true for many mixed status families. My father has type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, and I’m very worried for him.

In my family, our big concern is how we’ll pay the bills if we’re all stuck at home. It comes down to prioritizing things like food — everything else will have to wait. We haven’t made any of those sacrifices yet, but what about next month? And the month after that? What things won’t we pay? For undocumented people, the biggest fear is financial because a lot of us can’t work from home and we don’t have access to federal assistance.

Many people are afraid of going to the emergency room. The immigrant community has been under attack for so long that this just compounds the fear. They don’t want to be deported and I think elected officials should come out and reassure people that medical privacy laws don’t allow hospitals to reveal your immigration status.

I’m living this nightmare with all Americans. In this crisis, I don’t think there’s a difference between undocumented immigrants and an American because viruses don’t discriminate.”

As told to Kevin G. Andrade

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Sunday, March 15

ALL THAT MY MOTHER WANTED WAS TO SEE ME GRADUATE

> Ruoyan Chen, an Emerson College international student whose Beijing-based mother will miss her graduation

Ruoyan Chen with her mother, Xuejian Zhao, on a trip to Japan in January 2019.
Ruoyan Chen with her mother, Xuejian Zhao, on a trip to Japan in January 2019.

“DURING THE FOUR YEARS of my college, all my mom said was, “Oh, I will go with you during your commencement, I will be there,” and it’s just not happening. We had the news confirmed that the US Embassy [in Beijing] won’t open for visa appointments until May 18, which is after graduation. I couldn’t believe it.

I feel sorry for my mom because she has been working really hard to have time to be able to leave her work to come here. She’s a nurse in a public hospital. She works Monday through Friday and a half day during weekends.

My mom has always been the one who’s supported me in school. She would always go to parent-teacher meetings and graduations. When I decided to study abroad, she tried to persuade my dad and my other family members to agree. It was important for my mom to come here and see how much I learned and grew up here.

I was at my internship when I texted her the article [about the visa appointments]. She said, “Sorry. It’s my fault that I didn’t do it earlier. So I can’t go.” I said, “It’s OK, Mom. You can ask Dad when he has more time, and then after the coronavirus, you all can come together.” I didn’t say much. Not until eight days later, I called her.

I was in my bed. She was struggling with using the camera facing her, and walking around our home to find a better signal. I cried, but I didn’t want my mom to know.

I pointed my phone toward the wall so she wouldn’t be able to see my face.”

As told to Melissa Rosales

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Monday, March 16

WRITING THE BOOK ON ADVERSITY

> Laura Huang, Harvard Business School professor and author of the new book “Edge: Turning Adversity Into Advantage”

“I WAS SCHEDULED TO give two talks at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. It was probably the end of February when everything started getting canceled. There have been 16 or 17 cancellations that happened all within a week. There are lots of other writers that I’m in contact with; many of them are trying to take things online with virtual book tours and things like that.

You know, my book is about turning adversity into an advantage. But I’m not really trying to turn this into an advantage. A lot of my efforts have been around my students. There’s students who have visa issues. There are students who have — myself included — faced huge anti-Asian phobia and racism.

I’ve been thinking about adversity in a larger sphere. It’s hard because I spent so much time writing and promoting the book, and just really caring and loving it, to see all of this momentum lost. But at the same time, I feel this guilt over feeling disappointed. There are so many other people who are being crushed in bigger ways. How can I help others who are facing adversity? I mean, that’s why I wrote the book in the first place, right?”

As told to Carly Thompson

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Monday, March 16

MOVING THOUSANDS OF STUDENTS, AND THEIR PROFESSORS, TO ONLINE CLASSES

> Kate Korzendorfer, associate vice president for information technology at Regis College, Weston

"We were aware very, very early on that this was going to be something serious. The students have been extremely positive and accepting and understanding of the transition. We’ve had online classes for several years now, so for many of them, this is nothing new.

Some folks are more skilled in technology in general than others. So for some, I think it was a little bit more of a learning curve. We’ve been running consistent training sessions with our faculty multiple times a day for the last two and a half weeks.

The biggest change for us is that we are bringing some disciplines that traditionally had been solely in the classroom, online. We have certain courses that are very intimate courses, like our freshman-year experience.

It’s heartbreaking to some degree, in particular for our senior class. So, we’re doing everything we can to ensure their health and stability through this transition."

As told to Jakob Menendez

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As-told-to interviews have been edited and condensed. Contributors: Carly Thompson, Melissa Rosales, and Jakob Menendez are students in an Emerson College publishing class. Caleb Symons is a senior at Tufts University. Kevin G. Andrade is a New England-based journalist. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.