Two years ago, when she arrived at Emerson College as a first-year student, Brianna Arends found herself in a grim but fairly typical student-housing assignment: eight people. Four bedrooms. One bathroom.
“We didn’t even have a living room,” said Arends, 20, a junior from New Jersey studying visual and media arts. “It was like a little baby kitchenette and a hallway.”
So when she arrived back at school recently to find her current assignment — an elegantly appointed eighth-floor room at the swanky W Hotel downtown, complete with a king-size bed and a housekeeper who stops in weekly to change the sheets and clean her private bathroom — she experienced something approaching awe.
“When I’m walking in, I’m across the street looking at this place, and I’m like, ’This is really where I live?’ ” she said.
As the pandemic has forced area colleges to get creative in their efforts to mitigate the on-campus impact of COVID-19, some have turned to an unusual arrangement: renting out entire floors of hotels for the coming school year as a way to supplement on-campus housing and ensure students remain socially distant.
The arrangement is mutually beneficial. Schools, in many cases, are able to limit rooms to one student apiece, while hotels — reeling from a lack of summer travel — receive guaranteed occupancy through at least November.
But the biggest beneficiaries, without question, have been the students, who suddenly find themselves enjoying the kind of luxurious existence previously unthinkable in undergraduate living.
“It’s been crazy,” said Tom Teahouse, 20, a junior at Emerson and one of the school’s 200 or so students residing at the W. “I took a bath the other day.”
Plans to employ hotels as student housing began to take shape earlier this summer, as a handful of schools sought the permission of Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh. Kathy Spiegelman, Northeastern’s vice president and chief of campus planning and development, said in July that the school would be taking over 11 floors of the Westin Copley Place. And at the New England Conservatory, students are taking up residence at the South End hostel-turned-hipster retreat Revolution.
For students, certainly, the unexpected luxury has helped quell the disappointing prospect of a socially distant semester.
“I haven’t heard any complaints saying the beds are uncomfortable,” joked Shigeo Iwamiya, director of residence life and housing services at Suffolk University, which is housing around 280 students at the Wyndham in Beacon Hill, the DoubleTree near Tufts Medical Center, and The Boxer in the West End.
Indeed, outside the W Hotel’s luxurious entrance on Thursday afternoon, one backpacked guest after another gushed about their current living situation.
Diana Willand, a 20-year-old Emerson junior studying writing, literature, and publishing, marveled at her 11th-floor view. Mark Emmons, a journalism major from California, praised the natural light and the upgrade from his old dorm, which he described as having a “concrete aesthetic.”
Multiple students said they’d never stayed anywhere nicer. Amid the pandemic, rooms at the W that once started at about $300 a night can be had for half that. There’s no access to room service, although there’s a food service they can pay for out of pocket.
“It’s bougie living,” said Brynn O’Connor, a 19-year-old journalism major. “My mom’s like, ‘You better not get used to this.’ ”
It has also spawned what might be the first complaint of its kind in the history of campus housing.
“It’s more space than I can ever do anything with,” explained Richard Lathrop, 19, an Emerson sophomore studying business.
When Emerson officials first informed students that they could be residing in a hotel, many had theorized about where they might end up.
“We were all guessing before we found out, and the one hotel that we were always like, ’There’s no way we’re staying there’ was the W,” said Marianna Poletti Reyes, 19, an Emerson junior studying writing, literature, and publishing.
Not unexpectedly, the rooms have been a hit on social media.
In a series of widely viewed videos on TikTok, one Emerson student showed off a room that featured a personal Nespresso machine, a large shower encased by floor-to-ceiling glass, a king-sized bed, and a personal thermostat.
“Welcome to my Emerson College single *dorm*,” the student wrote. “I get to spend this semester in a hotel.”
There are some downfalls, of course, to permanent hotel living. At the W, laundry can get a little dicey, with nearly 200 students forced to share just a few washers and dryers. And unlike dorm rooms, students are prohibited from hanging their own decorations, meaning they’re left to endure the personal stylings of a hotel decorator.
“There’s Edgar Allan Poe paintings on the walls,” said Jenna Triest, 19, a sophomore journalism student. “And the glass table is a Ouija board.”
But it was a small price to pay, Triest said, for her current setup.
Though she moved in just a week ago, she was already dreading the day her extended hotel stay would come to an end.
As Triest put it, “I don’t know how I’m ever going to go back to normal housing.”