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When your college dorm is a four-star hotel

Brown University leased 240 rooms at the Omni Providence to provide socially distanced housing, and in turn, guaranteed income for a hotel that’s been closed since last March

From left are sophomores: Caroline Chen, Elyse Forman, and Juliana Lederman. During the continuing coronavirus pandemic, Brown University has leased 240 rooms at the Omni Providence Hotel so students are can live in single-occupancy rooms.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Caroline Cheng’s living situation last year, as a freshman at Brown University, felt bleak.

It was classic student housing: a dark brick building, little natural light, worn twin beds, and a bathroom she had to share with four other people.

But this year, the East Greenwich native feels like she got an upgrade: an eighth floor room at the four-star Omni Providence Hotel.

Her new amenities — a king-sized bed, her own bathroom, a view of downtown and the old Biltmore Hotel sign, fresh linens provided by the hotel every week, and a service that would wash and fold her laundry for her — made her rethink ever wanting to live in a dorm again.


“I felt like I was in the movie ‘Eloise at the Plaza,’” said Cheng, a sophomore majoring in applied mathematics and economics. “It’s been quite a step up.”

She added: “My family is super jealous.”

Brown University sophomore Caroline Cheng's room at the Omni Hotel, which is housing students this semester.Caroline Cheng

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic prompted several universities in Rhode Island to reconfigure their student housing over the last year. Quads and nightmare roommates may not quite be a thing of the past, but as for the foreseeable future, colleges are finding alternative ways to ensure students are properly social distancing, often by giving them their own room. In some cases that means leasing additional space in nearby hotels — an arrangement that ultimately provides some guaranteed income to a hospitality industry that’s been hurt by the pandemic.

The University of Rhode Island also contracted with three undisclosed hotels this year. Salve Regina placed juniors and seniors in the Newport Marriott, and Providence College students who must be isolation or quarantine will hunkerdown at the Providence Marriott Downtown.

Last fall, Brown leased space at the River House (a modern riverfront building with “resort-style community amenities”), the Chestnut Commons (an apartment building in Providence’s Innovation and Design District with rooftop decks and skyline views) and 95 Lofts (an eco-conscious building in Providence’s Jewelry District).


But partnering with the Omni to provide student housing has an added benefit: it offers a boost to a luxury hotel that has been closed since the beginning of the pandemic. John Solitro, Omni’s director of sales and marketing, said “it has yet to be determined” when the hotel will reopen to the public.

Students living at the Omni say they’re in awe of their new dorm.

“I was itching to get back to Providence,” said Elyse Forman, a sophomore from Los Angeles studying health and human biology. “But this is just so beyond anything I ever expected.”

She added, “I even got a corner room. Which means it’s even bigger than most of my friends’ rooms.”

The view from Juliana Lederman's "dorm" room at the Omni Providence Hotel. (Juliana Lederman)Juliana Lederman

The view from her window is of the Rhode Island State House. Housekeeping changes their sheets for them once per week. And instead of lugging sacks of dirty clothes to a shared laundry room and hoping that every machine is not already taken, Brown students at the Omni leave their laundry with the hotel staff and pick it up two days later — clean, pressed and folded.

There are downsides to living in the lap of hotel luxury. Eating, sleeping, studying, and having virtual classes all in the same room has been incredibly isolating, according to some students. And because they are in a hotel room, they can’t put up their own decorations.


But the biggest complaint was about the food. Brown arranged for lunches and dinners to be delivered to students living in hotels. The meals included a salad, but there wasn’t a lot of variety, students said, and portions were small.

A Brown University shuttle pulls up to the Omni Hotel to pick up students who are being housed at the hotel during the pandemic. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“The bagged food hasn’t been great,” said Juliana Lederman, a sophomore from Marblehead, Massachusetts, who is studying physics and business economics.

The meals came in three styles, Lederman said: normal, vegan, and “simply prepared,” which she said was “without any spice. Or just any seasoning of any kind.”

One student said they received chicken tenders and tater-tots, but without any greens or other healthy options. Until recently, breakfasts were provided the night before, and students couldn’t choose what they wanted to eat.

“One time I got this hard boiled egg packaged in a way that just grossed me out,” said Lederman. “And I had hundreds of packages of oatmeal I wasn’t eating.”

The food issues seem to be getting resolved this week, the students said. For the first time, they were able to choose their own food and increase their portion sizes.

But for Cheng, the pros vastly outnumber the cons. Cleaning essentials, microwaves, mini fridges, and a few rolls of toilet paper were provided for them. And the students have their own COVID-19 testing site on the third floor, where they are tested every few days and get results within 24 hours.

She said, “It’s going to be hard to top this.”


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.