After Boston University urged all undergrads to leave campus and go home two weeks ago to limit the spread of coronavirus, senior Sophie Will decided to stay — in part because she couldn't afford the trip home to Salt Lake City, Utah.
“Not only is it financially impossible, but it is not a good place for me to be right now to excel personally and in my career, as I know is the case for so many of my friends who are also in this situation,” said Will, a journalism major who interned with WGBH News' New England Center for Investigative Reporting in 2018.
Self-isolation inside her cramped dorm room, she said, is taking a toll on her emotional health.
“Physically, I think I’m okay,” she said. “I’ve got some food storage, but having to stay home and having to work from home and do everything from this tiny space has really affected my productivity, my mental health, my everything.”
At BU, about 1,000 undergrads like Will are stuck on campus. Many of them are from low-income families or outbreak hotspots around the globe. At Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston College, Simmons College, Northeastern University and Tufts University, more students remain in dorms locally. Those who can’t go home for financial or health reasons are especially susceptible to stress and anxiety, psychologists say.
“It's not a random sample of students who are going to be left on campus,” said Sarah Lipson, a psychology professor at BU's School of Public Health. “It’s low-income students — students who have food and housing insecurities.”
As someone who researches student mental health, which many psychologists believe had already reached crisis levels, Lipson said she is deeply concerned about short- and long-term side effects of COVID-19.
“We know that so many students and young people are already struggling,” she said. “So much of the effort to support student mental health has been around creating a sense of belonging and communities, and now this pandemic is really making that impossible.”
Lipson said colleges can relieve students’ stress by offering telemedicine and switching grades to pass-fail. She also said she thinks faculty who are transitioning to online teaching can help by building a sense of community and telling their students they care.
“Acknowledging, just: This is really difficult,” Lipson said. “This is a more important time than ever to be thinking about self-care. I've been telling students some of the things that I've been doing to take care of myself and encouraging them to do the same.”
From the vantage point of her dorm room on BU’s South campus, Will said seeing Commonwealth Avenue and the Charles River Esplanade empty and hearing the T rattle by with nobody on it makes her feel lonely.
“It feels like I'm in a barren wasteland apocalypse, weird dystopian movie,” she said. “But I'm glad to be here.”
That’s because last week, BU granted her appeal to stay in her on-campus dorm. “I’m very grateful, very surprised and just decompressing from all of the news,” she said.
In the coming days, to help flatten the curve of rising coronavirus infections, the university told Will and other students still on campus they may be relocated into consolidated housing.
For now, Will said she is becoming more comfortable with social distancing.
“I'm trying to be easier on myself,” she said. “I am taking the time to work and distract and keep going as normal as much as possible.”
Like many students stuck on campus, Will said she is worried about being able to find prescription medications and groceries and entering the job market during a pandemic and a possible recession.
Boston University’s School of Public Health is offering a webinar called “Mental Health In A Time Of Crisis” on March 26. It is free and open to the public.
Correction: Sophie Will was an intern with WGBH News' New England Center For Investigative Reporting in 2018, not 2019.