Since most of his friends left campus, Kevin Rivera, a senior at the University of Texas at San Antonio, has been spending days at a time alone in his apartment. He wakes up and tries to either paint or read, but usually gives up quickly and turns on a TV show. He FaceTimes friends and calls his mom, but it’s not the same as being with people. The coronavirus has destabilized his day-to-day life on two fronts. Rivera’s school has limited campus services and moved all course instruction online for the rest of the semester. And because of an executive order from Governor Greg Abbott last Thursday aiming to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, the restaurant where Rivera worked had to cut staff. He’s applying to grocery stores for work, once his final three weeks of pay come in and he’s officially out of a job. But in the meantime, it’s been lonely.
“It’s weird not having that interaction,” he said. “Even though as a server you obviously talk to strangers, you would at least talk to people.”
Rivera, a first-generation college student, pays for his off-campus apartment, groceries, and other bills by himself. Unlike most of his friends who have returned to their hometowns, he’s stuck near campus. He doesn’t have reliable internet at his home in Rosenberg, which would make online instruction difficult, and he feels inclined to stay in the apartment he’s paying for. While UTSA has continued to keep its food pantry open, provide health and counseling services, and offer dining options for takeout only, the school can only do so much to help students like Rivera.
Colleges across the state have adopted a variety of responses to the new coronavirus, extending spring breaks, canceling school events, moving in-person instruction to online platforms, and even asking students to move out of on-campus residence halls early. Some schools have made efforts to assist students dealing with these changes. Most have promised students room-and-board reimbursement if they were asked to move out. Others have kept facilities like mental health counseling and some food services open, with limited hours. But these sudden shifts in university operations have left students who are tied to campus for a variety of financial reasons isolated. Coupled with the loss of jobs that pay for their housing, closures have upended many students’ lives.
Even though schools have offered comprehensive aid, vulnerable students have been subject to contingencies universities could not plan for. When the University of Texas at Dallas announced all instruction for the remaining spring semester would be online, President Richard C. Benson wrote the student body, “Please know that decisions are made first and foremost with the well-being of each student in mind. We will also work with each student to address their individual situation and needs during this time.” To this end, UT created a systemwide emergency fund available to help with specific student needs. But those who couldn’t leave campus now find themselves in tough positions.
Samta Bhakta, a senior at the University of Texas at Dallas, had been staying behind on campus after her friends left, to continue working as an executive assistant at a medical billing company in north Dallas. She had been using the gig to pay for gas, groceries, and utilities, as well as saving some funds for grad school in health care administration at University of Minnesota. But following the Dallas County order issued Sunday that requires residents to shelter in place, the company laid off most of its part-time staff, including her. Because of the county lockdown, she feels obligated to stay in her apartment.
“Everything in my life is a big question mark right now, and I didn’t really think that it would be,” Bhakta said. “It felt like everything was in plan. I’d be working until April 30. Then I’d be going to graduation, walking across the stage, moving back home, going to grad school. Coronavirus has really dismantled things.”
Now that she’s lost her job, she’s thinking about deferring grad school. “You don’t really think of everything until it really affects you, until you can’t go to your campus because it’s closed, you can’t go to your student health clinic, can’t go to the gym, you can’t go eat out anywhere,” Bhakta said. “Now, I can’t go to work, and that was my one time to leave the house. I’m stuck in my apartment.”
For others, like Roshan Edachali who had a work-study job at Trinity University, one of the first schools in Texas to implement drastic coronavirus policies, the effects of campus closures might be felt through the summer.
Two weeks ago, Trinity president Danny J. Anderson sent an email announcing the university’s decision to evacuate all on-campus residences. The university opened an emergency fund providing students in need of money up to $500 in hopes of covering those who may not have access to a laptop or Wi-Fi after leaving campus, and offered prorated room-and-board and meal plan reimbursement to compensate for campus closures. But exemptions that allowed students to stay in dorms on campus were rarely granted. “We understand the strain [this] will cause for everyone. We care deeply for our students, and we want the best for them,” Anderson wrote.
Edachali was one of a few dozen Trinity students—out of a student body of nearly 2,500—who successfully petitioned to remain in his dorm room. When the school closed, his federal work-study job also was discontinued. He’s been promised he’ll be compensated for the lost time at some point in the near future, but even still, he couldn’t afford the $2,000 plane ticket home to be with his family in Bangalore, India.
“I’d never been in a situation where I can’t go home,” he said. “I had other friends and family that invited me to their homes [in Texas], but I realized that I don’t want to put them in a situation where they have to feed me and house me if they couldn’t. So I just waited for the university’s help.”
For a week, he was the only student living in his suite meant for four. His three roommates, and best friends, left campus for home. Nervous to venture out even to the school’s dining hall, he cooked microwavable veggies and chicken for meals. Instead of going to the gym, which closed, he jogged around the empty campus. And during his downtime, he watched Netflix with friends now scattered around the state. But he found it hard to escape the silence that surrounded him. His extra week alone on campus left him eager to figure out a plan.
After enduring the deserted campus, Edachali’s distant aunt encouraged him to make the journey to Minnesota and live with her. She booked him a flight, and this weekend he arrived up north. But Edachali’s worries aren’t completely over. He plans to start a paid research internship this summer with a Trinity professor. That is, if his intern position isn’t also affected by the university’s coronavirus policies.
For those still stuck on college campuses, like Rivera, seeing friends who had the means to leave posting on social media has been especially tough. While adapting to his new life amid the coronavirus, Rivera has felt a responsibility to keep his distance from others. When he saw on Instagram and Snapchat that some of his peers traveled to South Padre Island for spring break, he was frustrated by their lack of caution.
“They don’t really have to go through most of the stuff that people like me or like my friends do, you know?” Rivera said. “They have this money to fall back on. They’re like, ‘I can go out and do whatever,’ and some of us are like, ‘How am I supposed to buy groceries now?’”
As we cover the novel coronavirus in Texas, we’d like to hear from you. Share with us your tips or stories about how the outbreak is affecting you. Email us at [email protected].