The students who stayed: A day in the life of social distancing at Washington and Lee

The university approved 26 students to move into Woods Creek West after sending the rest of students home


Rafay Hassan, ‘22, volunteered with Rockbridge Area Relief Association during the two-week recess. Photo by Hannah Denham.

Hannah Denham

Tina Jin, ‘21, was in the Lenfest Center rehearsal room getting ready with the rest of University Singers for the opening night of “Considering Mathew Shepard” when she got the email.

The message from Washington and Lee University President Will Dudley sent on Friday, March 13 was one the whole campus was bracing for, and thousands of college students had already received as the coronavirus spread across the United States. 

The university was moving online, and students on campus, with a few exceptions, needed to pack up and go home within five days. 

Even though she sensed it was coming, Jin said she felt shocked and burst into tears. Home was nearly 7,000 miles away in Beijing, China, and it would take more than 20 hours of travel through airports, planes, trains, 14 days of isolation and, after all of that, it still wasn’t guaranteed that she could get home. 

If Washington and Lee forced her and other international students to leave campus like other universities did, she wasn’t sure where she could go.

Twenty-six students, many of whom are international students, were approved to stay on campus and were consolidated into the Woods Creek West apartment building on Wednesday, March 25.

The 26 students who were approved to stay on campus were consolidated into Woods Creek West. Photo by Hannah Denham.

“Some of those students are international students who were unable to return home because of travel restrictions and some are students for whom returning home would not have been in the best interest of their health or wellbeing,” Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Sidney Evans said in an email. 

Beverley Xia, ‘22, a student from Shenzhen, China, was already living in Woods Creek West when she requested permission to stay on campus. A day or two after Dudley announced the move to virtual instruction, Xia said in a phone interview, the Center for International Education opened at 7:30 a.m. in the morning and handed out tax forms, answered questions, worked one-on-one with students to figure out if they would leave or stay, provided cardboard boxes for free storage in the basement of Global Service House, contributed money to cover plane tickets and transportation.

Alice Chen, ‘23, moved out of Graham-Lees into Woods Creek West on Wednesday. Her family recently returned to Shanghai, China, and her citizenship status bars her from joining them.

“It’s really weird being on campus as someone who’s not technically an international student but who has family abroad,” Chen said in a phone interview. “You just hear different sounds on campus now. It’s been pretty different. But I’m glad the university is helping students who can’t go back, or who technically [can] stay in the U.S. but can’t go back home.”

Chen said her peer counselor helped her get to Walmart to stock up on essentials, her professors have reached out to help and public safety officers and facilities staff have been helpful and present. Her professors have held optional Zoom video calls to practice the technology and sent out updated syllabi for the remaining four weeks of winter term.

“It’s coming along pretty slowly, but they’re still giving us enough time to adjust,” she said.

No outside visitors are allowed to enter the Woods Creek West building, and only residents of the apartment are allowed inside the apartments, according to emails from Director of Residential Life Chris Reid that were obtained by the Ring-tum Phi. Public safety will conduct regular rounds of the apartment building to check in on the students.

It’s important to continue practicing social distancing within the apartment and disinfect surfaces regularly,” Reid said in a March 17 email to the students.

Evans said that class deans and the Center for International Education have been communicating with the students who are staying on campus, and a student affairs dean and counselor are on call 24/7.  

Evans said the university plans to appoint a student as a community assistant (CA) for the building.

“We plan to name a CA who will be another point of support for those students,” Evans said in an email.  “Chris Reid has identified a student who has been selected for our Res Life staff for next year and is working with her to get her set up in that role.”  

All outside visitors to Woods Creek West are prohibited. Photo by Hannah Denham.

Students had two days to completely move out of their current room on campus and into the new apartment, and facilities employees helped students transport their belongings. Room assignments were random except for specific requests, and only two to three students were assigned to each apartment.

Rafay Hassan, ‘22, and Danesh Badlani, ‘22, helped each other move into their new shared apartment in Woods Creek West on Wednesday. The two students from Pakistan had already planned to live together next year, so they were grateful they had each other as roommate options with their sophomore year abruptly changed.

“Living together, living with someone from back home, I guess it kind of helps because you at least have someone who kind of understands where you’re coming from,” Hassan said in a Zoom interview. “You can cook together and have a good time.”

Badlani said that he does the cleaning and Hassan cooks, oftentimes Pakistani food, like spicy lentil soup and rice. 

“I was missing my food a lot. That was the primary reason I wanted to go home,” Badlani said. “But Rafay’s been cooking for the past two days. I clean and he cooks. It’s really nice to have someone from home.”

The Marketplace was operating on a limited basis with takeout meals for students until Saturday, March 30, when it closed for renovations and food operations moved to Evans Dining Hall. The Center for International Education also provided international students who were staying with an $80 stipend for a Kroger groceries delivery service.

The Office of Student Affairs collected food donations as the majority of students moved out of their on-campus housing, which was added to the campus food pantry on the third floor of Elrod Commons as an additional resource for students. Evans said it will continue to be restocked, as supplies are available, and students who are registered with the university can access Elrod Commons with their swipe cards.

Some of the students, like Chen, Tu and Jin, said they canceled their meal plans for the rest of the year so that they could use the money to pay for groceries and cook at home. Hassan said he will keep his meal plan until spring term and will take care of his own meals in observance of Ramadan, which starts on Friday, April 24 in the United States. 

Staying occupied during a two-week break from classes

Haochen Tu, ‘22, also was already living in Woods Creek West when she was granted permission to stay. Home is Suzhou, China, and her mom calls her everyday, worried about her. But she’s got plenty of food, she said in a Zoom interview—instant noodles, cookies, and groceries from Kroger on the way. And she caught up on sleep, books she didn’t have the chance to read before, Youtube videos and the news.

Hassan said he’s been trying to journal his thoughts, in Urdu or English, as prose or poetry, as a way to cope with what feels like living through history.

“Until last month, the word recession, the word depression, was just something out of an economics textbook. But now, I’ve just realized that we’re in it. We’re facing it head on,” he said. “Now that you’re in the middle of coronavirus, you have to think about what you’re going to do and how your generation is going to survive this.”

He’s been volunteering with the food drive at Rockbridge Area Relief Association, biking and working out on the Virginia Military Institute obstacle course to get outside and give back.

“On the one hand, coronavirus will teach us that technology and innovation is incredibly important. We need to be able to transition to an online system should something like this happen again,” Hassan said. “Our goal must be that we are using technology so that we have more time to spend with each other, so that we can value each other’s company. Part of my day is spent thinking about all the things I didn’t do with people and all of the regrets that I have, and I’m pretty sure other people are thinking about this too. I guess the only way to fix that is to try to reach out and form real friendships.”

During the two-week recess, Chen started an informal book club with a friend. They’re reading White Noise, a novel by Don Delillo. 

“I’ve been calling old friends, reconnecting with people just because I have the time,” she said.

Badlani said he worked on take-home quizzes and homework to make sure he doesn’t forget course material during the two-week recess. He’s also been keeping in touch with friends and family around the world and reading The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, a book by David Wallace-Wells about climate change. Badlani said it hits a little too close to home amidst the global pandemic.

“It’s kind of sad. I should stop reading that too,” he said, laughing. “My family has talked to me more this week than in the past two years. I’ve been actually reconnected with a lot of old friends.”

Preparing for virtual classes

Washington and Lee University will resume classes virtually starting Monday, March 30. 

Tu said she’s worried about the Wi-Fi bandwidth in the Woods Creek building to handle Zoom and other technology she’ll use to take her programming and business courses online. 

“I hope the school will open some space on campus or some academic building so some students can go there to have their classes,” she said. “Especially for me, I’m a business major and I have a lot of interviews coming up in the next month.”

Jin isn’t worried about how her two math classes and computer science course will transfer to online instruction, since they don’t require much discussion. But she’s not sure how her German language and German theatre courses will work, especially when one of them is at 8:30 a.m., when students are “already not in the mood for talking, especially not online.”

“I think it will be fine for all my science classes, but for my German classes I’m just kind of worried,” she said. “We’ve been working on the play for the whole semester and we can’t perform it, so that’s pretty sad.”

Hassan said he’s been enjoying his heavy economics semester and is excited to return to the material. He’s taking econometrics, macroeconomics and microeconomics, as well as an Arabic dialect course.

“Even during my time off, I was reading economics for fun,” Hassan said. “I feel like I reached that point of fascination with the subject that I can read it as a bedtime story.”

Navigating plans with an uncertain future 

Jin, who is a computer science and math double major with a minor in German, spent the two-week recess studying for the GRE she’s taking online on April 18. 

She transferred to Washington and Lee University during her sophomore year. She’s planning to apply for graduate school, and she feels like the proposed credit/no-credit grading system would benefit her application. 

“That’s my concern because i’m already not having enough classes,” she said. “I transferred after my first year, so that whole first year doesn’t include my GPA.” 

Xia said in a phone interview that she hopes to stay at Washington and Lee University through the end of spring term and find an internship with a women’s organization in the United States, but it’s hard to find places that are hiring. If it comes down to it, she said, she’ll return home to China for the summer to intern with a law firm.

Hassan said he’s planning to stay through the rest of spring term, but he’s worried about how long the effects of the coronavirus on travel can last.

“I Immediately thought that traveling was a bad idea for me and my family because you never know who is carrying the virus,” he said. “I don’t know how countries will respond, how much longer travel bans will go on. There’s a lot of uncertainty here and I for one do not want to miss out on fall term, even for a single day, because I cannot make it to Washington and Lee.”