Coronavirus As Told by a UM Student

A First Person Account of How Coronavirus Affected Both the Students and Staff at the University of Miami

When I left campus for spring break, I packed enough for a quick getaway to my hometown of Vero Beach, FL. Never did I imagine that I wouldn’t return to class for five months. For me, a big part of the shock of the coronavirus pandemic has been its wildly rapid progression. First, study abroad programs ended. Then, spring break was extended an extra week. And just five days later, our semester was over — classes would be online for the rest of the school year. 

Along with the transition to remote learning, the university partially or completely closed campus housing, dining halls, libraries and the gym. I lived — it’s so odd to write that in the past tense — in Stanford Residential College with my roommate, Maria. Students living on campus like us had to make a choice: Apply for approval to stay, or move back home. 

I’m extremely fortunate that Vero Beach is only about three hours from Coral Gables — going home was relatively easy. The decision was not so simple for students from other states or, like my roommate, from other countries. The university gave us the option to leave belongings in our dorms until May if we couldn’t move out right away. But planning to go home to Ecuador and unsure if travel restrictions would prevent her from coming back, Maria moved out all of her stuff right away. I decided I could hold off on getting everything out and drive down to pick up the essentials. 

When I did, Maria had already left, along with most other students. Our floor in Stanford — usually buzzing with girls heading to class, going in and out of the communal bathroom or chatting across the hall about a biology test — was eerily quiet. When I opened the door to the room we’d called home for the last seven months, her empty side jarred me. 

Coronavirus as told by a UM student
Brownstein lived in Stanford Residential College – the two buildings on the right

The cement walls were staunchly white where artwork, posters and family photos once hung. Below it, her mattress was stripped of our color-coordinated sheets and pillows. There were no inspirational quotes or dry-erase marks adorning the vanity mirror. No doodles or sticky notes left on the desk. No open textbooks or stray pencils to indicate a life in motion.

My side of the room remained exactly how I’d left it before break — when I thought I’d be back in just a few days. A few hours later, I took one last look around. In a painfully symbolic manner, I winded close the hurricane shutters, turned off the lights, and shut the door on a school year I wouldn’t get to finish.

Leaving was surreal, especially with so much left unfinished. I didn’t say goodbye to my friends. Student events and end-of-year traditions were canceled. I won’t get to wish my senior friends well before their graduation, which is postponed until December. Somehow I still feel like I’m going to go back any day now and pick up life where it left off.

I’ve been home since early March. One of my older sisters, an associate at a legal tech startup in New York City, came to work remotely in a safer place. The other, a middle school teacher, now does her lesson plans from home. Both of my parents work in the airline industry, among the most affected by coronavirus. My mom, who has an underlying condition, decided to take temporary leave. My dad, who flies cargo — deemed an essential service — is still working. With all five of us under the same roof, my parent’s house feels much smaller than I remember. The backyard patio, where the WiFi is strong and personal space most abundant, is a hot commodity these days. And often fought over. It’s a family reunion no one was expecting.

Getting an Online Degree

My classes are a combination of video meetings, pre-recorded lectures and virtual assignments. So, my childhood bedroom is now my classroom (and my gym… and my office). As a student-journalist, I do research, attend meetings and run our student magazine’s website on the same desk I learned my multiplication tables. I conduct interviews and write articles — including this one — surrounded by my old stuffed animals and Nancy Drew books.

Around week two, the days began to blend together. Mainly because I feel like I spend all day, every day in front of a screen. Because most of my classes are small and thus very social, my laptop used to be a tool just for writing, research or special online assignments. But now, my entire life lives in its hardware. And it’s not like when the video classes end I can just turn it off for the day. All of my homework is done on it. Plus, my communication with teachers, advisors, student organizations and professionals is via email. Even when I do take a break from the computer, it usually involves my phone or a TV. I even have “movie nights” with friends via Zoom and just celebrated my boyfriend’s birthday over FaceTime. 

Coronavirus as told by a UM student
University of Miami’s campus before students were sent home due to coronavirus

It’s been especially interesting to navigate subjects never meant to be done virtually. Take theatre, for example. My acting professor, Dr. cfrancis blackchild, said the first week of online classes was the most challenging. 

“This has been physically and emotionally exhausting. That’s just the truth,” Dr. blackchild said. “For me, the best part of this is when I’m in class with my students. After that, I’m totally drained.”

Dr. blackchild said she found comfort and inspiration in teacher groups on Facebook, where theatre professionals from every subject area have come together. “They’re figuring things out and sharing resources and just being generous,” said Dr. blackchild. “Knowledge has not been like toilet paper — no one is hoarding it.” 

She said that teachers care deeply about their students’ well-being and what they’re being asked of at this time. “When you’re away at school, it’s a space to become an adult with a responsibility for the most part only to yourself. But there are students that are going home and now have to look in on their grandparents or help wrangle their younger siblings,” Dr. blackchild said.

I’m grateful to be able to be with my family right now, and that those I can’t be with are so far in good health. Probably the best part of this situation has been that I get to enjoy my parents’ cooking again. With that being said, the hardest aspect has been losing much of the independence that comes with college. I’m in a place I associate with relaxation and childhood, but I still have to keep up the routine of a hard-working student.

It’s not so much the work that’s hard, but doing it without the physical or mental space I love and need. Dr. blackchild put it into words it best: “Your professional existence, whether as a student or a teacher or a cashier, is usually done elsewhere. Then you have your family responsibilities. But now everyone’s professional and familial things are in the same space crawling over each other. Some people need mental space where they don’t have anyone asking them where the cheese is.”