Letter to the Editor: What does it feel like to be away from home in the time of a pandemic? 

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Illustration by Savanah Tebeau-Sherry

Letter to the Editor

Shuvan Shrestha ’21 

The most vulnerable UVM student group right now are UVM students living on-campus, most of whom are international students, unable to go home, alone by themselves, not the students UVM hopes to bring back in the fall. I mean, who does not want to be home during the time of a pandemic, right? Yet the focus has only been on bringing students back, not reuniting current students with their families back home. 

My roommate is from Colchester. I am from Nepal. He was able to go back home. I was not. Every weekend his mom has come to pick him up. I was hoping that my mom would also come to pick me up from the airport this summer in Kathmandu. In fact, I was very excited that I might see her earlier, but only to learn that all international flights have been canceled. Absence has not made my heart grow fonder.  

Long weekends, thanksgiving, winter, spring and now summer break, all, I have spent living at UVM res halls. And I still struggle with breaks. In my first year, I used to see cars upon cars, come and go from the CCRH driveway while I sat watching everyone go from my window. I wanted to also call my parents the time everyone reunited with theirs, yet the ten-hour time difference meant that they were asleep when I was awake. 

Two weeks ago the move-out process was officially over. People came wearing their masks, took their stuff and left. This time in my UHN window, I kept it closed. Why should I open it? To only see people leave while I cannot? But this break unlike all others I have experienced, hit a bit different. Before, I knew everyone would come back after they would go for thanksgiving or winter or spring, but now, for how long? Would I really be alone in my res-hall for more than just the summer? The #uvmstrong emails are certainly reassuring, but are they reassuring really? Most U.S. students might easily make their way back to campus, but what about non-U.S. students? The time-difference for many of them again means that they cannot virtually attend the 1:15 pm class, a difficulty many of my international friends from other U.S. colleges in Nepal had to go through after they came home just days before the international flights were suspended. How will they receive the same “public-ivy” education, in a time when most professors prefer not to record their lectures and discussions? 

When I walk through the empty halls in my dorm I see everyone’s doors, their signatures, some signed neatly, some very roughly, that they have successfully checked-out from their dorm rooms. On my door, there is kept the “Emergency Housing 2020” sign in a pink paper, just so the custodial staff would not enter while they deep clean other empty rooms. Unlike the spring break, for example, where something like “Have a good break!” used to be written in the door sign, which always made me feel the spring break would be good, the wording of the door sign “Emergency” itself sometimes forces me to think that my situation is really of an emergency, even when I like to think that it is not an emergency, that it’s only that my home is far. Every day when I open and close the door, I see the word emergency, and now it feels like the word has been somewhere ingrained into my mind. It really feels like I have been forced to think that my situation is of an emergency, even when I think it is not. Therefore I would encourage everyone to be more mindful of using signs, especially the word emergency, lest the word be another cliché. 

Kathmandu is not that hot, but I once told my roommate how I have lived through the almost 120 degrees New Delhi weather. Just this past week, my roommate texted me by saying, “How are you holding up in this heat? AC still not on correct? Were they able to give you a fan at least?” I reminded him that if I can brave the almost 120 degrees heat, 95 degrees meant nothing. I was wrong. 

The temperature in my dorm room has recently been life-threatening, according to a person from the Physical Plant as it stayed at 88-93 for almost a week. I later came to know that the heat was turned on for maintenance purposes, in addition to the already ninety-degree weather outside. Three weeks ago, too, the heat was turned on for almost an entire week for maintenance purposes, and I thought it would be the last time they would do so in my dorm. Then, I slept outside. Now, I had to do the same, out looking at the stars. I fell asleep on the UHN green roof. Of course, I do not wake up like a sleeping beauty. Insects I had never seen before in Nepal woke me up. I soon had to go inside, but the lights in the lobby were very distracting to sleep. Finally, Res Life replied to my email relatively soon and the problem has now been solved. Three weeks ago, when I had requested for a room change, the delayed response was to open the window when I had already said in the email the window is open. Finally this time, I was offered a room change to the MAT, where the majority of summer housing students, not the “emergency” housing students with its connotations that trigger my mind, live. I made a visit to the MAT room, and the thermostat showed 86. The best room they could offer was 86. How can I get my online GRE in this hot room? The temperature now in my UHN room is a livable 83 degrees, not life-threatening. In fact, I feel glad when I think that I helped my university to save its money by not demanding the AC, and I hope the money gets properly invested in supporting the arts and humanities. But why did I have to go through so much? Did the university forget that students still live in their dorms? Why has the attention been so much in hoping the students return in fall when in fact many students already here face challenges? Students still on campus are especially emotional from being far from their families while seeing others make Tik Toks with their families. Dealing with having no money because they lost their jobs, and not to mention again the heat. How can on-campus students be ready and successful when the fall classes start? Who is invested in their success when all attention has been poured in the hopes that other students successfully return in the fall.

I am very grateful that the university is providing summer housing to students who cannot leave. It was also great to see the 4/29 Res Life email, which said the first month till May 31st would be entirely free! It was also free last year during the first month, said my friend who lived in the dorms last year for the summer. During the month of May, I knew there were 117 students living on-campus. Now, many have left after the first free month and I barely see those familiar faces. The housing cost, however, for students living on-campus from June 1st till the beginning of the fall semester is $3,454, which at first I felt ok, but now having slept outside my room for more days than inside due to heat is very undeserving. In addition, it makes little sense to charge more in the time of a pandemic, when before the pandemic, UVM was advertising that the cost for summer housing is only $161/week from May 26th to August 7th. The pamphlets advertising this rate are still all over my dorm. 

Despite all this, the custodial staff here in my dorm never fail to bring a smile to my face. They are the friendliest of the friendly people I have met at UVM. I will cherish their presence long after I graduate. I am also beholden to my roommate Connor and his super caring mom who always asks if they can buy the grocery stuff for me. Thank you to the President’s wife, Lakshmi, for hand making masks for all on-campus students. I cannot forget my fantastic thesis advisor Professor Trainor who sends me articles about Nepal to read. I feel home soon after reading them. From them, I get a reason to smile, despite the heat!  

 Editors Note: The Cynic has reached out to Physical Plant five times though phone calls and emails but has received no reply verifying the facts in this letter. The Cynic will update this note if Physical Plant replies.