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Staying behind: COVID-19 has chased most students from campus, but a hardy few remain at OSU
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Staying behind: COVID-19 has chased most students from campus, but a hardy few remain at OSU

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When Louie Pham popped into Oregon State University’s Arnold Dining Center on Wednesday morning for some pancakes, he was the only customer in sight, outnumbered 6-to-1 by the serving staff.

COVID-19 has turned OSU into a ghost town.

On March 11, as students were preparing to take their winter term finals, university officials decided to close all the classrooms and shift to distance education as a hedge against the spread of coronavirus. Although classes are still being offered online, most of the school’s 24,000 Corvallis students cleared out for spring break and haven’t returned to campus, including three-quarters of the dormitory residents.

But about 500 students are still living on campus, either by choice or because they had no other option.

Pham, a first-year student in apparel design from Vietnam, said he couldn’t have gone home if he wanted to — the Vietnamese government has locked down the country’s borders.

“My country is closed, so I need to stay here,” he said. “A lot of my friends, they buy the tickets to go home, but then they have to cancel.”

For Gunnar Jensen, a junior from Seattle studying finance, the decision-making process was different.

“I’m 26 years old,” he said with a grin, “so going home was not something I was looking forward to.”

As the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country, some American universities emptied their dorms entirely, but Oregon State decided to keep its residence halls open for students who elected to stay or who, like Pham, had nowhere else to go.

Brian Stroup, director of operations and facilities for University Housing and Dining Services at OSU, said the students remaining on campus are a mixed group, divided more or less equally between U.S. citizens and foreign nationals.

“There’s definitely a cohort of students who are international who can’t go home or don’t want to go home at this point,” he said. “There are some students from out of state who were in a similar situation … and we do have some students from Oregon who, for whatever reason, feel like they don’t really have another option.”

Hard choices

For OSU’s 3,500 or so international students, the decision about whether to stay on campus or return home to wait out the pandemic was especially wrenching. Being physically separated from their families in the midst of a global health crisis is undoubtedly stressful, but many were unsure whether they would be able to return to Corvallis if they left now.

“They had a lot of questions about whether they could continue to pursue their OSU degree program, and the answer was yes, of course, but we couldn’t guarantee they would be able to access course materials from their home countries,” said Kendra Sharp, senior adviser to the provost for international affairs.

“I really feel for these students who had to make what I consider really difficult decisions in a short amount of time.”

Fares Alzahrani is a doctoral student in crop science and president of the Saudi Arabian student club at OSU. He said more than half of the 170 Saudis enrolled at Oregon State have decided to return home.

For many, the choice was made easier by the Saudi government’s decision to open its borders for returning nationals, pay for them to undergo a 14-day quarantine in a hotel and provide ongoing financial support while the pandemic continues.

However, he added, Saudi students on the West Coast are still awaiting return flights because their government is repatriating students from other parts of the country first.

“We are still waiting for our number,” he said.

Alzahrani, who lives off-campus with his wife and three daughters, said his family will be going back to Saudi Arabia in a few weeks while he stays behind to complete his degree.

He gives Oregon State high marks for its flexibility in working to meet students’ needs and the university’s relatively smooth pivot to distance learning, which was made easier by its strong Ecampus program.

“They do a lot of classes,” Alzahrani said. “OSU was well prepared for online classes a long time ago.”

Jun Yunada, a first-year student from Japan, is studying academic English with plans to eventually major in human health science once his language skills improve. He decided to stay in Corvallis for now.

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“It’s a more serious situation in Japan,” he said. Plus, he added, “I think if I go back to Japan I can’t go abroad.”

Still, Yanada’s opportunities to practice English have been sharply limited.

“I am so sad because I don’t have a roommate,” he said. “I want more communication with (Americans).”

Gaetan Nzowo, a fourth-year student in civil engineering from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said his options were limited.

“I can’t go back home, for multiple reasons,” he said.

International flights are not only expensive but can be hard to get in the age of COVID-19, he explained. If he did go back to the Congo, he would need a new visa to return to the States. Getting one would be time-consuming, and there’s no guarantee it would be approved — “especially with the administration you have now.”

At the same time, he was reluctant to stay on campus because of the risk of coronavirus exposure. In the end, he accepted an offer from his girlfriend to stay with her and her parents in Beaverton.

Nzowo said he likes living with them and has been able to continue his classes online, but he’s having a hard time adapting to distance learning — and going a little bit stir crazy.

“I’m missing definitely all the resources for me to be successful,” he said. “There were so many things to do on campus.”

The new normal

For all those who decided to stay, University Housing and Dining Services is doing what it can to provide a full range of support services while taking steps to minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission.

For instance, all of the dorms on campus have at least some students living in them, but efforts are being made to spread them out as much as possible. Students who had one or two roommates before are being shifted into single-occupancy rooms, although their rents have stayed the same.

None of the UHDS staff have been laid off or furloughed, Stroup said, but empty positions are being kept open. Some employee groups have been organized into teams so that if a member of one team gets sick, another team is available to keep working.

All of the campus dining halls remain open, though there have been some changes there as well. Hours of operation have been reduced and, as at restaurants all over the state, there’s no sit-down dining — meals are only available for takeout or through the on-campus delivery service, which has been expanded.

With instruction being delivered entirely online, internet access is critical – on one recent day, OSU students, faculty and staff logged 1.5 million minutes on the videoconferencing application Zoom, according to Steve Clark, OSU’s vice president for marketing and university relations.

The university’s wireless network is still available for the remaining student population, and the signal strength has been boosted in some parts of campus so they can connect outdoors.

“I feel really proud we are doing everything we can to support these students. There were a lot of schools that closed down,” Stroup said.

“This whole thing’s been really hard on students and families. We’ve tried to maintain as much normalcy as possible.”

Lauryn Ryan, a second-year civil engineering student from Buckley, Washington, is part of the effort to keep things normal. She briefly considered moving back home, but decided the risk of contracting the virus would be too great, both for herself and her parents. She elected to keep her room in Callahan Hall and her job as administrative finance officer for the Residence Hall Association.

“We’re working on doing different kinds of virtual programming, looking for ways to keep people engaged,” she said.

Some of those plans are still being worked out, but they could include anything from putting together care packages to organizing multiplayer gaming experiences via videoconference and offering online “Adulting 101” classes on topics such as cooking and car care.

“We’re working hard to try and adapt to doing things virtually but still being there for the residents,” she said.

Still, there’s no doubt that life has changed drastically on the largely empty OSU campus.

Just ask Louie Pham.

“It’s very boring,” he said. “There’s not many things to do or anywhere to go. We just stay in our room and study.”

Reporter Bennett Hall can be contacted at bennett.hall@lee.net or 541-812-6111. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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