In March 2020, most of the Vassar community saw their spring break turn into a semester-long stay at home. Students and faculty were parted from their belongings as courses shifted from crowded classrooms to lonely bedrooms. But the campus remained a part of daily life for many—namely about 250 students, 200 essential employees and the house fellows who, along with their families, call the Vassar dorms home.
The Miscellany News sat down with four house fellows to learn about their experiences living on a mostly deserted campus.
Associate Professor of German Studies and Josselyn House Fellow Elliott Schreiber lives on campus with his partner, 12-year-old son, and dog Pepper. In a Zoom interview, he noted that spring is always the most beautiful time at Vassar—the flowers are in full bloom, the birds have returned, and everyone is full of energy and happy to be back from break.
Schreiber’s smile then faded. “You feel guilty for enjoying it,” he admitted. “This is what the students should be enjoying.” He stared off for a moment before his smile returned. “Many more people from the surrounding community came on campus and gave it the feeling of a park. Lovely. The campus played a big part in making those weeks more bearable for a lot of people from the community.”
When asked if he would handle another shutdown differently, Schreiber remarked: “We were all in such a state of panic. I’d be more worried about the folks around the campus than the ones on the campus itself. I hope folks have learned that you can keep going on.”
Assistant Professor of Mathematics and Statistics Lisa Lowrance lives in Jewett House with her partner and two sets of young twin daughters. Her seven-year-olds, accustomed to happily getting into everyone’s business on campus, have had to adapt a bit. Instead of jumping into the hammocks of random students, they stick to their own. Instead of crawling onto comfortable-looking picnic blankets with students doing homework, they have learned to stay one huge step away from everyone except their immediate family.
“We used the quad as our own personal front yard. We set up a kiddie pool in front of Lathrop every day,” Lowrance said as she reflected on the family’s experiences in isolation. The Lowrances stayed on campus for the entirety of the state-mandated quarantine. When asked why they didn’t choose to move to a more secluded location during those months, Lowrance commented, “We signed up to open our lives up. We’re not going to leave because of a pandemic.” She emphasized that she is optimistic about Vassar remaining open for the duration of the semester. “It seems like if things are ever to get back to normal, this is the ideal experiment. If any place can make this happen, it’s going to be here.”
The Strong house fellow is Assistant Professor of Psychological Science Lori Newman. She spent the spring and summer with her partner, seven-year-old son and dog. The four spent their days going on walks and taking trips to their plot of the community garden, where they grew about a dozen different summer vegetables.
For Newman, the most shocking part of the pandemic was how quickly it began. “In the beginning of spring break, I was joking with a student from Washington about how he had to be careful because they had just found the first case of coronavirus in his state. And then things blew up.”
Newman conducts research on rats that focuses on astrocytes, support cells in the brain. She had to close her lab during the campus shutdown, and many of her students lost their summer internships (a team of animal care personnel took care of the rats). When asked about how her scientific background affected her feelings about the pandemic, Newman said it troubled her to see people believing that everyone who contracted the virus would die, when in fact the vast majority survive. She repeatedly stressed one point: “I realized that there were other things just as dangerous as COVID affecting people during the isolation. In terms of the brain and psychology, trauma and stress and generalized fear is not good for people. They cause real damage to well-being and development.”
Assistant Professor of Political Science and Lathrop House Fellow Taneisha Means made a similar point about mental health. “We would set up pools outside of Lathrop with the Lowrances and sit in picnic chairs and have snacks…our kids needed each other. It revealed the interdependence between all of the house fellow kids that I had taken for granted,” she shared.
Means also concurred with Schreiber’s reflection about the abundance of Poughkeepsie residents who enjoyed the campus during the shutdown. She explained, “Vassar became an important space for community members from the surrounding areas. It brought up the question: how many spaces are this beautiful? There was a group of 10 or 15 60-80 year olds who would get together in the green space between Main and the library in a huge circle. They may have been a book club of sorts. It was really beautiful.” Means also reflected on the newfound connections forming between students and their professors as everyone adjusts to new ways of learning, understanding, and protecting our peers. “Students see professors in more human ways, and professors see students as more human as well. It’s been more of an equalizing space.”
The broader Vassar and Poughkeepsie community took the place of many students in enjoying the campus’ striking beauty this spring. During this time, house fellows began developing a sense of normalcy, which is now slowly spreading to students and professors as they get used to living at a distance. As Means put it, “It’s not too optimistic to remember that life still goes on. It has to.”