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Friday, July 30, 2021

To stay or not to stay: The impact of COVID-19 on housing decisions

Five students discuss making their decision about where to live during Spring Quarter

The changes to Spring Quarter instruction required students to make a number of decisions, one of which was whether or not they would stay in Davis. Amid a pandemic that has resulted in an unprecedented amount of online and remote work, students have had to prioritize their physical and mental health and practice social distancing while simultaneously making decisions about academics, extracurricular commitments and where to live. Five UC Davis undergraduate students shared what went into their decisions.  

In an update on March 20, Student Housing and Dining Services recommended that students living in the residence halls return to their permanent residences if possible. With a goal of reducing campus density, SHDS also said that they might move students who chose to stay in order to “consolidate students to one area for operational efficiency, to help support Social Distancing Requirements, or to provide a safe, isolated space for any students that may fall ill.”

SHDS also offered a full refund for students who canceled their housing contract and moved out by March 25 and a prorated refund for students moving out after that.

First-year global disease biology major Maya Reihanian chose to stay in Davis because she felt that she would be more productive than if she were at home. She went home for Spring Break and returned to Davis the Saturday before Spring Quarter began.

“Being home, I just wouldn’t be able to complete my classes,” Reihanian said via email. “Davis is a more productive environment, and I genuinely do better there than I would have at home.”

Reihanian, who lives in Segundo, said her roommate moved out. She noted that Davis feels “empty,” but she is trying to stay positive by staying in touch with all her friends and trying to stay lively in her dorm. The biggest change she has observed is that the Dining Commons, which are operating with a to-go service model for students staying on campus, no longer allow seating nor do they allow students to serve themselves. 

“It’s super weird, but I have gotten way closer to the staff at the DC,” Reihanian said. “The staff has been so kind and caring, and they genuinely brighten up my day. They always say ‘Hi’ and make sure everyone is [doing] well given the circumstances.”

Second-year mechanical engineering major Shivansh Bhatnagar, on the other hand, chose to return home to India. After learning that Winter Quarter finals were online, he talked to his parents, who suggested that he return home. In trying to plan for the remainder of the year, Bhatnagar felt more confused than anything else.

“I was just concerned about the logistics of things because I was going to be in a time zone 12-and-a-half hours ahead,” Bhatnagar said. “I was just trying to figure it out. You know, how would I stay up all night to take my finals and all throughout Spring Quarter?” 

Based on how the situation was in the U.S. and India, Bhatnagar decided to leave on March 13. The plan was to finish taking his finals and then figure out what to do about Spring Quarter — his return ticket was booked for early August because of the student visa he has, which requires him to return to the U.S. within five months of exiting. Bhatnagar had an internship planned for the summer, but it seems probable that the company will no longer have any interns this summer based on the situation. 

Despite being 12-and-a-half hours ahead, Bhatnagar has been attending his online lectures, discussions and labs live, which means that his academic weeks start at 1 a.m. on Monday night, which is 12:30 p.m. on Monday in California, and finish at 7:30 a.m. 

“I’ve been trying to sleep in between classes and try to get as much sleep as possible during the day,” Bhatnagar said. “The classes aren’t hard, it’s more of me trying to balance my [studying] plus homework plus attending lectures.”

Unless it takes a toll on his health, Bhatnagar plans to continue attending all of his classes as they are being taught. He has only talked to one of his professors about being in a different time zone and was told that lectures are recorded and not mandatory to attend in real time.  However, there’s not much that can be done with regards to discussion sections and lab. Bhatnagar was told that his best option was to switch into a lab and discussion at a different time, something he can’t do because of conflicts with other courses.

“I had a lab yesterday which started at four in the morning and went up till 5:00 a.m.,” Bhatnagar said. “All we did was watch a video while we were all in Zoom — that doesn’t make sense to me. If I’m not actually doing the stuff, I’m not going to be remembering it. I get that they have to make us do something […] but at the same time, it doesn’t make sense to me to just sit here at 4 a.m. and watch a video when I’d much rather be sleeping.”

Bhatnagar thinks that a possible solution is to allow international students in different time zones to watch recorded lab sections and be more lenient about attendance.

Second-year psychology major Jacob Diaz has not left Davis since Winter Quarter. During Week 10, his finals were all canceled or made optional. Since he was satisfied with his grades, he chose to not take any of them. 

“I had time to go shopping and I decided to get about two weeks’ worth of stuff and just hibernate,” Diaz said via email. “Shortly after that, I started to feel sick and I got a call from my parents asking me if I wanted them to pick me up. I ultimately decided that it would be best for me to not go home so that I do not spread my illness or waste the food that I bought.”

Diaz stayed in Davis through Spring Break and plans to remain there for the quarter. He said Davis is “tranquil, so not much has changed in that regard.” He added that he makes an effort to bike to get groceries instead of taking the bus, but other than that nothing has been too much of a change. 

Diaz said the beginning of the quarter was a bit rough because he didn’t know how to use Zoom and because he didn’t have a good idea of the classes he was taking for the quarter. After playing catch up during the weekend, however, he was able to figure things out.

“Socially, things have been as good as they can be due to the age of social media and texting,” Diaz said. “All in all, the quarter is not as bad as I would have expected from a global pandemic, but it is most certainly not favorable.”

Fifth-year neurobiology, physiology and behavior major Deborah Widjaja, an international student from Indonesia, is currently staying with family in Los Angeles.  

“They contacted me and they said, ‘Hey, we think you shouldn’t be alone in Sacramento, I think you should come down to be here with us because it’s always better to be with people you know and people you can rely on during times like this,’” Widjaja said. “I really was reluctant to go down because I was like, ‘Oh it’s such a long commute, I’d rather stay in Sacramento where I get my own privacy and my own room and I know how things work better.’”

Initially, Widjaja thought her housemate would stay in Sacramento, but when her housemate decided to go home and suggested that Widjaja go down to Los Angeles, she gave it more thought. At the same time, she was getting a lot of pressure from family members, especially those in Indonesia, who were worried about her and thought it would be best for her to be with family. 

For international students, Widjaja emphasized that an important consideration was whether it was safer to stay in America or go home. She chose to stay in the U.S. because of the seriousness of the situation in Indonesia — her parents went to Singapore to stay safer. 

She also said many non-Americans believe America has good healthcare, something she disagrees with based on her studies in the field of healthcare. Nonetheless, Widjaja said the idea of better healthcare is something that some international students may have taken into account when making a decision about where to stay.  

When a shelter-in-place was announced in Yolo County and Sacramento County, Widjaja started to think that it would be better to go to Los Angeles. At that point, she and other friends felt that it was not clear what exactly was entailed by the shelter-in-place and closure of non-essential businesses.

“It really freaked me out,” Widjaja said. “I wish the government would explain better because initially it caused a lot of anxiety, not just for me but for my friends as well. It was like, ‘Oh are we going to get arrested or go to jail if we do certain things?’ We didn’t even know if we could walk outside in the beginning, but now it’s a little more clear, but that’s only because social media has done its part to help inform people.”

Widjaja said issues affecting students who rely on on-campus resources for food and other basic needs as well as resources such as a stable internet connection and printing accessibility are on the forefront of her mind right now. She also thinks that homelessness needs to be addressed more.

“I definitely recognize my own privileges — my family and I, we come from a socioeconomically stable background,” Widjaja said. “I could just move to L.A. and be fine. [They] have a house that can even accommodate me. We have four people in our house and we have good internet, we live near a lot of grocery stores. We can afford food, we can afford basic necessities. But not everyone has that privilege and I feel like school [or a campus] gives a lot of that sanctuary and now that’s just being stripped away.”

As an international student, Widjaja has also been stressed about her legal status — for instance, international students are expected to take nine units in on-campus classes, a requirement that has now been lifted. Widjaja added that with travel and other services restricted, some things, such as Visa renewals, may have to be done online, which tends to be slower. 

Most of Widjaja’s classes have recorded lectures, which she said is beneficial as some students are in different time zones or are “in conditions where they are no longer as flexible” or “in a place where they can study effectively.” She said she has had some difficulty adjusting to classes being online, but one good thing is that she no longer has to commute.

“Just having to keep that boundary between time to rest and time to work [is hard] because now […] wherever I’m sleeping is also where I’m working,” Widjaja said. “I don’t work on my bed, I try to set some boundaries, but still, the boundaries are much thinner than they would be if I were physically commuting from one place to another.” 

Widjaja added that professors have been very understanding, but thinks that they could be more lenient with the workload. She describes herself as a hardworking student but noted that it’s difficult to stay caught up when the amount of material is the same, but online. 

“I think what people don’t realize is that when you move things online, there’s so many more barriers,” Widjaja said.

Widjaja planned to go back home in June to see her grandma and other family members, but in light of everything going on, she may not be able to, which could create complications in extending her student Visa.

“I think as an international student, it adds that extra layer of complexity of ‘What the heck do I do with my international student status?’” Widjaja said. “Especially because the political climate right now is not very friendly toward foreigners or people without an American citizenship or people from a certain background. Everything really, truly is up in the air.”

Second-year cognitive science major Pavithra Pandian is from the Bay Area which issued a shelter-in-place order on March 16, the Monday of finals week. At the time, it was the strictest measure in the U.S. 

Pandian said her parents really wanted her to be home for a variety of reasons: they wanted to spend time together and they didn’t want her to worry about groceries and other chores that she would have to do if she stayed in Davis. With Spring Break approaching, she decided to go home.

“It’s actually been frustrating, having to take classes via Zoom,” Pandian said via email. “Some of my professors have been exercising maximum flexibility, which has definitely been helpful. Other professors have not been as flexible, so it’s definitely challenging to find a balance between classes and other things like exercising, hobbies and prioritizing mental health.”

If it is safe in the Bay Area and in Davis, Pandian hopes to head back to Davis after the shelter-in-place is lifted. As disappointed as she feels, Pandian has been trying to make the best of it by video chatting with friends and playing games such as Code Names and Secret Hitler. A club she is part of had to cancel its retreat to Tahoe, so they had a virtual “Tahoe retreat” on Club Penguin.

“While it does suck that we’re in this shelter-in-place for another month or so, I think that the reasoning behind it is justified and truly valuable,” Pandian said. “However, there are so many people that I’ve seen that aren’t abiding by these regulations, and I wish there was something that the counties or governor could do to encourage staying at home. Staying at home now means that this shelter will end sooner, and I wish other people could also understand that!” 

Written by: Anjini Venugopal —  features@theaggie.org

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