Students moving out of Middlebury College, in Vermont, earlier this month. Like many other colleges and universities, Middlebury has closed residence halls and transitioned to online classes. (Photo courtesy Benjy Renton)

College students from Sitka have had their school years swiftly upended as universities across the country close campuses and shift to online classes in response to COVID-19. Some students have already returned to Alaska, while others are sticking it out on campus. 

The first year of college is a time for new experiences: new city, new friends, new school. But this year, Olivia Wilcox had her second semester at Utah State University disrupted by something they don’t cover in orientation — a global pandemic. 

“The campus has kind of become a ghost town in the last couple of days,” she said.   

Utah State is still technically open, but they are asking students to leave and switching to online classes. Wilcox says she’s sticking around to become a Utah resident and to qualify for in-state tuition. She also works at the dining hall and doesn’t want to leave that job. 

“So I feel like I have a little bit of a duty, because they are keeping these open for the students who have to stay,” she said.

Wilcox isn’t the only one staying in town. She says some of her classmates rely on university housing and can’t afford to just pack up and go. 

“I do have some friends that are staying behind from other states and they can’t afford to leave,” she said. “So we’re just keeping each other company and supporting each other through this.” 

The University of Alaska has gone a step further, moving nearly everyone out of residence halls. Lynette Pham, a community organizer in Anchorage, was concerned about how that would impact students who rely on university housing. So she put out a survey to connect students with community members who could host them. 

“This way, students don’t necessarily have to ask for help,” Pham said. “We know that they need it, and so just immediately providing it in a way that makes the process a lot easier.”

The UA system is offering “rare exceptions” for students to remain on campus , but Pham wanted to make sure there was a backup plan for those who needed it. 

Pham also says this issue is personal to her — she struggled to afford housing when she was a student at University of Anchorage, and ended up finding help through social networks.

“It was so hard for me to ask for help. It was kind of embarrassing, and I didn’t know what to do,” Pham said.     

This time around, she hopes the survey will help take out that embarrassment factor. So far, more than 30 people have filled it out, both looking for housing and offering a place to stay. 

For college students across the country who are able to leave when campuses shut down, the return home isn’t always very glamorous. 

“I’ve been quarantining,” said Ariadne Will, a sophomore at Middlebury College in Vermont. She’s back in Sitka after her school sent students home last week. Vermont is not a hotspot for the virus, but Will is quarantining herself out of caution, a move that other Sitkans are taking after returning from out-of-state travel.

She’s been able to go hiking — one of the perks of social distancing in the nation’s largest national forest — but says going through such a swift disruption of her life has still been strange. 

“I’ve spent so much time in my own head, not really letting it register that I’m back, that I’m in Sitka,” Will said.  

For now, like so many college students across the country, Will is adjusting to her new situation — living at home, doing her coursework online, and limiting contact with others. 

And, of course, going through a lot of Clorox wipes.