By Michelle Lum
At noon on March 11, Mudders in the Hoch-Shanahan Dining Commons looked to each other in shock and confusion as they read two emails that promised to upend their lives and dash all hopes of what second semester of the 2019-2020 academic year might look like. The emails announced that Harvey Mudd College was strongly encouraging all students to move out for the remainder of the spring semester, due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, a coronavirus that first emerged in Wuhan, China, in Dec. 2019. For the next few days, there was only one topic of conversation around campus: coronavirus.
Symptoms of the respiratory illness COVID-19 include coughing, fever, and shortness of breath. Although not deadly for most young adults, coronavirus is much more life-threatening for the older population.
That day, Vice President for Student Affairs Anna Gonzalez announced in an email that students who decided to leave for spring break would not be allowed to return to residence halls. Students who chose to remain on campus were warned to be wary of a potential mandatory evacuation, while students who had the means to return home were encouraged to do so as soon as possible. Mudd also began prohibiting social gatherings of more than eight people.
At the time, there were no known cases of the coronavirus in Claremont, but earlier that day, the World Health Organization had declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, as it had already resulted in 118,000 cases and more than 4,000 deaths throughout more than 110 countries. Additionally, that same day, the Inland Empire, where the Claremont colleges are located, reported its first confirmed death from the coronavirus.
As of March 14, at least 2,695 people in 49 U.S. states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico had tested positive for coronavirus. At least 58 had died, and California alone had more than 300 cases. More than 200 other colleges across the U.S. had also shut their doors.
“I just feel like it was very fast. It all escalated very quickly because, literally, not even last week, like three days ago, nobody would have guessed that we would come to this. But we are here now, and we’re just going to have to deal with it,” said sophomore Ignacio Lista. “It’s definitely very upsetting, and the day I got the email, I was just really sad. I’m from Spain, so my whole life now is Mudd. So, I’m getting uprooted. It’s definitely very sad and very upsetting, but there’s not much we can do about it, except just power through it.”
On March 12, the Hoch tightened up protocol to prevent the spread of the virus: the dining hall removed self-serve options and brought out wax tissue for students to use to reduce direct contact when grabbing items like fruit and utensils. Beginning March 16, all campus buildings were locked. And on March 18, the Hoch stopped offering dine-in options, and instead began only offering pack-out meals for Mudd students.
Though in-person classes continued through March 13, Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe announced that Mudd and the other Claremont colleges would begin to transition to online classes for the rest of the semester. To allow for time to transition, Mudd’s spring break, which was originally scheduled to begin on March 14 and end on March 22, was extended by one week, with online classes beginning on March 30.
It’s no surprise that students were taken off guard. This experience has been especially difficult for seniors, who were forced to say goodbye to Mudd in the matter of a few days, rather than the two remaining months that they were expecting to have.
“We don’t get to experience everything we saw every class before us experience. Our freshman year, we had the Wabash Report, and we were like, ‘It’s okay, we’ll make it through with graduation.’ And then we didn’t,” said senior Athena Paraskevas-Nevius. “All my family was coming. I was really excited to show them the campus, and be like, ‘This is where I took my classes, these are all my professors, and all my accomplishments.’ There’s not much you can do because it’s like everything we expected to last two months, you fit in two days. We were going to have Senior Week, senior trip, Projects Day, like there were other things we were going to do — even restaurants we wanted to go to. We had our last pad thai at Pitzer yesterday.”
Upon finding that their last semester on campus at Mudd would be cut short, other members of the Class of 2020 had similar reactions.
“[When I found out,] I was having lunch. I saw Prof. Ran, and he was trying to be hopeful. I think he was just talking to us so I wouldn’t cry in the Hoch. But it was still very nice of him,” said senior Nisha Bhatia. “And then I saw Athena, and Athena looked at me, and then she started crying, and I started crying.”
So, two months too early, shedding tears and giving each other tight hugs, students began packing up for the semester. But despite the difficulties they faced, Mudders came together as a community in the fight against coronavirus — helping each other pack, giving each other rides home, and offering places to stay to students with nowhere to go — showing that solidarity, as well as the best of humanity, can emerge even in the darkest of times.