Confined and Confused

Confined and Confused

Winter quarter at Northwestern is notoriously isolating. Enter 2021.


M edill first-year Mia Walvoord tried to stay calm when her friend texted her about having COVID-19 symptoms the morning after they ate dinner together. Once her fear that her friend would test positive was confirmed, Walvoord dropped everything and started packing. Later that day, she received a phone call from Northwestern University’s COVID Response Team, informing her that she was contact-traced and needed to relocate to Quarantine and Isolation Housing (Q/I Housing). While she had already packed her bags, that didn’t prepare her for the challenges isolation would bring.

Since the start of the pandemic, many students have faced housing insecurity and overall anxiety about living situations. When the University permitted underclassmen to live on campus during Winter Quarter, they were given a list of rules and regulations including weekly testing, symptom tracking and socially distancing at least six feet apart.

According to a study published in September 2020 in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, the pandemic has negatively impacted college students. Circumstances brought by lockdown and stay-at-home orders have highlighted the necessity of acknowledging and intervening in students’ mental health. In the study, 71% of students had increased stress and anxiety due to COVID-19. While multiple issues contributed to this increase, 89% of the students reported that it was due to difficulty concentrating, and 82% of students reported the increased stress came from greater concerns about academic performance.

In a normal year, students worry about arriving to their 9 a.m. class on time and fitting a workout class in their schedule. Now, they must contend with COVID-19 restrictions, isolation and the risk of contracting the virus. While the University has provided students with mental health and wellness resources, students are forced to adapt to an isolating college experience they couldn’t have predicted or prepared for.

Not the Dorms We Remember

Northwestern requires those who test positive with COVID-19 or were in contact with someone who tested positive to relocate to designated quarantine and isolation dorms until their symptoms subside. Students are usually allowed back to their regular residences after 10 to 14 days.

Walvoord herself did not have COVID-19, but because she was in contact with someone who tested positive, she was required to move into Foster-Walker (Plex) on Feb. 16. When she received the initial phone call from her case manager about the move, Walvoord thought she was ready to handle whatever information came her way. But Walvoord wasn’t prepared for the amount of information she would have to take in.

“They gave us all these dates and kind of shouted them out at us, like this is when you would get out if you test negative, this is when you would get out if you test positive. It was just a lot of information to take in the span of 10 minutes,” Walvoord says.

Walvoord says that communication with the University throughout her time in isolation could have been better. During her daily wellness calls, Walvoord felt the information given to her did not do much to help. Sometimes, she and her friends would have multiple people calling and providing different information.

“A lot of the time my questions were met with, ‘I can’t answer that for you, you have to wait for this person to call you because that’s a different department’ ... It causes a lot of extra stress to not have information,” Walvoord says. “We didn’t know who to trust or who to follow, and we just wanted to be respectful of University guidelines and not make a mistake that could harm us or anybody.”

Students are also told bedsheets are optional but are only given one non-fitted sheet — which barely covers the bed — to tuck under the mattress. Walvoord remembers feeling grateful for bringing her own sheets and being spared the inconvenience of using the University-provided ones. During her stay, the University offered a flyer with resources for students, such as work-out equipment, coloring books and numbers for services, like the NU Health Service and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).



CAPS is Northwestern’s primary resource for mental health, and it is heavily advertised to students upon arrival to campus. CAPS offers students short-term individual therapy, where they provide further resources like group therapy. Students sometimes have to wait weeks at a time to find an available phone slot, while other times, there is no availability at all.

Even during an ordinary year, a student’s mental health circumstances have to ‘pass’ the phone consultation — although the criteria CAPS has determined is unclear — to receive further counseling. The exception to this is if an individual needs to schedule a crisis appointment within 24 to 48 hours. The CAPS website currently provides resources that link to PDFs or websites for pandemic-related stressors like remote learning, maintaining connections, abusive households and more.

While the University offers services to make quarantining more bearable, students continue to attempt to find their own forms of home in isolation. Weinberg third-year Tamara Raad found solace in her friends and family.

When Raad sat down to eat with her suitemates, she wasn’t at her usual dining hall. Instead, she was alone in her Plex isolation dorm with Zoom pulled up on her computer, a single, dry chicken breast in front of her, and her three suitemates — also in quarantine — on her screen.

Raad was asymptomatic when she was tested for COVID-19. When her results came back positive Jan. 15, Raad shared the news with her suitemates in 560 Lincoln St. — who would later have to transfer to quarantine housing due to their exposure to Raad — before calling the after-hours nurse at NU Health Service around midnight to tell her about her results. Raad was told she couldn’t be moved to Plex until the next morning and didn’t receive a call from her assigned case manager until she’d already moved into Q/I Housing.

Three days after she tested positive, Raad’s symptoms worsened. Instead of restful nights, Raad’s sleep was interrupted by chest pains and coughing. Concerns about virus-related complications arose, and Raad was taken to the ER for scans and blood tests. The tests returned normal, taking a weight off of Raad’s shoulders, but when she returned to Plex, the halls felt as empty as when she left.

“I think, at some point, I was the only one on the floor that I was in,” Raad says. “So there was absolutely no socializing.” 

The University provided daily check-ins over the phone, asking about Raad’s symptoms or if she needed further support from CAPS. Raad was also able to put in requests for additional snacks, groceries or medicine to be delivered to her by the University, as students aren’t allowed to have things delivered by others.

Raad made a point to not have any expectations when she relocated to Plex. Aware that it was not the nicest dorm and her situation was far from ideal, she was determined to take the experience one step at a time and not be disappointed with the outcome.

“I did not think it would be possible that I would get COVID, so I didn’t even bother to think about what it would be like to be in isolation housing,” Raad says.

Raad wanted to think of her quarantine as a time to focus on school and be productive. Being in isolation meant less options for distractions and more opportunity to be efficient. Even after getting extensions for one assignment, she found herself feeling unmotivated and uninspired in the small, exposed-brick dorm room.

“I had several deadlines, and I just could not get myself to study,” Raad says. “Even on days where I wasn’t feeling too sick, physically, I just could not get anything done.”

COVID-19 Off-Campus

Living off-campus is often considered an exciting part of college. With fewer rules, no RAs and much more freedom, students tend to look forward to moving past Northwestern’s two-year on-campus residency requirement. But with COVID-19 still weighing heavily on students, living off-campus presents its own challenges, especially when one roommate contracts the virus. Some students sharing off-campus housing have created rules and restricted social interactions to lessen the chance of contracting COVID-19.

Communication third-year Shelby Schultz contracted COVID-19 in early November while living off-campus with three other roommates. Her roommates didn’t get the virus, and Schultz had to isolate in her bedroom for the required 10- day quarantine period. After receiving her positive test results but no phone calls from the University, Schultz took it upon herself to inform those around her and the University. While she waited to see if her symptoms worsened, she still attended her online classes and was granted extensions from professors.

With COVID-19 forcing students to adapt to unimaginable and unprecedented circumstances, pressures to excel and stay safe have elevated.

“I wish I had, at the time, just focused on getting better, not trying to do school,” Schultz says.

One frustrating aspect of having COVID-19 was hearing how insensitively professors would discuss the topic, according to Schultz. While speaking with one professor who was not aware of Schultz’s state, the professor discussed the long-term effects of the virus and how they thought college students were being careless about COVID-19 rules.

“I felt a little uncomfortable with a teacher talking about [COVID-19] as if we didn’t care about getting it or realize how horrible it is to get it,” Schultz says.

A major concern was spreading the virus to her roommates. The students share a bathroom, and Schultz had to sanitize it after each use before returning to her bedroom. Her roommates would bring food and water to her room while she remained inside. While isolating, Schultz called her parents and talked to her Discord group daily. She and her roommates even watched movies on Netflix virtually, so there was still a sense of community.

“I just learned how to cope with quarantine and make sure I stayed connected to people and didn’t go crazy,” Schultz says.

Possibly spreading COVID-19 to roommates has become a pressing concern for students on- and off-campus. But sometimes, this isn’t even a worry. Rishi Mahesh, a Communication fourth-year, recovered from COVID-19 in his Evanston apartment with a friend who had also already tested positive. Exhausted, achy and feverish, Mahesh was most anxious about taking his Fall Quarter final exams after contracting the virus, even though he barely had enough energy to get out of bed.

Mahesh caught COVID-19 during Thanksgiving break after being invited to his close friend’s house in Michigan. His two roommates had already gone home for the holiday, so Mahesh returned to his Evanston apartment to wait out his symptoms. He says his anxiety worsened his condition, especially because the only options he was given for finals were to delay them by a week or receive Incompletes in his classes and take them the following quarter.

“It sucks that those were the only two options,” Mahesh says. “It was really demoralizing.”

Mahesh ultimately decided to take his finals the following week but experienced worsened health due to lack of sleep from stress. Mahesh was also nervous about quarantining in isolation once he contracted COVID-19.

“I remember being very anxious about it, like in advance being like, ‘Oh, my God, what is it gonna be like to be alone?’ I always considered myself someone who would not be okay doing that,” Mahesh says.

However, once Mahesh was quarantining, he says, he felt “totally fine” — in fact, he decided to use social media to take control of the experience. On his Twitter account, which has 17.6k followers, he answered questions about the virus and connected with others who had tested positive. Mahesh wanted to use his platform to counteract the narrative that most young adults contract the virus through super-spreader events.

Throughout Fall Quarter, Mahesh had been seeing a CAPS provider for mental health. While he didn’t discuss COVID-19 much with his provider, he did bring up the additional familial stress he had been under due to catching the virus. Eventually, Mahesh turned to friendships for support instead of the University, believing that he couldn’t rely on the school.



“There’s no love there. In terms of what’s going to be keeping me through, [it’s] not the school that I go to,” Mahesh says. “I don’t think that was ever really a thought in my head. I was like, ‘Alright, you told me I have COVID, now leave me alone.’”

Too Little, Too Late

In response to the ever-growing stressors students face during the pandemic, the University has sent emails to the student body with resources. At the beginning of Winter Quarter, Julie Payne-Kirchmeier, VP for Student Affairs, sent Northwestern students a “Welcome, Wildcats!” email with links to University resources for financial assistance, Northwestern Career Advancement, testing and COVID-19 safety and more. While it wasn’t specifically related to mental health, there was a wellness section listing resources, like CAPS, that are often included in the administration’s emails to students. Walvoord and her friends were interested in using CAPS during Winter Quarter, but soon discovered that the CAPS calendar was completely booked for the foreseeable future. As a result, she “just kind of gave up on the idea.”

“I understand Northwestern might have limited resources for people to talk to you, but that’s just not ideal for someone who is being proactive and looking to get help to be denied that because of scheduling,” Walvoord says.

Walvoord did not use any mental health resources while she was in quarantine housing, but she was more than ready to go back to her own room by the end of her isolation period.

“I was very excited. It replicated that feeling of coming onto campus the first time,” she says. “Because everything felt new again, I’ve just gained a new appreciation for being on campus.”

Still, scheduling with the University continued to be a problem for Walvoord during her move- out process, which she says was far from ideal and colored with confusion and stress. Before moving out of Plex, Walvoord and her friends received calls giving them clearance to leave at very different times of day. Her ride back to her dorm, provided by the University, had not been confirmed, and despite multiple attempts, she was not able to get a moving crate to transport her items to the downstairs lobby. After calling to inquire about the crate and waiting for one for close to an hour, Walvoord had to carry her items by herself.

While Walvoord was “super grateful” to have gotten a ride back to her dorm at the conclusion of her quarantine, she was still stressed about her schoolwork and moving back into her room while her roommate awaited her arrival. When she tried to get into her room, her Wildcard didn’t work, forcing her to get a temporary keycard. She later found out that her card had not been cleared until hours after she left Plex.

“I just felt a little bit forgotten about, at the end of the day, and that feeling didn’t sit very well with me,” Walvoord says.

As a student starting college remotely, Walvoord was simply happy to be on campus, meet new people and feel more connected to the Northwestern community. She felt grateful for the everyday experiences of being a student on campus, whether it was picking up food at the dining hall or walking by the lakefront. After living in the quarantine dorms and being deprived of these small joys, she sought to reclaim that gratitude for the sake of her mental health and overall college experience.

“Starting out school as a freshman in such a crazy year with COVID, and having so many restrictions and things that you can’t do, [you’re] able to overcome that just by feeling like, ‘At least I’m here,’” she says.