Traveling As a College Student During a Pandemic | Personal Essay

Scout intern Emily Curtis as a freshman at Emerson College. Photo courtesy of Emily Curtis.

Scout’s intern Emily Curtis is a sophomore at Emerson College in downtown Boston, where the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a closed campus and has left thousands of students scrambling to get home. She writes about the experience of traveling during this time.

At the very beginning of what I jokingly compared to a “World War Z” apocalypse, I thought very little about how much walking down the busy sidewalk to my class could cost me. But, as I would come to learn, the coronavirus, and its resulting disease COVID-19, was not to be taken lightly. 

When I first heard about the disease, I was in Boston attending my classes at Emerson College. The outbreak began in China, so I wasn’t thinking about the possibility of seeing its effects in the United States. My mom, who was home in Maine, occasionally sent me news updates about China and Italy.

Because we were on the other side of the world, it still hadn’t hit me that coronavirus would come to Boston. But as I kept walking along the typically crowded, construction-filled Boylston Street to my classes, I started seeing more face masks and fewer faces.

A few weeks later, I found out that the Emerson students studying abroad in the Netherlands—a program I was a part of the previous semester—were coming home. I realized I was lucky to have studied abroad before the spread of the virus began. I also was forced to process the sadness, and the severity of the situation. Students were no longer safe in Europe. COVID-19 was spreading, and it was affecting everything and everyone. 

I traveled home for spring break on Feb. 28, taking a bus from South Station to Augusta, Maine. On this trip, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. People lined up for the 1:15 p.m. bus, all prepping for the three-and-a-half-hour drive. As usual, I held my bags in my hands rather than setting them down in line—not because of the virus, but rather because of a force of habit. On this trip, I thought very little of COVID-19. I was completely unprepared for the fact that the first recorded death in the U.S. would happen the very next day. My one precaution was washing my hands once I arrived at the station, and before I entered my father’s truck for the ride to my house. 

The trip back to Boston after spring break was a whole different story: The virus was the only thing on my mind. COVID-19 had infected more than 90,000 around the world and killed around 3,000, according to the W.H.O. On the day I was to return to Boston, my cautious mother insisted we stop by some stores in nearby Topsham to find hand sanitizer and antibacterial soap. The three stores in our hometown—Family Dollar, Walgreens, and Bud’s Shop ‘n Save—were entirely sold out of both. In Topsham, we had little luck. Even Target was sold out. 

To my surprise, the bus was completely packed for the trip to Boston. A woman standing behind me said what we were all thinking: She was not expecting her bus ride to be so cramped in the middle of the outbreak. I did my best to keep my distance from the stranger sitting beside me, but the bumping of our elbows was inevitable. With all the uncertainty, I felt like I should hold my breath the entire time. I flinched and covered my face after every cough and sneeze I heard for two hours. 

Returning to Boston in March was a mistake. The city and school environment had rapidly changed within a week. First, we found out that Harvard had decided to do online classes for the rest of the semester. Only a few days later, Emerson made the same decision, along with several others.

Initially, I was planning to stay on campus and take classes from my dorm room—an option presented to Emerson students by administration. But after hearing that two Utah Jazz players had tested positive with the virus, both of whom had recently practiced in the Emerson gym before facing the Boston Celtics, I decided it was best to leave campus and head home. The next few days flew by. I packed up my dorm room and was ready to leave by the end of the week. Fortunately, my father was able to come pick me up. 

Traveling home—for the second time in two weeks—was different. Astonishingly, there was very little traffic on Boston streets, which is unheard of in a city often rated the most congested in the country.  We made our way out of the city within 10 minutes, and when we reached the interstate, the roads were cleared. As we left Massachusetts, we saw a sign for a military store that read: “n-95 approved masks—while supplies last!” My father told me about how the local grocery store was completely out of toilet paper. To lighten the heavy mood, I told him that all I could think about were the movies “World War Z” and “Zombieland.” We decided we would watch one later that week. 

On the same afternoon I left the school, Emerson decided to close their campus for the rest of the semester, leaving many in a panic to find a way home. I knew once I made it back that I was lucky, as many other college students struggled to find new homes or return to their old ones within a matter of days. 

For students who are already home, please take advantage of it and practice social distancing. Touch as little as possible, keep your distance from others, and always wash your hands. Or, better yet, don’t travel at all if you can help it. Do what I’m doing instead: Make a cup of tea, find your coziest blanket, and watch a zombie apocalypse movie or two. 

To read more of Scout Cambridge‘s coronavirus coverage, click here.

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