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Coronavirus: Life is Changing on Campus in the United States

dorm room accommodation coronavirus students

Attending an American college or university for undergraduate or graduate studies is an experience like no other. You live in close quarters, often spend late nights studying and socializing, and your friends become your family.

Students have busy school and work schedules, with cleanliness sometimes taking a backseat to other priorities. Living in dorm rooms also means students live like sardines in many instances – with colleges and universities long being hotbeds for infection.

So, it should come as little surprise that higher education institutions were among the first places in the US to shut down in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, which is caused by the novel coronavirus. 

Community spread is when the virus is caught from person-to-person contact as opposed to isolated cases that occur due to international travel or exposure to someone who already tested positive for the virus. Obviously, campuses could become a petri dish for this kind of virus.

Schools close 

As the days go by during this crisis, more and more colleges and universities are closing their doors in the United States. Many told their students to go home after spring break, with institutions turning to online education, so the semester or quarter isn’t completely lost.

Among the closed institutions of higher learning are Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stanford University, where an undergraduate tested positive for COVID-19.

In the US, higher education is extremely expensive, and many students take on overwhelming debt to earn their degree.

One of the main reasons students pay so much in tuition is for the experience of living on campus, working in teams, networking, student clubs, face-to-face instruction and discussion and so much more.

Some people have raised the question of whether students should get some of their money back, especially in the case of room and board payments. Even in the middle of the chaos and debate about the right approach for stemming the number of cases, schools will also have to deal with this. In fact, the economic repercussions of this virtual global shutdown will likely be stunning, so higher education won’t be alone in facing harsh realities and coming up with ingenious responses.

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Preparing for the worst

For now, however, it is about the health and safety of the community. And fortunately, some schools were forward thinking and took steps back in January to prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business began reconsidering trips scheduled for MBA students in January. One group was going to China, where the virus was already spreading, and so, the business school made travel arrangements for those students to go to Australia instead.

When the virus started to spread further, McDonough offered students on other trips the option of having a global experience within the US in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.

After all, international students ran the risk of not being able to return to the US if the outbreak resulted in travel restrictions. To ensure the global nature of the program was still incorporated, the participants would deep dive into Vietnamese business, culture, and food. This included a site visit to IDB Invest – speaking with the company’s senior leadership – and cultural outings to Vietnamese restaurants and a local Vietnamese market.

Schools prioritizing flexibility remains important when trying to deal with COVID-19. The situation is changing dramatically and quickly around the world, but business schools continue to try to find creative ways to keep a sense of normalcy and offer some experiences to students.

Hope for tomorrow

“Events have been a challenge, but we are seeking ways to still deliver some of them virtually, especially our signature events with guest speakers,” says Prashant Malaviya, senior associate dean for MBA programs at McDonough. “We are looking forward to seeing how our students and staff will be creative in moving their events to an online format.”

While no one has tested positive at Stanford Graduate School of Business, a faculty member in the greater university did, and as a result, the campus was shut down and all classes moved online. The business school is trying to maintain a tradition of being a safe haven for the community.

“We’re proud of the work that takes place every single day at GSB, and proud that our community is able to find solutions and workarounds in times of uncertainty,” says Kristin Harlan, director of Strategic Communications and Marketing at Stanford GSB. “We are focused on proactively planning for and anticipating changes, and will continue experimenting with virtual teaching, meet-ups and conferences to ensure that we continue serving our students and broader community in the coming months.”

For Georgetown, the decision – certainly not an easy one – came down to the health and safety of the community, and students are getting through this with an eye on the future.

“It’s a little disappointing not to have our Spring Formal or the McDonough Cup, but this is real life and we’ll get by,” says Justin Goldberg, a McDonough MBA student expected to graduate in 2021. “While I’m concerned, I’m also excited about the potential for people to do things in a creative manner. People love being social, so there may be activities that are done in ways that are more creative than they would have been if we didn’t have to make this change.”

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Francesca Di Meglio

Francesca Di Meglio has written about higher education for two decades. She covered business schools and all aspects of management education for what became Bloomberg Businessweek from May 2004 to December 2013. Di Meglio was the consultant editor for the book Admitted: An Interactive Workbook for Getting into a Top MBA Program (85 Broads Publishing, 2011), which was written by admissions consultant Betsy Massar. In addition, she is a family travel and parenting blogger at the Italian Mamma website

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