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My Sad, Strange, & Convoluted Return To My Dorm

Ah, home sweet home!

Well, that’s what I’d like to have said upon returning to State College this weekend.

I ventured up to Happy Valley with my dad Sunday morning to return to my beloved dorm room one last time before beginning a three-week-long remote learning period, as mandated by the university last week to combat the coronavirus pandemic. I didn’t anticipate an extended stay in my hometown and forgot to bring home more than seven t-shirts, a pair of jeans, and a pair of sneakers. My bad on that one.

As you can imagine, one of the first questions I asked upon learning that in-person classes were canceled was, “When the hell can I get back into my room to get my stuff?”

Penn State eventually let on-campus residents know they could return to their dorms to collect their belongings anytime between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on three dates — Friday, March 13, Sunday, March 15, and Monday, March 16. See any potential problems with that?

As my dad and I barreled down Route 322 that morning to the tunes of Dave Matthews Band and The Beatles, we were followed by thousands of other dorm-dwellers who had similar intentions of grabbing their things, too. To no one’s surprise, things got pretty crowded on campus.

According to Housing and Food Services’ memo, students were required to visit their respective commons desks first to gain access to their buildings for a brief 30-minute period. Many, many folks did just that, which resulted in long lines and close-quarters contact — a horribly ironic feat considering students are bringing home their belongings to begin taking classes online to avoid large crowds and potential contamination.

Social distancing, a public health phenomenon used to limit the spread of disease by putting distance between people and cutting down on person-to-person contact, is an integral part of fighting any pandemic — even coronavirus. It blows my mind that a university with so many resources at its fingertips could overlook something as simple as this and put its students in harm’s way.

Having students line up down a long hallway inches away from each other is about as dangerous as you can get when fighting a viral illness. Many friends I spoke to who’d also ventured to get their things said they felt unsafe and scared while waiting to gain access to their buildings.

The most troubling part of this? Why couldn’t Penn State just keep its dorms open as usual until Tuesday? Allowing residents to directly access their buildings without crowding in Redifer’s basement or bothering Housing staff would’ve sped up the process, kept students safe, and cut down on convoluted policies that really didn’t need to exist in the first place.

The lines at Redifer stretched for miles early Sunday morning, but once I arrived at around 12:30 p.m., the commons’ basement was empty. I briefly chatted with a Housing staffer, who told me Penn State had remotely unlocked all the dorms to cut down on the chaos in the commons. No words.

Once we cut through the weird layers of red tape surrounding returning to my dorm, my dad and I finally gained access to my building and started packing up as much stuff as we could fit into the large IKEA and grocery bags we brought with us. I packed up most of my clothes, textbooks, and cleaning supplies as well as any other stuff I wouldn’t need if I returned in April (read: heavy winter coats).

By the time we were done, all that was left was a myriad of posters, a hoard of knickknacks, a couple of pillows, a comfy chair, and a rug. I figured we might as well bring home as much as we can now to make a potential move-out easier come April (or hopefully May!).

The eeriest part of this experience was how wildly quiet campus was despite the hoards of students I saw when checking in. When looking out the windows, I couldn’t see a single student walking on Shortlidge or Pollock — two sidewalks that are normally bustling with activity on an average day.

McElwain’s halls were completely silent as well. The only person I saw on my floor was my RA, who was hard at work preparing boxes for his residents to use and working out all the logistics of an unprecedented weekend.

Many folks I passed Sunday seemed to be packing up their dorms for good, stuffing their cars to the brim with furniture, clothes, and toiletries. Unlike a typical spring move-out day, this wasn’t filled with cheers, hugs, and smiles. I saw students crying about leaving, talking about missing their friends, and appearing uncertain about what the future holds for them at Penn State.

That uncertainty is certainly warranted considering the daily, if not hourly, developments in the coronavirus pandemic. At this time, Penn State plans to return to in-person instruction on April 6, but that seems up in the air to many students, myself included.

I felt overwhelmingly sad when packing up my dorm. I’ve had such a blast so far, and I really don’t want to see the semester end sooner than it needs to. My heart goes out to the seniors missing all of their last “lasts,” the student-athletes who had their careers cut short, and the folks who saw their events canceled in the name of public health and safety.

Before leaving, I stopped myself from packing away a picture of me and my friends and left it on my cleaned-off desk. Good times like that day represent the best of what Penn State has to offer and deserve to be remembered when things get tough. Hopefully, the next time I see it won’t be when I come to move out for good.

And before that day comes, I pray Penn State takes a long, hard look in the mirror and draws up a plan that doesn’t put its students in harm’s way when packing up their stuff. Coronavirus or not — no on-campus resident should feel in danger or unsafe when following guidelines laid out by their university.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt proudly served as Onward State’s managing editor for two years until graduating from Penn State with distinction in May 2022. Now, he’s off in the real world doing real things. Send him an email ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@mattdisanto_) to stay in touch.

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