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How students stuck in Colorado dorms re-create college life by themselves

Only a few hundred students still are on campuses in Greeley, Grand Junction, Gunnison and Durango. And the road less traveled leads to a quiet, dreary dorm room, where online classes, reheated meals and longing for connection await.

"I'm Bored" sign posted in a dorm room in Lawrenson Hall during the COVID shutdown at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colorado, on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Trust)
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A romantic could look at Jade Brolly and her situation and find a little poetry there.

Brolly spends most of her time — yes, probably 23 hours —  in a room no bigger than a jail cell, with a bed, a desk and a bathroom. Brolly, 32, had a job in health care, a solid, reliable job, as today shows, but she loved literature, and she loved the fact that America celebrates it, even if some might say otherwise.

She giggles in embarrassment when she talks about her attachment to poetry — she believes English teachers would surely roll their eyes at her desire to teach it — but she points out that America does host poetry competitions and even has a poet laureate, something her home country, Australia, never had, unless you count one guy who was appointed in the 1800s and received two cows as his salary.

Jade Brolly checks her email while she sits on her bed while in her dorm on the University of Northern Colorado campus April 11, in Greeley. She is among the last of the students on her floor. (Joshua Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The romantic, someone like Brolly, could see the small space, shushed dorm room hallways and sparse existence as the inspiration for poetic greatness. Thoreau in the woods, perhaps, with the time of Whitman to ponder his leaves of grass. But Brolly has Type 1 diabetes, and though she is healthy, she is someone health officials refer to as “compromised.”

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A stomach bug she caught earlier this year put her in the hospital for a week. When she thought about returning home, her mother asked her one question: Why? Why would she get into a petri dish and fly home when she could be safe at UNC? 

And so Brolly is one of more than 300 students staying with UNC after spring break, when the university closed and moved classes online. 

UNC, like other Colorado universities and colleges, encouraged students to leave but allowed them to stay, partly because they did pay for that room and board, and mostly because many have nowhere else to go. Some came out of the foster care system. Some needed to work in Greeley and didn’t think they could find an affordable option in a tight housing market. Some, like Brolly, are international and either aren’t allowed to go back home or shouldn’t try it. 

“There are some students here,” said David Ludlam, a spokesman for Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, “who have no other home than CMU.”

UNC’s been great, Brolly said, practically forcing her to feel a college identity the Aussie universities back home don’t offer. UNC feeds her enough for the week in designated meal times that resemble supply lines, giving her three squares a day, including food she can heat up later in her room. Even more importantly, UNC’s International student union calls to check on her every day. 

“I thought at first that was a bit of overkill,” Brolly said. “But it’s really not.”

Jade Brolly is framed by empty bike racks outside of Turner Hall on the University of Northern Colorado campus. (Joshua Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It does get lonely. She sees students eating together, but those are younger, healthier people. When she hears the rare voice in the halls, she will venture out of her room, only to see a family packing up a student to leave for home. 

It seems ideal for poetry, but Brolly wrote hers as a catharsis, not as art, and it’s come slowly. She is both an extrovert and an introvert. She enjoys quiet self-reflection, like a poet, but people give her the energy to write it.

When she does go outdoors, the beautiful sunshine makes her feel guilty. So she goes back up to her room, where a tiny stuffed koala holds her insulin for her four shots a day, a greeting card from her parents  says “Crikey, Mate” and her computer sits on her small desk, her only connection to the outside world besides a window that gives her a sky-high view of the heart of UNC. From the perch, in between classes, she watches the squirrels run free, out in the green space, among others of their kind, their tails warmed by the sun.

“I never thought I’d be jealous of a squirrel,” Brolly said. “But here we are.”

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Grasping for connections

Evan Welch, the assistant dean of student life at UNC, reached out to Stanford University officials during spring break for some ideas on what to do with students the virus left behind. Administrators wrote back with an answer: “We dunno.”

“I said, ‘But you’re Stanford,’” Welch said. 

Indeed, all universities are struggling for ideas on how to keep their students engaged and happy, which shows just how unprecedented this is, and how the simple things can make a big difference, such as those daily check-ins Brolly gets from the international student union. 

Welch came up with a greeting card campaign. He’s distributed cards to professionals across Greeley to write encouraging notes to the students, and he’s also asked if students want to write notes to others in Greeley.

“Just to get a piece of mail, especially from a stranger, has been nice,” Welch said, “Just someone saying ‘Hey, I just want you to know you aren’t alone.’ Of course their mom will say that, but for a stranger to reach out means a lot.”

CMU continues to house 280 students on campus. More than 100 stay at Western Colorado University in Gunnison, and Fort Lewis College in Durango has about 125 students. There are international students in all those groups, though they aren’t a huge portion of them. Of the 5,800 students who began spring semester living in dorms on the Colorado State University campus, 400 remain. There are 570 students living on the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus.

The students who stayed range from freshman to students with families, 

There was some talk of consolidating the students to one dorm, said Jenna Finley, director of UNC campus community and climate. That would have made things easier and perhaps saved UNC money, but making them move would have just added to their frustration.

“We’re already asking them to adjust to some pretty stressful situations,” Finley said.

Notes sit next to the laptop as Jade Brolly works on her computer in her dorm on the University of Northern Colorado campus in Greeley, Colorado. (Joshua Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Those include online classes, and though most of them are running as smoothly as they can, there are instances of so-called “Zoom bombing,” similar to photobombing only with a virtual interruption to the class. Those doing it typically spout a rant or some language and then leave. 

“It’s violating,” Welch said. “It feels pretty gross.”

Still, those cards were a hit. Many of the messages to students were thoughtful, Welch said, and more than a few started out, “Hello, fellow Bear.”

“I have to pace myself when I read them,” Welch said. “It’s super emotional.”

Missing the early mornings

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Carson Pecot never thought he would miss his 6 a.m. shifts at the front desk of his dorm. 

Pecot, in his third year at UNC, is president of the local chapter of the residence hall association. He lives in a dorm, and the front desk shift is part of the way he earns money and free room and board. Those shifts also were a way to meet people, make friends or wave to the same people every day, which nurtured his extroverted soul. 

Now those desk shifts are gone, along with nearly all his friends.

“It was tough, especially when people were moving out,” Pecot said. “I thought, ‘Wow, I won’t see those people until August.’”

Pecot admits he’s had a hard time adjusting, a common ailment during the quarantine. Universities offer counseling to combat this, mostly through virtual sessions, and those sessions remain open to all students taking classes, even if they no longer live on campus. Those sessions are more in demand now, both from students isolated on campus and off. 

Universities have tried to find ways for students to connect, Welch said, including moving esports organizations (basically video game competitions) online, trivia contests and yoga and guided meditation. Fort Lewis will offer its annual Shark Tank business competition online. 

Carson Pecot, one of the few students still living on campus at the University of Northern Colorado, misses his friends and even his 6 a.m. shift at the front desk of his dorm. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Trust)

Many of the smaller universities can use the Colorado mountains and their Rocky Mountain high to help them cope. Locations vary as to whether parks are closed or not, but many remain open as long as social distancing continues. 

UNC is near a decent number of parks and outdoor recreation opportunities in Greeley, but it does lack the plethora of places to hike, and so campus recreation offers daily fitness challenges and virtual workouts.

There’s also the same technology that was out there before the virus hit. 

Pecot will jump online and play Xbox with his friends. Lately he’s played “Sea of Thieves,” a game where he’s searched for treasure, out on faraway islands.

That sounds pretty good to Brolly, who didn’t know that universities were encouraging students to get out for some exercise as long as they practiced social distancing. She looked outside her window and saw a big sign in one room that said, “I’M BORED” and then one below it a couple floors down that said, “SAME.”

“I think I need to go for a jog,” she said.


UPDATED: This story was updated at 9:55 a.m. April 25, 2020, to include the number of students still living in campus housing at the University of Colorado in Boulder and Colorado State University in Fort Collins.


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