Northwestern University freshman Panashe Muriro

Many Evanstonians experienced stress and anxiety over the past three months, coping with restrictions on movements and changing government guidelines as the dangers of Covid-19 dominated the news cycle and daily existence. The fortunate ones were buoyed by having neighbors, friends or family nearby.

From high school to preschool, students living in Evanston made it home easily when Governor J. B. Pritzker closed public schools in the afternoon of March 13.

On the Northwestern University campus, where international students comprise 22% of the student body – 10% of full-time undergraduate students and 32% of full-time graduate students from 129 countries – decisions were not so clear-cut. For some of these international students, getting “home” – which involved the difficulties of money, travel and quarantines – was not feasible, and Northwestern was determined to support them.

As the virus turned into a pandemic, students and non-essential personnel were asked to vacate campus by 5 p.m. on March 20. Weeks earlier, about 1,000 students had informed the University they were not able to return home. Many international students in particular were caught unprepared and turned to the university for assistance. Taya Carothers, Director of Advising Services in the Office of International Students and Scholars Services (OISS) at Northwestern, confirmed the University worked diligently to evaluate and support individual requests from all students. One part of OISS’s mission is to advocate on behalf of the international populations at Northwestern with the rest of campus, the local community and government agencies. Borders around the world were closing, often with little advance notice, making the advocacy especially critical.

A successful example of OISS assistance and individual resilience is Northwestern University freshman Panashe Muriro, 20, who found himself living on his own, unable to return home to Zimbabwe as students and faculty left campus and buildings emptied  and shut down. Mr. Muriro, a computer science major, is one of seven students from Zimbabe currently enrolled at Northwestern. Fluent in English and Shona, one of the Bantu languages of the Shona people in Zimbabwe, the oldest of four children and the only son.  He is close with his family and encourages his 15-year old sister to study hard so she, too, may qualify to study in the United States.  He saw snow for the first time this past winter.

Mr. Muriro’s budget allows him one flight home each year, which he planned to do after the Spring Quarter. In April, there were fewer than a dozen Covid-19 cases in Zimbabwe. Had Mr. Muriro travelled, once home he would have had to quarantine for at least 21 days to make sure he did not expose his family. Just as the situation was worsening in Illinois, he would have had to take three separate flights, changing planes in Germany and Ethiopia before returning to his home country. He considered all the factors and spoke to his parents, and together they decided he should stay in Chicago for the time being.

Over three weeks, a committee member of a special 12-person committee of high-level university administrators reached out and spoke to each of these students to understand their unique concerns and brainstorm safe and acceptable options. Kelly Schaefer, Assistant Vice President of Student Engagement, said the process was very student-centric and focused foremost on students’ safety and health. “We also know that safety and health is a more complicated issue than just returning to home, and that some students might not be able to or might not feel safe to, or for any number of reasons,” said Ms. Schaefer. All these discussions were confidential and Ms. Schaefer demurred from providing any information about some of the broader categorical reasons a student might need to remain on campus, except to acknowledge ‘international’ was one group and the issues involved were often very complex.

As campus started to clear out, Mr. Muriro chose to sublet an apartment. He sounded and looked energetic, optimistic and confident on a Zoom call. He went out for groceries when necessary, but was also able to pick up food on campus at a dining facility open for take-out at specific hours. He kept up with his classes, exercised, got enough sleep and tried to stay upbeat.

Carlos Gonzalez, Executive Director of Residential Services, estimated that when the review process concluded, about 200 students were approved to remain on campus, 5% of the usual 4,000, and about 100 of those students were international. The students are spread out in multiple buildings, all staffed appropriately. The challenge was to maintain a sense of positivity and connection among these students, most of whom were self-isolating.

Mr. Gonzalez’s team, collaborating with Ms. Schaefer’s team, developed proactive engagement opportunities, informal discussion forums, and other creative ways to develop a rapport with students and keep them involved in spite of the restrictions necessitated by the pandemic.

Ideas percolated. They started a weekly student newsletter, The Paw Print, emailed to 17,000 students and packed with content and resources about living healthfully through this time. Every Resident Advisor and Resident Director has virtual office hours, and since there were so few students around, the ratio of students assigned per advisor was low. They formed a Virtual Engagement group, representing all areas of Student Affairs, and tasked it with figuring out which activities could be virtual and which ones needed to be different during this time.

Some activities offered included book groups, drop in coffee hours, a cooking class offered by a faculty-in-residence, virtual trivia night, and RESTalks – in the spirit of TEDTalks – offered by every residential college. There were programs targeted to everyone (e.g, Mindfulness) and programs specific for the needs of marginalized populations. The programs are designed to be inviting in hopes of connecting with students, to understand what they are struggling with, in comfortable environments that encouraged conversations.

Feedback from students has been positive. Ms. Schaefer heard from a lot of parents, who were reading The Paw Print along with their kids. Everyone on campus is getting used to wearing a mask and being a responsible, rule-abiding member of the community. Mr. Gonzalez acknowledged that while students don’t like the restrictions, they understand them and respect them. Ms. Schaefer and Mr. Gonzalez emphasized repeatedly that student health, safety and wellness were the University’s most important considerations when it came to programmatic changes and overall policy.

Off campus, as Mr. Muriro’s semester progressed, he worked closely with Northwestern’s Office of International Student Services OISS to obtain a Social Security card, successfully finished the semester and landed a remote summer internship that begins June 15. Because of Covid-19 and the risks associated with travel, he decided not to fly to Zimbabwe this summer to see his family. He expects to stay in his off-campus apartment when school resumes in the fall.

The pandemic has been stressful and disruptive for everyone. For now, face masks and restrictions are the new normal. Mr. Gonzalez’s approach with his team, his colleagues and the students is, “Let’s figure out together how we can still have fun, how we can figure out how to make sure you are healthy, and well, and safe, and really thriving, to the extent that you can in this new environment, socially and academically.”