Content Warning: This article includes mentions of the death of a student.
This year, some 400 students applied to remain on campus for Thanksgiving break, a notable increase from previous years, when a typical number of students was 200 to 250. Students who wanted to stay on campus for some or all of the break were required to indicate their intentions in the student housing portal, but no approval was necessary to do so.
“We can only speculate on the reason for the uptick of course, but one guess that seems reasonable is that students are worried about the risks associated with travel, and perhaps worried that the return to campus process will be an onerous one,” Dean of Students Derek Doucet wrote in an email to The Campus.
Doucet believes that concerns about the impact of Covid-19 on travel were “at least a contributing factor” to the unusually high number of students registered to stay on campus. He said that after a second email detailing Covid-19 policies for the break was sent out, he heard from several students who had changed their minds upon realizing that the return process was easier than initially expected.
Fully vaccinated students who had no known exposures or Covid-19 symptoms would not be required to quarantine or test after returning to campus from Thanksgiving travel, a Middlebury Updates email sent on Nov. 15 said. The email provided information on optional pre-travel and post-break asymptomatic Covid-19 testing and gave the option for students to rescind their request to stay on campus if the new information changed their decision.
Students residing at Bread Loaf and the Marriott who did not depart Middlebury for the holiday were relocated to on-campus housing for the five-day break, The Campus reported on Nov. 11.
According to Associate Dean of Student Life AJ Place, the approximately 400 students planning to stay for the break included 14 Bread Loaf residents.
The decision to relocate off-campus students was largely due to limited access to a kitchen, something key to the well-being of all students on campus over the break since dining halls were closed. In an all-student email sent on Oct. 25, the ResLife team outlined the schedule for the closing of the dining halls and explained that students would be responsible for their own meals during the break. ResLife’s email stated that students “with high financial need remaining on campus over break may also be eligible for additional food assistance,” and then specified how assistance would be provided a few days before the break.
To accommodate the high volume of students remaining on campus, the college updated some dining policies. Atwater dining hall, which planned to provide a Thanksgiving day meal, opened for an additional day. Food trucks were also on campus for a day, and Dining Services announced they would be stocking the kitchens of Forest and Coffrin halls with essential, non-perishable items throughout the break.
Unlike last year, when students were required to leave campus at Thanksgiving and conduct the rest of the semester remotely, students this year had a choice of whether or not to depart campus for break before returning to the college for the final three weeks of the semester. Complex family relationships, personal health concerns and financial burdens are some of the reasons students opted to stay.
Samia Sami ’24, who is from California, felt that the expensive flight and lengthy travel process was not worth the short amount of time they would have at home. Sami had friends also planning to stay on campus, but most of them live in other dorms.
Despite an increase in students staying on campus, isolation was a concern for many. Sami said they were concerned about their mental health spiraling during the break.
Many international students also remained on campus over the break due to the inconvenience or inability to travel home. Mariia Dzholos ’24, an international student, was hoping to travel to Boston for part of the break with a friend, but after having trouble finding adequate transportation, changed her plan to stay for the full break.
“I am fortunate enough to live in a house, so we have a nice kitchen and so we plan to cook,” Dzholos said in an interview before the break.
Rachel Peck ’25 stayed on campus over break, where they became frustrated with the minimal dining options, and disappointed in the lack of programming. Peck replied all to an email sent by Executive Director of Food Service Operations Dan Detora with a proposal to improve the quality of life for students remaining on campus through food.
Peck had planned to spend Thanksgiving break on campus with their friend Yan Zhou ’23, who passed away last month. After Zhou’s death, Peck became increasingly concerned about the break, especially with what they felt was unclear messaging from the college.
“I decided that the only way to get through it was to take it into my own hands and I thought it would be a good way for me to personally honor [Yan]” Peck said. “I wanted to find a way to share food and share company and to help combat loneliness because I think it’s a really lonely time, especially when so many people are talking about going home to their families and some of us just have no option.”
In the reply all email, Peck included the link to a document for people to sign up to cook or simply to attend meals as well as a group chat to coordinate casual hang-outs throughout the week. At the time of the interview, there were 36 people in the groupchat.
“We have people cooking East African food, ramen and Italian food, so it’s a really multicultural group,” Peck said.
Eloise Berdahl-Baldwin ’21.5 made the decision to stay for break after realizing that the travel time, compounded by family health concerns, would make it extremely difficult to leave. Berdahl-Baldwin has friends living in an off-campus apartment whose kitchen she planned to use during break, but expressed concern for the volume of students staying on campus with lack of access to a kitchen and said she thought Peck’s proposal was a good one.
“I thought it was really cool and bold,” Berdahl-Baldwin said.