As Claremont Colleges clear campuses, students watch semester disappear

Two women have trouble holding folded-up cardboard boxes in a parking lot as rain falls around them.
Two Pomona students struggle to handle moving boxes in the rain March 12. (Amy Best • The Student Life)

Life at the Claremont Colleges was upended Wednesday afternoon.

Seniors sobbed in dining halls, revelers splashed through fountains, harried students packed up boxes and spent their Flex dollars as fast as they could — the once-unimaginable became a stark reality as 5C students rushed to depart campus, with the global coronavirus pandemic making its presence felt at universities across the nation.

In a series of emails to their student bodies, the colleges announced midday Wednesday that all classes will be taught online after spring break, joining more than 100 other colleges across the nation. While there have not yet been any positive tests in Claremont, administrators also told all students who can leave campus to do so, with scant expectation of returning this school year.

The announcement — a sudden coda to seniors’ lives on campus and an abrupt disruption to students’ friendships, extracurricular pursuits and campus engagements — elicited deeply emotional reactions, from anger to surprise to sadness.

Some students were dumbstruck after hearing the news.

“I feel like I have whiplash,” Rachel Howard PO ’22 said an hour after the announcement. “Everything has changed so quickly in a short amount of days.”

For others, the surreal situation led to a mixture of disbelief and exhilaration. 

Julia Thomason SC ’22 joined a group of students in Scripps College’s Dorsey Hall courtyard giving each other haircuts. 

“We were in the Motley [Tuesday] and everyone was talking about coronavirus. I thought I would shave my head if school got canceled the next day,” Thomason said Wednesday evening. “So then school got canceled today and I shaved my head.”

a smiling girl shaves the head of another smiling girl in a dorm room
Emma Crownover SC ’22 shaves the head of Julia Thomason SC ’22 after learning that students were asked to leave campus. (Courtsey: Sophie Navratil SC ’21)

In the hours following the announcement, the news brought students together in gathering places across campuses. Crowds assembled in spaces like Pomona College’s Marston Quad, Harvey Mudd College’s North Dorm and Claremont McKenna College’s Flamson Plaza, blasting music and splashing through fountains.

Pitzer College students, meanwhile, grew increasingly frustrated and anxious as they heard only silence from their administration. Pitzer’s email did not come through until two and a half hours after Scripps’ announcement, the first of the five. The delay was due to an error with Pitzer’s listserv system, spokesperson Anna Chang said.

Administrators fought to curtail the clamor breaking out across the campuses, largely to no avail.

Students brought speakers to CMC’s Green Beach for a spontaneous party — until Vice President of Student Affairs Sharon Basso grabbed the microphone and told them to disperse. 

In an email to students immediately after, CMC Dean of Students Dianna Graves explained why the school shut down the party.

“I know that you are desperate to be with your friends, as it is an uncertain time; however, we cannot and will not allow any social events this week that are antithetical to the social distancing practices we are demanding on campus to stop the spread of the disease,” she said.

Harvey Mudd President Maria Klawe walked from dorm to dorm Wednesday, breaking up groups of greater than eight students. Some played drinking games with Corona beers and blasted the song “Should I Stay or Should I Go” on a loop. 

“This is not the time for parties or a celebration of ‘no more classes,’ or ‘the end of the world,’” Harvey Mudd Vice President for Student Affairs Anna Gonzalez said in an email to students.

At Pomona’s senior dinner Wednesday night, President G. Gabrielle Starr likewise scolded students for planning parties.

In the evening, students gathered to scream out their frustrations. Over 100 students at Pitzer assembled Wednesday night for a group scream outside of Benson Auditorium. 

“This has been a catastrophically hard day for all of us, and we need a space to just let the feelings out, however they manifest,” event organizer Elyse Endlich PZ ’22 wrote in the event page.

Realizing that Flex dollars for the semester were about to be useless, students also stormed student eateries Wednesday, purchasing food by the boxful and leaving shelves empty.

“The second the email came out, people started flooding in,” said Abby Smith PO ’23, a Coop Store employee. “[They] were like, ‘all right, screw it,’ and bought everything.”

Two women embrace to the left of the image, while many other people fill the frame holding snacks.
Hordes of students rushed the Coop Store to spend their flex dollars after learning that they would have to leave campus within the week. (Amy Best • The Student Life)

Seniors, sports teams and clubs scrambled to assemble last-minute ceremonies and end-of-year activities. 

Juniors on the CMS women’s lacrosse team, suddenly faced with their last home game of the year, created an impromptu “senior night” for the team’s seniors before their game Wednesday against Cal Lutheran — designing posters, decorating the locker room and making speeches about the seniors. 

“It was really thoughtful and cute,” goalkeeper Sara Reid CM ’20 said. “I’m glad they did it because it was literally our last game ever.”

The Claremont Colleges Ballroom Dance Company also organized an impromptu early concert and end-of-semester celebration Wednesday.

At the Pomona senior dinner, shell-shocked seniors grappled with the reality that they might be seeing some of their classmates for the last time. Some jumped onstage at Frary Dining Hall and grabbed the microphone to pour out their feelings.

One student voiced his concerns about losing access to therapy, medication and other support systems off campus, and said he was unsure if he could go home at all.

Another made an impassioned speech calling for the school to cancel seniors’ theses.

David Song PO ’20, an international relations major, told TSL that the pressure to finish the rough draft of his thesis by Friday — the IR deadline — was weighing heavily as friends were beginning to depart.

“It’s easy to tell yourself that for the next 48 hours or so, you’re going to do whatever you can to get out as much of this rough draft as possible,” Song said. “However, at the end of the day, we’re people. I’ve spent four years here. I’ve made some incredible relationships with people who I want to be close to for life. Now, on a whim, I have to say goodbye to these people. And I don’t know when’s the next day for us to reunite.” 

Some sophomores, mindful of schools’ requirements to declare a major before the end of their second years, rushed to registrars to hastily file their forms, even as registrars announced Thursday afternoon that declarations could be made electronically.

Staff at the Pomona registrar’s office dutifully cleaned the large golden bell students ring after declaring with sanitary wipes each time someone filed.

“I knew that I had to do it before the end of the year,” said Sean Jackson PO ’22, who declared his physics major Thursday. “I’m not usually great with figuring stuff out online, so I just figured I’d do it before I leave.”

Seniors also mourned the potential loss of their commencement ceremonies, although the colleges have yet to make final decisions about the events.

Pomona senior class president Khadijah Thibodeaux PO ’20 said at a forum Thursday evening that seniors across the 5Cs found the idea of a virtual graduation “very disheartening.”

A sign reading "Fuck Corona Just -Vibe-" hangs from a balcony.
A sign telling students to “just vibe” hangs at North Dorm at Harvey Mudd College. (HuxleyAnn Huefner • The Student Life)

“Even if we were not able to be able to walk across the stage in May, we’d prefer walking across the stage in August or December,” she said.

In mid-April, Starr said, the school will re-evaluate its ability to hold commencement. The other schools also left the option open of bringing seniors back to campus for a ceremony.

“None of us want … the credits on this semester to roll right now,” she said. “I’m hoping that there’ll be one of those Marvel scenes in the middle of the credits that says the movie isn’t quite over.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Claremont Colleges Ballroom Dance Company organized their impromptu early concert and end-of-semester celebration Thursday. It was actually held Wednesday. TSL regrets this error.
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