Illustration by Katie Ferreol.

Stuck On Campus Since the Start of the Pandemic

For students that have stayed on campus for over a year, the experience has been a bittersweet one: many have found a new sense of belonging on the NYUAD campus, but it has come at the cost of being disconnected from their loved ones back home.

Apr 4, 2021

“After the summer course I really just didn’t know what to do… there was just no motivation to do anything,” recalled Nuha Azhar, Class of 2023.
Azhar is one of a number of students who have stayed on the NYU Abu Dhabi campus since the Covid-19 pandemic started — for more than the span of a year. After Spring 2020 transitioned online, some students chose to return home mid semester. Others stayed until the end of the semester, but by the end of May 2020, the overwhelming majority of the student population had returned home.
But not everyone could leave. Whether it was due to border restrictions, unstable home situations or tight finances, some students stayed put. For Azhar, whose family resides in Saudi Arabia, borders were to blame.
Over summer 2020, we inhabited a shadow version of our campus — not a soul was seen reading beneath the palms, the dining hall was empty and bumping into someone on the Highline was a near impossibility. There was no furniture in the Marketplace, the space in front of the Library Cafe was deserted and the Fitness Centre remained shut. It was different, almost dystopian. Most of us remained cocooned in the isolating comfort of our rooms — or at least I did — for extended stretches of time, away from both the June heat and human connection. I would only emerge from my room to head toward the solitary dining hall which, in compliance with public health guidelines, was takeaway only.
I too, like Azhar, took a summer course. And after the summer course, much like Azhar, I found myself feeling untethered. For most of us, our social lives were either non-existent or entirely online. I remember Zooming friends for hours at a stretch. The days and nights merged together, and each day was like the last one — unless, of course, you met someone on the Highline.
“It was physically lonely… even in the dining hall I barely ran into anyone. My social life was entirely online. I wasn’t emotionally lonely… but I felt physically isolated,” shared Leo El-azhab, Class of 2022, who had originally planned to visit her boyfriend in the U.K. but was stuck on campus after the borders closed.
However, some found friendship and intimacy among others that were stranded on campus. “Toward the end of summer, when we moved from A2C to A6B… I met two new people, and they’ve been my close friends until now… we bonded really closely,” Azhar added, noting that she did not expect to make friendships throughout this period.
Manuel Padilla, Class of 2023, said he found a new social circle. “We played cards every night, or watched a movie.” Certainly, being close to others on campus helped with loneliness. But it was still an odd existence. Any and all social interaction was prized.
Spending over a year on campus also meant changing how one navigated their relationship with the physical spaces on campus in attempts to recreate home. “In my freshman year, my room was like a cell...during the pandemic, my perspective on my suite changed, I took the time to decorate my room, make it more home-like,” shared Padilla.
For others, however, it was still difficult to stay separated from their families for so long.
“Not being able to go back and see my parents has been very hard. My dad took it very, very badly,” shared Thais Alvarenga, Class of 2023. Alvarenga, who could not return to her home in Honduras due to closed borders and subsequent hurricanes shutting down the airports during December 2020, lost a family member and missed both her parents’ birthdays.
Spending so much time far from home also gave us time to reflect on our existing relationships with family and home. “I was afraid to go back home actually, for the winter break. Just because I had been away from home for so long...I wondered if that was going to change my relationship with my family, ” said Azhar.
For some, this time away from home and family has led to a growing sense of cultural disconnectedness. “Once the summer started, I did begin to feel a little disconnected from my culture...I would try to cook. There was a part of me trying to be Honduran,” Alvarenga mentioned.
For Alvarenga, this disconnectedness intensified during Christmas and New Years’ Eve. This was a time she would usually spend with her loved ones, bonding over family dinners and visiting her grandmother. “That wasn’t the case this year. I literally called my parents on Christmas and watched a movie on Zoom.”
“This was the first Christmas in my life that I wasn’t with my family or my boyfriend’s family,” commented El-azhab. “I haven’t seen [my boyfriend] for like 15 to 16 months at this point.”
Despite all this, El-azhab tried to recreate Christmas on campus. With a friend, she decorated a Christmas tree, and made Christmas cookies; trying to retain the same structure of the day she would have had back home also helped tackle the persisting homesickness.
Having been here for almost a year and half, through the summer and winter breaks, there’s a tiresome continuity that’s difficult to understand. There has been no mental separation between the semesters. Occupying the same space, having more or less the same routine, and all the while being away from family can quickly become draining. The absence of discreteness often means it’s difficult to place certain events in time, and more generally leads to a very skewed understanding of time. For instance, the excruciating four month long summer now feels like a fever dream. If one were to ask me what I did during those months, I’d be at loss of words. Personally, I’ve also often felt a need for radical change. Change of space? People? Routine? I’m not quite sure — it’s difficult to visualize. Perhaps it’s just another manifestation of homesickness.
Over the year, the spaces we occupy on campus have radically changed, in accordance with public health guidelines. However, there’s been another notable variable: the campus population. Having to go from a time when there would be two other students having dinner at the West Dining Hall alone, to a bustling East Dining Hall and the inflow of over a thousand undergraduate students was overwhelming. When asked about how he navigated this change, Padilla simply responded: “I felt like the campus was being invaded.”
“‘It was really hard for me to even say ‘Hi’ to friends...just because I had forgotten how to talk to people,” Azhar added.
Whether it’s through decorating one’s room, building lasting friendships, or simply growing more attached to certain parts of the campus, those that stayed here have tried to tether themselves, even amid a pandemic and thousands of miles away from family. Oftentimes, when overwhelmed or anxious, Alvarenga finds comfort in returning to her floor lounge in her previous residential hall — one of the spots on campus she feels most attached to.
“I did feel home on campus… and like I don’t know where I would have gone if I had not been allowed to stay here,” said El-azhab. For her, there was a strange duality to it: while she felt secure and at home here, to her the place also became symbolic of the pandemic, and her separation from her loved ones. “Sometimes I feel trapped without a light at the end of the tunnel. You know… there are people I really want to see… and I don’t know when I will be able to.”
But despite our varying experiences, there’s a constant theme — of gratefulness to this institution, and of feeling more at home at NYUAD.
Vatsa Singh is Opinion Editor. Email him at
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