Digital Diaries: Alone on Campus

Victoria Benefield, Assistant Video Editor

In the newest episode of Digital Diaries, international student Quan Pham talks about being one of the last students on Northwestern’s campus in the middle of March. Over two weeks, Pham recorded his thoughts and feelings as he packed up his belongings and traveled to Philadelphia to stay with friends.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: The following podcast contains explicit language.

QUAN PHAM: I haven’t been this anxious and on edge for a long time, not to this level. It’s that underlying sense of not knowing what’s going to happen. That constant confusion underlies every single thing that I do.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Victoria Benefield. Welcome to Digital Diaries, a podcast capturing people’s lives in their own words. A few weeks ago, we asked Northwestern students and professors to record themselves in their daily lives — what they were thinking, feeling, and doing — as the effects of COVID-19 began to hit Northwestern’s community. I’ll let this episode’s guest introduce himself.

QUAN PHAM: My name is Quan Pham, I am a freshman at Medill. I am an international student from Vietnam.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: Quan started recording his experiences during finals week of Winter Quarter — just a few days after Northwestern made finals optional, extended Spring Break by a week, and moved classes online for the first three weeks of Spring Quarter. At that point, many students had returned home to their families, but Quan was still on campus, with no plan to go home to Vietnam. But that’s enough from me. Quan will take it from here.

QUAN PHAM: It is now 2:39 p.m., Tuesday, March 17, 2020. I am currently packing my room. Still got a lot left to do. But I’m gonna pack everything up, send everything in a storage unit, as if I’m leaving for the summer, and then fly out to Philadelphia, because I have some people I know there and I’m just gonna stay with them until further notice. Yeah, I don’t know, the situation has been very tricky so far.

Things feel surreal, especially when you realize that the pandemic is happening and it’s affecting you. It’s affecting people around you. It’s affecting your friends and family. And that’s something that is still sort of sinking in as I am packing up my room, as I am making travel arrangements. All of this happened, I don’t want to say out of the blue, but it’s not something that I was anticipating to have to go through.

So since last week, Tuesday, we’ve been talking a lot about the possibility of Northwestern closing down since many colleges were starting to do that. I remember distinctively Wednesday last week, I was talking to my friends and a couple of other professors about whether or not Northwestern is gonna make a decision or not. And then that night, the email went out and everyone realized that, oh, it’s actually happening. It’s real. And we are in the middle of it. That Wednesday night, I remember being in a very anxious and perhaps panicking state of just trying to figure out what to do next. What’s going to happen to me as an international student, now that we’re moving online, there’s a lot of anxiety going on.

So Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, yesterday was Monday. Everything just sort of blended together. It was a continuous flow of not knowing what to do, of uncertainty, of confusion, of just sitting still waiting for the news or confirmation from the University. Friday night was when the first email of a confirmed case in Northwestern was sent out. And I was really scared reading that. And then Saturday, there was the second case. This morning I checked the website. It was four confirmed cases. But, over the weekend I booked my flight to Philly and decided that I will send everything in my room away.

And on top of all of that, it feels very lonely to be here right now. Because I see people in my dorm leaving, I see my friends leaving, and I know I’m going to see them again next year. But it’s still a long stretch of time. And on top of that, when I see them leaving, they have their families coming, helping them to move out. And up to this point, I’ve sort of been doing everything by myself. I’ve been making my own food ‘cause I’ve been trying to avoid going to the dining hall. I’ve been packing my own stuff. It feels very lonely. Especially seeing how my dorm is so empty right now. Campus is empty, everything is desolated. And, you know, people say that human beings are social creatures, which is a very hard thing to maintain in this situation where social distancing is required. Certainly, we can try to keep up with each other through texts, and FaceTimes, and other messaging apps. But it’s not the same as being there for each other. Right? And that’s just something that I’ve been trying to grapple with.

I’ve been trying to keep a positive attitude. I’ve been trying to remind myself that all of this chaos, all of this loneliness and sadness and hopelessness and the sense of confusion, uncertainty, all of this will pass by, because all of this is short term. Right? In a month from now, things will fall into place. In the future, things will fall into place and then we’ll be over what we’re going through right now. I guess it’s human nature, to adapt and to prevail.

QUAN PHAM: It is now 5:23 p.m. and I’ve been trying to cook for the past hour or so because cooking is one of the things that I really enjoy doing by myself. I just feel like I need some sort of distraction right now. So I’ve been cooking this little vegetable stew kind of thing. I don’t really have a name, just sort of whip up what I have. There’s cabbage, potato, tomato, garlic, green onion, you know, the good stuff. (SIZZLING NOISES) It’s looking good. Ah man! Hanging in there.

QUAN PHAM: So today is Wednesday, March 18. It is currently 3:14 p.m. and I’m still packing my room to get ready to fly out to Philly. Speaking of which, I think the situation is not going well. This morning I read that there have been several employees at an air traffic control tower at Midway (International) Airport that tested positive for the virus. And so flights have been suspended or delayed or canceled since last night. I’m flying Southwest Airline(s), so I called them. And, just like everyone else, they don’t really know what’s going on. And they say that they are just trying to take things day by day. My flight was supposed to be on Saturday, but this morning I booked another one to fly out Friday. That means I’m gonna have to move everything up one day. So then I have to finish packing the entire room today.

I haven’t been this anxious and on edge for a long time, not to this level. It’s an underlying sense of not knowing what’s going to happen, that constant confusion underlies every single thing that I do. You never know what’s gonna come in the mail next or come up in the news next. They might cancel everything. They might ban everything. It’s a difficult situation.

I try to keep my spirit up. I went out for a run yesterday because it was very nice out. I ran around Northwestern campus and I saw people just hanging out in the Lakefill. Not a whole lot of people, but I still saw people walking their dogs, or just relaxing in the sun. That’s sort of served as a nice reminder that, you know, life goes on.
But then fast forward 24 hours to today. It’s rainy and gloomy outside again. And it’s just really hard to be positive when everything just seems to not be looking good. (Clears throat). Oh God. I’m still grappling with that sense of isolation and loneliness being in the dorm right now. Yesterday, several people from my dorm, because we were the only people left in our dorm, we put on a movie and watched it together. And that was a very nice thing to have. But now I’m back here by myself in my room packing. And I just want this to be over.

I’ve just been thinking about this time last year. I was near the end of my senior year in high school in Pennsylvania, went to a boarding school there called The Hill School. I was just spending spring enjoying the weather, enjoying life, enjoying the last days of my high school career. It has been a year since that point. It just feels like everything has been going by at an exponential speed. All those things just keep coming and coming and coming and going and going and going. And we’ve just been flying through Fall Quarter and Winter Quarter. I just can’t help but wonder one year from now, where will I be? There’s gonna be a lot that’s gonna happen, but it’s gonna go by really quickly. That realization of how time just slips right through your fingers like that. It’s just hard to take in. I don’t know.

I think I — I’m just being left alone to my thoughts right now. And I try to focus on packing. I try to focus on doing all these other things, but my mind keeps wandering. And it’s gonna take some getting used to. But it’s going to be hard.


VICTORIA BENEFIELD: Quan ended up booking four different flights, three out of Midway and one out of O’Hare. All of his flights out of Midway were either canceled or delayed, so he ended up flying out of O’Hare on the morning of Friday, March 20.

QUAN PHAM: I’m at Philadelphia International Airport. I just arrived about 45 minutes ago. I’m waiting for a ride and I’m currently wearing a mask. So the audio might be wonky, but basically I flew out of O’Hare this morning and my flight was supposed to be 9:40 a.m., but it got delayed around an hour and fifteen minutes. We didn’t actually take off until way past 11:00 or so. But yeah, I made it out of campus.

QUAN PHAM: It’s 7 p.m. right now, Eastern Time, because I’m in PA now. I am now home with my host family. Thursday afternoon I had some friends over helping me with moving out. We put all the boxes in a minivan, drove out to a storage unit. And then just as we were taking the stuff out of the van, it started raining. And so my stuff got wet, which was really annoying. I tried to wipe them down, but I’m kind of concerned about mold. It just felt like everything was going wrong, you know?

And the entire night, I was super anxious, checking the status of my Friday morning flight. Like constantly I was like, “Please do not get canceled.” And then since I packed all my beddings, pillows and blankets, everything, I was sleeping basically with like a towel and a hoodie as my pillow. And so that was fun. I didn’t get much sleep at all. So this morning, Friday morning, woke up at 6:30, locked my suitcases, brushed my teeth, and then got to the airport.

It’s been quite, quite a week. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, it all just felt surreal. At points, I felt like I hit rock bottom in terms of my mental health. I was just so desperate for human interaction, basically. But now I’m here, still trying to figure things out. I guess I’m gonna be staying here for two weeks of spring break and then three weeks of online classes, so that’s a long time. And I do want to hear more news and updates from the University. Last time I checked, it was six confirmed cases at Northwestern on the Evanston campus. But yeah, I do hope that we can come back and finish Spring Quarter on campus because I would love to be on campus with my friends and enjoying spring, but there’s still a lot of people that do not take this as serious(ly) as they should. And they just don’t want to stay home practicing social distancing and all that. And that’s just gonna cause this whole period of shutdown longer, which is very infuriating. Man. I just want things to look up a little bit. I don’t want to open my phone and see a headline say that, oh, things are still going to shit.

QUAN PHAM: So today is Monday, March 23. 8:57 a.m. For the past two days, Saturday and Sunday, I’ve just been relaxing, not doing anything and allowing myself to be in that state of doing nothing and enjoy it. Because I think I need some time to just reset, to relax.

I just meditated for not exactly 15 minutes, but close to it. I gotta say, it felt really good. At one point, my arms started to feel weightless. And I can just focus on tracking my thoughts. My mind wandered a whole bunch. But that’s OK. That’s the point. Meditation is to acknowledge that your mind can go a lot of places. But there’s no judgment. There’s only acknowledgement. So I’m going to try to keep that up. I guess if you are listening, then I wish you the best of luck. In your journey for self-improvement and acceptance. Whatever the time might be, it is never too late to start that. I don’t know if I’m gonna be successful or not, but I think in this trying time, it is a good opportunity to look inward instead of outward. There’s just so many negative things. So focus on yourself. And try to improve yourself. Good luck.

QUAN PHAM: Today’s Tuesday, March 24. Now is around 1:54 p.m. Trying to work out a new routine, so I don’t fall into some sort of slump mentally and physically. Essentially what I’m going to do is wake up, 15 minutes of meditation, and then run for 15 minutes and then go back, record an audio diary or do some journaling and then read for at least 15 minutes. And then Monday, Wednesday, Friday, perform my strength routine. That’s my new workout plan now that I can’t go to the gym. Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, I’m going to be performing my mobility routine. And then Sunday is going to be a break day. So that’s my plan.

The one problem that I think will need to be addressed is the fact that, since everyone is staying home, everyone’s trying to do their own thing in a very limited space. So you just sort of have to work out a schedule to incorporate everyone’s activities in the same space. And that’s going to be a challenge, but I think we will eventually work it out and get used to that. Another thing that I try to do too, is that I try to go to bed 10 minutes earlier than what I usually do every night. So for example, if I usually sleep at 1, then today I would try to sleep at 12:50 and tomorrow 12:40 and so on, until I hit the desired mark of 11 p.m. That sound in the background, that’s the family’s dog. Rosie, do you want to say anything? I guess not. She’s just enjoying herself in the sun right now.

But yeah, that’s the situation. I keep y’all updated. Oh man.

QUAN PHAM: Today’s Thursday, March, I believe 26. I’ve been trying to keep up my routine. I’ve been meditating every single morning, run every single day. But the one thing that I’ve found it hard to keep up is to go to bed at a reasonable time. I think it’s because I keep being on my devices, like my phone, my iPad, whatever. I just kept watching videos, other videos, and I think the solution is just to put them as far away as possible before I get into bed and then just lie down and that’s it. So that is one thing that I would try to keep up is to sleep earlier. It is rather difficult to keep that up. That’s about it for today.

QUAN PHAM: Today is Friday, March 27. Right now the one thing I’m concerned about is my ability to focus on work or a creative project. Because, with exercising, with running, with meditation, I can sort of zone out a little bit. But when it comes to actually doing something productive or creative, then I would need to really put my mind into it, and I haven’t been able to do that.

There is this one thing that I’m working on. It’s basically just a written piece to consolidate my opinions, my thoughts, my reactions, my feelings to this whole pandemic. I’ve been just sitting on it for the past couple of days. So I set a hard deadline, which is going to be 3 p.m. today. I need to finish the first draft of this. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to read well, it doesn’t have to flow well. It just has to encapsulate what I want to say. So after this audio recording, I’m just going to go down into my desk, turn up some music and crank everything out. ‘Cause once I have something on a paper, it will be easier for me to just look at it, edit it and add things that I want to add. But I need to get past that first major barrier, which is just putting down words.

Other than that, the one other thing that I am still sort of struggling with is the absence of friendship and intimacy with other people. Because there’s this one person that I’ve sort of been seeing. And I tried to keep up the conversation with her but the other day, we had a conversation about this one concern I had, which I had brought up to her multiple times. And the conversation sort of devolved a little bit, she got upset. We haven’t talked since. So it’s kind of hard to not be in each other’s presence to sense what the other person’s feeling to talk things over in an adequate manner. Because FaceTiming, it’s good, but still not enough. But I guess that’s all we have right now. So just gonna have to work with that. I think, personally, it’s very hard for me to keep that connection online. I need to be in person in order for that connection, for that relationship to work.

But yeah, challenges. Those other ones, accomplishments? I do want to watch two movies before this weekend. And then look at some Excel stuff, just to see what it’s like. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, so might as well. All right. I think that’s about it for today.

QUAN PHAM: Today is Saturday, March 28. Yesterday I said that I set a deadline for this one written piece I’m working on. By the time the deadline hits, I haven’t finished. So that’s on me. I made some progress, though. So I think I’m just going to keep on chipping away at it and keep going. Because I think it’s hard to be creative when you lack a structure like this, you know?
On the one hand, I want to be easy on myself because, you know, it’s a weird time to be in. It’s OK to not be at your most productive or creative during this global pandemic. But on the other hand, I also think that I should try to find a structure for myself. I’m still trying to find a balance between the two things.

QUAN PHAM: Today’s Thursday, April 2. This is probably gonna be the last recording.
as I’m slowly getting into a routine by this point. The last recording I did was on Saturday. The past couple of days, I’ve pretty much been falling into the same routine of waking up, meditating, going for a run, so that’s really good.

Yeah, so far, things have been… I guess, been the new normal. Been slowly adapting to a new schedule. In terms of connections with friends, obviously still keeping in touch with everyone, still texting them, calling them a lot. Me and another friend had a little call to talk about a movie we both watched. It’s called The Platform, it was on Netflix. It’s pretty good.

Oh, that’s right. The federal stay-at-home order has been extended to April 30, in the U.S., so (Northwestern) is also gonna have the online classes extended to May 4, instead of April 27. They say that they could have more announcements by April 17, but if we keep going at this rate, I don’t think we’re gonna be able to come back for Spring Quarter, which is something that I still have hopes about. I think eventually I’m gonna have to come to terms with the idea that we’re not gonna have Spring Quarter.

Another thing was that my summer study abroad programs both got canceled. Which was a huge bummer because I worked so hard on that application. But oh well, it’s affecting everyone,

For now, I guess that’s that.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: Since the last day Quan recorded, Northwestern announced that classes would be online for the entirety of Spring Quarter. Although there’s no chance that he’ll be returning to campus this spring, Quan decided to stay in Philadelphia instead of going home to Vietnam.

QUAN PHAM: There’s a lot of downsides to going home. Obviously, I’m going to have to, like, go to the airport, sit in an airplane for 15 hours with strangers. And that’s not a good thing to do during a pandemic. And then not to mention the fact that if I go back, what if I contract something on the way back, and then have that be another thing my family has to worry about. And also, just logistically, I’m from Vietnam, and they have been limiting international travel for a while now. So it’s not like, I want to go back and then I can just go back. And then there’s also the consideration of schoolwork. I can’t stay up at 2 a.m. for a class. I can’t be attending office hours, I can’t raise questions to the professor in person. So there’s a lot of things that will not work out if I just go back home.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: Now that his classes have started, Quan still feels like he should be productive during this period of quarantine, especially since Northwestern has made all grading pass/fail for the quarter.

QUAN PHAM: For me, there is a pressure to utilize this pass/fail quarter to get ahead because normally, like most people, I would just take four classes. But now I’m taking five. And it’s going well, but at times, I’m just like, “Am I doing this because it’s the right thing to do or am I just succumbing to some sort of pressure to be productive still in a global pandemic?” You know obviously, you don’t have to be productive. You don’t have to be at your most creative when there’s so much else that’s happening. I’m doing these five classes, and that is more than good. That’s more than four classes. So I don’t have to feel the pressure to be extra productive, like doing extracurricular things and all that stuff. So I can be easy on myself and at the same time still maintain that work ethic of taking these classes seriously.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: Quan still isn’t sure, though, what he’ll be doing or even where he’ll be living in a month and a half, after classes end.

QUAN PHAM: I have no summer plan. So I sort of had plan A, B, and C, and then obviously everything got canceled. The entire alphabet got canceled. And the worst thing is that not even the people in charge knows what’s going to happen. So nothing is set for now. The only thing that I can do right now is just to take things day by day. And see, by the time school ends, if me going home even is a possibility, because that’s going to change a lot. If I’m going to go home, then obviously, there are going to be different things to do then if I’m going to stay here, so everything is pretty much contingent on how things will look by June.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: That’s all for this episode of Digital Diaries. Thanks for listening!

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: This episode was reported and produced by me, Victoria Benefield. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Molly Lubbers, the digital managing editors are Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava, and the editor in chief is Marissa Martinez.

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