His family lives in Modesto, just a two-hour drive from Palo Alto, but he worried about potentially exposing his father, who has suffered from respiratory problems and other health issues in the last year. Cervantes is on nearly full financial aid, meaning he can live and eat for free on campus rather than passing some of that cost along to his family if he were to move home.
He's adjusting to spending more time alone than he's used to on an unusually quiet campus.
"Your entire life is in your room," Cervantes said.
The fountains are turned off, the libraries are closed and the basketball hoops have been taken down, but Cervantes is among hundreds of undergraduate students still spending their spring quarter on Stanford's campus. Undergraduates had to formally request approval from the university to stay, which Stanford said would help to keep track of who's on campus in case of confirmed cases of COVID-19. Less than 10% of Stanford's approximately 7,000 undergraduate students remain on campus, according to university spokesperson E.J. Miranda.
Many are international students for whom returning home would have been challenging or disruptive to their studies. Stanford gave priority to students who were "unable to go home, those with known severe health or safety risks, and those who are homeless," Miranda said.
Most graduate students have remained on campus given they typically live in apartment-style housing, he said, which can more easily accommodate social distancing.
Below are the stories of four students who have remained at Stanford during the shutdown: Cervantes; a freshman from Turkey studying electrical engineering; a Filipino senior working on a thesis about his native country's national liberation movement; and a visiting researcher from Denmark in his final year of medical school. Each talks about the challenges and unexpected silver linings of living on campus during an unprecedented time.
'I'm trying to be OK with not having a million things to do with a million different people.'
Jesus Cervantes will be the first in his family to graduate from college. He's majoring in computer science and pursuing a coterminal master's degree in management science and engineering.
He threw himself into life at Stanford. He's on the cheer team, participates in student government and was a resident assistant last year. He felt like he had hit his stride in the senior year and was looking forward to everything that the last months of college promised: fountain hopping, senior formal, trips to the beach, staying up late with friends.
"All those things that we thought were waiting for us, a goodbye to this crazy experience we've all had — I'm never going to get that," he said. "It was a hard thing to take in, especially as a senior."
Before Stanford moved Cervantes out of his home on the Row and into the Schwab Residential Center, which usually houses Graduate School of Business students, public safety officers would patrol at night, shining flashlights into common areas to make sure students were sitting 6 feet apart. At Schwab, he has a single room with a full bed (an upgrade from the twin in his old house), a desk and his own bathroom.
He used to play basketball every day, but all the nets on campus have been tied up. He goes for a daily run on campus instead and sometimes finds an empty field on campus in which he eats lunch alone.
Like many people, Cervantes has turned to technology to recreate social interactions that would normally happen in person. His former roommate's New Year's resolution was to do 100 pushups every day; their new nightly ritual is to do them together on FaceTime and catch up afterward. He's hosting a regular online study hall for his former housemates, inviting people to study apart but together on Zoom.
The hardest part of staying on campus, he said, has been adjusting to a solitary life with more downtime than he's used to.
"I'm trying to be OK with not having a million things to do with a million different people, which is an environment that Stanford tends to foster," he said.
Cervantes isn't personally disappointed about commencement being canceled, but is mourning the loss of an important milestone for his parents. His earliest memory is his mother teaching him to read, telling him he would graduate from college.
"Students who come from my background, all the pressure is on you to graduate. A lot of us have that image in our head of us walking that stage and our family getting to watch us," he said. "For me, the image wasn't walking on the stage. It was having a diploma in my hand. That's been the image in my mind the last 20 years: me holding that degree, putting it up on the wall in my room.
"I'll still get it, whether they hand me the degree on the stage or mail it to my parents," Cervantes added. "For me, that's the most important thing."
'This is ending in a vastly different way than any of us could have foreseen.'
As the emails from Stanford about who would be allowed to stay on campus grew increasingly serious in tone, Ethan Chua, a senior from the Philippines, got increasingly nervous. He filled out the required form, explaining that returning home would be disruptive to his education.
"I was approved to stay but a lot of folks weren't. That was part of what was really stressful — people who had good reasons to stay not being allowed to stay," Chua said.
His two siblings who also study in the United States did go home, but he preferred the "stability" of staying at Stanford — including the ability to access online classes without a 15-hour time difference. In the Philippines, he said, there's been an intense military response to the public health crisis.
"The deep worry is that the coronavirus is being used as a pretense with the executive branch of the Philippines to gather power to the president," he said.
About eight other students in his residence, the Asian-American themed Okada dorm, were also approved to stay, but he's no longer interacting with them in person. Weekly house meetings have been canceled. Students aren't allowed to eat with each other.
"It's definitely isolating," he said. "It's a real challenge with respect to balancing community safety alongside one's emotional needs as any human needing connection. That's something I've had to navigate over the past few weeks."
Chua is mostly staying inside his single room but looks forward to grabbing coffee from the only open Coupa Cafe and picking up to-go food from his assigned dining hall, where he said chefs have been putting extra effort in to make quality meals. Students must line up, wash their hands, take prepackaged food and go back to their residences to eat.
Despite the restrictions, campus feels "peaceful," he said.
"I feel grateful I'm in a situation where I get to walk outside — by myself of course — and get some sunlight," Chua said.
Stanford's quick transition to fully online instruction for spring quarter has had varying degrees of success, Chua said. Some of his classes are well-run while others suffer from professors lacking technological proficiency.
"The ones I appreciate the most are the ones that have been willing to let go of the traditional meeting time in class," he said, including using pre-recorded lectures and asynchronous assignments. "There really is an opportunity to be compassionate about what academic requirements look like during this time period."
Beyond coursework, Chua is devoting much of his time and energy to advocating on behalf of campus workers who were laid off when the campus closed in mid-March. He's part of Stanford Students for Workers' Rights, a student-led group that's been using petitions, social media campaigns and Zoom press conferences to pressure the university to provide pay and benefits for contracted workers through June.
He's taking an extra quarter to finish his thesis but was still planning to walk at commencement in June. More than the event itself, he's missing the opportunity to reflect on the past four years with his friends and classmates.
"It would have been nice to spend that time with people who I really cared for and loved. Now this is ending in a vastly different way than any of us could have foreseen," Chua said.
Simon John Christoph Sorensen
'My parents, who I love and live with in Denmark, cannot offer to me what I'm getting here at Stanford. It's a unique possibility.'
Before the Bay Area's stay-at-home order took effect, Simon John Christoph Sorensen was in an operating room at Stanford Hospital every week, observing robotic urology surgeries.
Sorensen, 26, is a visiting researcher in his last year of medical school at Aarhus University in Denmark. He came to Stanford last September to work with Benjamin Chung, a urologic oncologist and professor at Stanford Medical School.
Since March, he hasn't been allowed in the hospital. All of his research, which focuses on using "deep learning" (a form of machine learning) in the diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer, has shifted online. Stanford has shut down all university labs conducting non-essential research.
Once it became clear how serious the coronavirus was in Santa Clara County, Sorensen considered going back to Denmark. There, normal life is starting to resume more quickly — Sorensen's high school reopened last week — even though Denmark has more cases per capita than Santa Clara County.
"It's very tough being so far away from my family in general and now with this pandemic, it's even more tough," he said. But he ultimately decided "my parents, who I love and live with in Denmark, cannot offer to me what I'm getting here at Stanford. It's a unique possibility."
Sorensen lives in faculty housing on campus with an older woman who also happens to be from Denmark. They speak Danish together, which helps him "feel a little at home while not being exactly at home."
But all of his regular activities — meetings with his mentor, practices and games for his club badminton team, volunteer work in local middle schools, chess lessons for other international students — have ceased. Most of his friends, also international students, have left campus and are scattered across the world in different time zones.
"The social aspect has been the hardest. It's tough not seeing people on a day-to-day basis, especially people my own age," he said. "It does feel like my room is like a box sometimes, having nowhere to go."
Instead of playing badminton together in person, the club team is staying connected through a Facebook group. He has both academic and social meetings on Zoom with the researchers, doctors and nurses he'd normally see in a lab, including a weekend happy hour.
He's taken to going for walks alone on campus, appreciating in a new way the nature and architecture at Stanford. He's still getting used to passing by people wearing masks, which prevent the usual smiles or other interaction he might share with strangers.
Sorensen recently applied to extend his visa to stay at Stanford through September. He feels safe on campus and is hopeful he'll be able to resume in-person research before then.
'I knew from the moment Stanford shut down that I'd want to keep enjoying the freedom I have here. Here, I can go out; I can walk.'
In Lara Arikan's native Turkey, the government has ordered a curfew for people older than 65 and younger than 20 years old to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. She falls into the latter category.
"I would be extremely suffocated," the Stanford freshman said. "I knew from the moment Stanford shut down that I'd want to keep enjoying the freedom I have here. Here, I can go out; I can walk. There are places for me to be and to breathe and people to talk to."
Her parents are also older, and she would have been living with them in a cramped space — not to mention she'd have to "live nocturnally" to take live classes.
So Arikan, who's studying electrical engineering with a prospective minor in music science and technology, has stayed on campus. She was one of the students that the university moved, but her new residence isn't far from her freshman dorm. She said moving wasn't disruptive as much as disorienting — adjusting to a new, single room without the comfort of her roommates or even their belongings.
When Stanford first shut down, Arikan felt unmotivated. She had trouble getting out of bed and finding a new routine.
"But now," she said, "it feels very much like normal. I have some classes in the morning. I take a long walk or an afternoon bike ride. I go somewhere that's green and solitary usually. I sit there and I play the flute and read and I write. I go back to my dorm for the evening and do work until about midnight."
Because she's studying computer science, she said most of her classes easily transitioned online. Her summer internship with the Stanford Energy Resources Engineering department is still on and will take place virtually.
About six other students from her dorm have also stayed, and she sees some of them around campus. She's also friends with graduate students who are still living on campus. Because many people are desperate to stay connected online, she feels like she has the same challenge of balancing social commitments and schoolwork that many first-year college students face.
"It doesn't feel lonely at all," she said. "It feels exactly like during the school year when you have to plan out your time wisely."
To Arikan, the campus feels quiet but not empty. She often sees families going for walks and said that people seem friendlier than usual.
"It feels more like a little village. Every time I go out I see people I recognize," she said. "It doesn't feel eerie. There's a community that never used to really exist."
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