A cool, early September breeze rustled through the leaves outside as the first rays of daylight shone through the blinds of freshman English major Bella Bell’s room. It was 7 a.m. on a Thursday. Her phone was ringing.
“At first, I thought I was still dreaming,” Bell said of the phone call from Student Health Services informing her she had tested positive for COVID-19. “I was so stressed about having to pack everything and fill out the forms that I couldn’t even register that I had [COVID-19].”
Bell, who had previously contracted the virus in April of 2020, was familiar with the chest pains and allergy-like symptoms. When they showed up again this fall, she decided to get tested. “I was expecting a negative because I was being so cautious,” she said. Bell was fully vaccinated, and, so far as she knew, hadn’t been in close contact with anyone who had tested positive. Even still, her results confirmed she had contracted COVID-19 again. Told to go pack all her essentials, Bell spent the next hour rapidly filling her suitcase and completing a form with a list of her close contacts before her mysterious driver—part of a Wheaton driving team created for this purpose—appeared in a white van outside of Fischer Hall.
Students who test positive are allowed to isolate at home, but Bell’s family lives in Florida. Unable to make the trip back, she would spend the next nine days at East Campus, a converted storage facility reserved for students isolating while they have COVID-19.
The old brick building, once the headquarters of a Christian publishing house, radiates an ominous, eerie feeling comparable to an abandoned movie set or ghost town. Located a mile away from Joe Bean Stadium on College Ave, this mysterious facility has taken on a new life this semester.
Although East Campus renovations were completed in September 2020, it remained empty and unoccupied by students until a two-week spike last March. The recent spike in positive test results on Wheaton’s campus has sent more students to East Campus than ever before, with a total of 50 students staying there at some point this semester.
“It felt like a dystopian novel, because I was sitting in the back of a minivan and the driver was wearing sunglasses and a suit—he looked like an FBI agent,” Bell said. “The whole time he didn’t speak a word to me, and I thought, ‘This is the strangest thing ever.’”
At East Campus, Bell’s driver told her to find a bed and left.
After unpacking inside, she realized she had forgotten a bath towel. “I’m here, on the first day, thinking, ‘How do I shower?’”
Bell immediately ordered a towel from Costco on her laptop. When the package arrived at East Campus later that day, though, Bell was shocked to find that she had mistakenly ordered a hand towel. Luckily, she had family in the area. She called them, and they dropped off a normal-sized towel. She would use it for the next nine days. Laundry facilities are available at East Campus, but as Bell arrived without detergent, she was unable to do laundry.
Though forgetting some necessities, Bell brought her own sheets and a pillow to put on the college-issued twin bed, situated across from another empty bed under a large window with blinds drawn. She had also packed books and a salt lamp to set on the shelves of a college-issued desk, offsetting the bare cinder block walls of her temporary home.
“The worst part was definitely getting there the first night,” Bell said. “The idea of it hits you. You think, ‘Wait, I’m here. This is really strange and uncomfortable.”
Having barely adjusted to her new surroundings, Bell spent some of the day outside, exploring the nearby field where East Campus residents are allowed to roam. She took a lengthy reading from Professor Christine Colón’s Shakespeare class, but didn’t stay outside long, coming to terms with what it meant to be “isolated.”
“I felt bad because people were walking their dogs around the neighborhood and they might not know this is a COVID facility,” Bell told me. She stayed inside for the rest of the day.
Although a self-professed ambivert, Bell said the balance between wanting to be alone and wanting to socialize was difficult to strike. “The first two days I was in heaven—I just sat here reading books and being happy. But after two days, I needed human interaction.”
Bell spent the day calling her family and FaceTiming her friends from her hometown in the DC area, where she graduated high school before her family moved to Florida. “Since I had time to talk to them more, I ended up missing home a lot more than I expected.”
Bell missed her on-campus friends, too. Although as a freshman she had only been in Wheaton two weeks before contracting COVID-19 again, she had already started to form relationships with people on her residence hall floor and in her classes. Meeting friends at Sam’s for iced vanilla lattes or gathering to study Shakespeare was out of the question.
In her first weeks of college, Bell had also gotten involved in Mock Trial, which had a meeting on Day 3 of her East Campus experience.
“It definitely stinks,” she said, “I was looking forward to that before all this.”
After a few days in isolation, Bell stared at my face on her phone screen for our FaceTime interview. Somewhat accustomed to her new surroundings, she now was able to describe the overall feel of the facility.
East Campus is divided into two halls, men on one side and women on the other. In between the two is a warehouse-like space. Industrial and spacious, this area is used as a common area for the sick students, where they can hang out.
Dean of Residence Life Justin Heth has visited East Campus to visit the students residing there. “I’ve seen them worshiping all together in front of the big 80-inch TV,” he said. “I’ve seen wiffle ball games. I’ve seen spike ball. I’ve seen students outside studying.”
But students moving in and out of the building caused ebbs and flows in the social life of the temporary community. Many of the “high energy students” had left before her arrival, according to Bell.
“In my experience, in my hall, it’s very eerie and quiet,” Bell said. “Everyone’s in their own space doing their own thing, so it’s silent most of the time except the random outburst of coughs you’ll hear across the hall.”
Rather than gathering with other residents for communal worship on Sunday, Bell watched a church service online, alone in her room.
“Towards my last three days of East Campus, I found that it was starting to become more homey to me,” Bell said. “I realized it’s kind of nice that I have my own space and can do whatever I want.”
Bell found herself slipping into old quarantine habits, binging movies and TV shows and reading books in one sitting. She describes this time as pure “escapism,” a way to detach from her surroundings.
She watched the Wes Anderson films “Rushmore” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” something she and her sister did together during her first quarantine. “It felt like it was March of 2020 again and I was with my family,” she said.
With so much time at her disposal, Bell found it difficult to finish school work. “I haven’t been in school since March of 2020, so finally being able to get back into a classroom was huge for me,” Bell said, “and I was so happy.” After a whole school week of connecting to her classes via phone call, Bell described studying at East Campus as “an annoying step back.”
By this time, Bell’s symptoms—a tight chest and feeling as if she had a cold—had diminished, although her sense of taste had yet to return. “I’ve heard that some people can’t taste things for months after they’ve had it,” she said, “so I’m really hoping that’s not my case.”
The number of East Campus residents had dwindled to around twenty. Other than asking a nearby studier if she could turn on the lights, Bell hadn’t spoken much with anyone.
Finally, after ten days in isolation a mile away from campus, a van pulled up to East Campus at 9 a.m. on the morning of September 18th.
It was a Saturday. The driver, a residence hall employee, was more conversational than the driver who brought Bell to East Campus. She said the mood in the van was “celebratory.”
“I lugged out all my stuff and [the driver said], ‘Wow!’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I overpacked.’ With excitement come the nerves, but they’re good nerves. I’m excited to see professors again and be in classes,” said Bell.
About fifteen minutes later, Bell arrived at her dorm, texting her friends to alert them of her arrival. They met her with open arms and a book by Sally Rooney, one of Bell’s favorite authors.
By 10 a.m. Bell was already in a Mock Trial meeting, something she had been longing to attend for the entirety of her quarantine. After telling her teammates about her recent departure from East Campus, she answered rapid-fire questions about the facility and her experience there.
“I’m happy to share,” Bell told me afterwards, “because I was really nervous about going over there since I knew nothing. I can tell people what it’s like in case they end up having to go, too. Hopefully they’ll be less stressed about it than I was.”
Later, Bell did three loads of laundry and noticed students in the laundry room who weren’t masking. “Before, it would’ve annoyed me, but now it annoyed me a lot more,” she said. “I thought, ‘People are going to get sent to East Campus because of that.’”
“I thought, ‘I’m vaccinated, I’m not going to get it,’” Bell said. “And that’s the main issue, we just can’t think that we’re immune to it. No one’s at that point yet, and so we’ve got to follow the rules to keep other people safe.”
East Campus, the ominous building a mile from campus, will continue to house future students who test positive for COVID-19, serving as a reminder that we are not past the virus quite yet.
Wheaton College, IL