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Stranded in a Home Away From Home

In the second week of March 2020, students of MIT were gearing up for their second round of examinations—assignments, sessionals, followed by the much-dreaded end-semester examinations. Coronavirus was a threat that loomed in the horizon—close enough to be mildly alarming, but far enough not to be an immediate concern. That was until news started pouring in of the rise in the number of cases in the country, and the rapid shut down of the various universities across the nation.

As students poured out of the academic blocks on 13th March, MAHE dropped its first bombshell announcing a weeklong holiday, throwing all students into a frenzy. This break was extended to a fortnight within a couple of hours. While some students left for home immediately, others contemplated the pros and cons of doing so at this time, arguing that it was their social responsibility to stay put during a pandemic. Very few wanted to risk missing classes and tests during the quarantine period once they returned. Besides, too many students simply lived too far away to consider returning for two weeks. By the time news of an early summer vacation broke, it was simply too late for many.

This was the case with 2nd-year, Civil Engineering student, Reizel Furtado, “I was waiting for the notice for an early summer break before I could go home. Going to Dubai for two weeks didn’t make sense. The notice came on 18th March, so I booked my flight for the next evening. Unfortunately, overnight, UAE declared a lockdown saying that the last time they would allow passengers would be noon on 19th March. I was ready to leave but couldn’t. Luckily, a few of my friends are on campus with me, so I don’t feel too lonely.”

In a conversation with Nitish Madiath, a 3rd-year student of Industrial and Production Engineering, he shared an unfortunate story that highlighted another aspect of the pandemic—how it is a setback to one’s ambitions. “I initially stayed back as I am a part of Team Manipal Racing. We had an opportunity to go to the United States. We weren’t sure whether the trip was cancelled or not, so we decided to stay and see if we could arrange to ship the car. But then, the situation escalated beyond our imagination. Fortunately, my parents didn’t demand I go back—they understood the severity of the situation. MIT was also isolating us pretty well, and it seemed counter-intuitive to travel.”

Although Udupi no longer remains a green zone, students in Manipal are much safer than the majority that have made their way home. No traffic was allowed in or out of campus until Udupi was declared a green zone on 27th April. Girls and boys at MIT have been shifted into the 13th and 15th Blocks, respectively. Hand sanitisers are still kept on the counters in every block, but masks are worn only towards the academic area and outside the campus. Leaving campus is allowed between 7 AM and 6 PM. Activities such as sports and gym are not allowed yet, and students still have to return to their hostels by 8:30 PM.

Only Food Court 1 is operational, providing good quality, healthy food, although occasionally, home-cooked meals are sorely missed. The Food Court also made provisions for eleven students who were fasting during Ramadan. They were provided meals for their early morning Suhoor the night before. A few stores on Student Plaza, including the milk shop, were kept open as they qualified as essential goods. Fruit and vegetable vendors used to come to the campus since students and faculty alike could not leave the campus to purchase the required goods. Once the restrictions on deliveries made to Kamath Circle were lifted, students began making use of various food delivery apps. The temperature of all students is checked every night now, and sometimes while entering the academic blocks or the library.

Ankita Modi is a 3rd-year student of Biomedical Engineering. When asked about life in the hostel during this period of lockdown, she brought up the very valid point of mental health. Living away from family and friends for a seemingly unending period must take a toll on a student’s mental well-being. “In a time when other colleges issued notices asking students to vacate hostels, our college is taking good care of us. This is especially helpful for international students. There were few students from places surrounding Udupi who returned to the hostel due to poor network connectivity in their hometowns. They were checked at KMC before being allowed to stay in our hostels. The Director himself visited us in Block 13 and the Food Court to know about our condition. The wardens and caretakers personally ask if everything is fine and whether I need something. Counselling support is available. When I was feeling lonely, my professor invited me to his house to spend time with his family. They are all making sure we are taken care of.”

The Department of Student Affairs (DSA) at MAHE remains open to all students of the university who wish to seek counselling. Students who are residing on campus can meet with the counsellors personally. Archana Pillai, a student counsellor at DSA, conveyed, “The students on campus don’t have their college life or their family here. It’s much more difficult for them, but they might be spending time with their friends. Students are involved in different activities, which I have heard from the caretakers and the wardens there. They are the ones who regularly check up on the students. If they have any crisis, the students also do meet us.”

From binging TV shows to taking up lessons on Coursera, a day in the life of a student at Manipal is mostly confined to their hostel rooms.  Their daily routine remains fairly similar to what those at home might experience. Nitish Madiath shared his fondness for the place, “MIT has a wonderful serenity and peacefulness in the vacation. None of the roads are bustling with people, and no loud music is playing anywhere. There’s something wonderful in the quiet of it.” As a member of the Student Council and Convenor of TechTatva 2020, Ankita Modi has a lot to keep her busy. “Home and family are important, but they won’t give you such freedom, opportunity, and support to develop your personal and professional skills. I enjoy participating in online activities and competitions. I have even written three papers on COVID-19 under the guidance of doctors at KMC and MCODS. Furthermore, most professors are on campus, and students can ask to meet them in their cabins in case they have any doubts.”

Dr Nagaraj N Katagi, the Deputy Chief Warden at MIT, commented on the efforts being taken to ensure the health and safety of all 123 boys and 56 girls lodging in the hostels. The count of hostel residents diminished as a number of students chose to return home once the impositions put on travel were lifted, and public transport began to open. A few are yet to leave as getting the required government and university mandated permissions is a time-consuming process. Some students who reside outside the campus were allowed to take up residence in the hostels, after following a quarantine period. They chose to do so as it was getting increasingly difficult to procure food and supplies while living outside. Currently, NIH C block and the Regency Block (Block 23) are being utilised as the quarantine blocks. Those kept under quarantine are not allowed to leave their rooms, and food is left outside their room at regular intervals with no physical contact with anyone on the outside.

KMC has been authorised as a centre for conducting COVID-19 tests and samples are being sent to the Manipal Department of Virology. This has drastically reduced the test time in the district from days to a couple of hours. As the lockdown is gradually being lifted, about 50 per cent of the workforce will return to MAHE offices. Upon their return, they will have to adhere to the social distancing rules sent via the District Health Office. Although the rules are being relaxed, the number of cases in the country continue to rise steadily, including in the Udupi district. The district’s status as a green zone was revoked as the return of migrant workers from the neighbouring states caused in a massive boom in the case count. Udupi district sealed its borders on 15th July but did not declare a complete lockdown.

With the country the number of cases increasing daily, there is no knowing when students stranded in Manipal will be able to make their way home. It is a relief that they are well taken care of by the college authorities and are in an environment where they can focus on their academics. Our world is increasingly becoming uncertain with beaten economies, growing unemployment, and a general pall of gloom cast by the pandemic. Although staying away from home in such trying circumstances must be a stressful experience, it is equipping these students with a rare fortitude to face the challenges of the future.

Image Credits: Nitish Madiath

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