When Lindsay Daugherty ’22 wakes up every day, she often doesn’t know where she is. A little disorientation after sleeping is normal, yes — but this isn’t disorientation, and it won’t go away after a few minutes. Daugherty, along with fellow Yalie Mikaela Boone ’22 — both would-be Yale seniors — are spending the semester traveling around America in a Ford Transit cargo van they spent the entire summer building into a home, queen-sized bed and all. Daugherty joked that their summer spent retrofitting the car was their senior thesis. Each city, then, represented a different course, every day a new class.
And they’re not the only ones.
From California to New Haven to Sheldon, Illinois (and everywhere in between), I talked to six quarantine pods composed primarily of Yalies, both enrolled and unenrolled, who decided to venture into a new place with (mostly) new people for months on end. Each pod had their own routine, their own rationale for spending the semester in such a way and their own thoughts on the ethical implications of their stays. This is certainly not the college experience they expected, but they all agreed that, even in times like no other, it’s still possible to have fun while staying safe.
Adventures in Aspen
When I started my Zoom interview with Paul Rotman ’24, Jose Guerrero Razo ’24 and Sam Vitale ’24, they were just beginning to cook dinner — it was Paul’s turn to cook, and he was making chicken, brussel sprouts, tomato soup and hash browns. All three of them are would-be sophomores taking gap semesters, which they decided to spend together in a condominium complex in Aspen, Colorado (Leet Miller ’24 would join them in a few weeks). For all of them, the decision to go to Aspen was made primarily to combat isolation and the subsequent mental health consequences. While Paul mentioned that they were initially hoping to live in New York, they ultimately decided to meet in the middle of all their locations, which meant that Colorado was a more feasible option — also allowing for plenty of time outdoors.
All three of them have jobs: Paul and Jose are working on East Coast time and Sam is working as a tutor with flexible hours, so afternoons are usually free and spent doing some sort of physical activity which, because of their location, is often hiking. “We are here mostly to work and to be together while we’re doing that,” Jose said. “Free time, that’s when we’re exploring.”
When I asked about their outdoor activities, they all made clear that they are doing their best to stay safe: receiving negative test results before traveling to Colorado, wearing masks and social distancing whenever they’re in public places. And, while they also acknowledged the inherent risk in going into any new place, they all felt as though their specific location was one of much lower risk than some other destinations.
For Sam, who’s from Bowling Green, Kentucky, living in Aspen — which he described as a wealthy area with strong health infrastructure — felt much safer than his home location, which was hit hard by the virus.
Paul added that the nature of Colorado, where outdoor activities are a main form of interaction with the outside world, means that it is very easy to social distance and reduce risk of viral spread.
“We’ve done everything we possibly could to make sure we’re being safe and keeping others safe,” he said.
Lounging in Los Angeles
The ethics of quarantining in certain locations over others is something that Ashley Kwak ’24 heavily considered in ultimately deciding to spend a month and a half in Los Angeles with another Yale friend, Sidney Velasquez ’24.
Ashley is taking a gap semester, where she’s doing remote internships and some in-person tutoring. While in LA, she would tutor in the morning, eat lunch, participate in any club meetings and then find takeout with her friend, which they’d eat on a random beach.
“[Initially] a group of my friends were thinking about going to Hawaii to get jobs there in person,” Ashley said. “Because of the coronavirus, the unemployment rate is insanely high, and a lot of residents in Hawaii depend on jobs in tourism. We didn’t end up [going to Hawaii] for a few reasons, and one of them was that.”
Community in Colorado
I talked to another quarantine pod located in Colorado — this time in Durango, a six-hour drive from Aspen and very close to the New Mexico border. This pod is also filled with sophomores, of which three are enrolled and one is taking a semester off. Erik Boesen ’24, the unenrolled student, is currently working remotely for a tech company.
Because members of the pod have different enrollment statuses, Erik noted that it can often be hard to find times in which they’re all free to be together. Like the Aspen pod, most of their activities revolve around outdoor recreation.
“When you’re working a job, you have a time frame, and then you’re done,” Erik explained. “Whereas with school there’s always something you can be doing no matter what time of day it is.”
Even so, they make a point to all be together on the weekends for some sort of outing, like hiking or going into the town of Durango. And, on weeknights, they try to hang out in between work assignments.
When Erik and I first talked, he mentioned that the coronavirus in Durango was “basically nonexistent,” with around 9 cases in the span of a month. Within the past two weeks, however, there were 42 new reported cases.
“We’ve been very careful in terms of trying to prevent ourselves from becoming an attack vector and keeping [the] community safe,” he said, listing similar measures, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, as the Aspen pod. “We also were intentional about keeping the size of the pod smaller,” Erik added.
In Durango, the four of them are living in a ski lodge, which, according to Erik, is currently very sparsely populated.
Erik also mentioned that they also chose the specific location because of its inexpensive nature: Each of them is saving around $4,000 in comparison to what they would be paying for room and board at Yale.
“This is very important to us, especially as half of the members of our pod are FGLI,” Erik wrote in a text message after our conversation.
Sustainability in Sheldon
In Sheldon, Illinois, Max Teirstein ’22 and Gavi Welbel ’23 Zoomed into our interview from their kitchen, along with some of their other housemates — Samm, Claire and Julia. Max was making curry onions and roasted green beans for dinner (another person in the pod, Remi, was working on a stew with some leftover vegetables).
Teirstein and Welbel are both Yale students currently on leave, while the rest of the students on the call were from other universities. The five of them are spending the semester at Zumwalt Acres, a plot of Midwestern farmland that they are working to turn into a regenerative agroforest that is both organic and carbon-negative — in other words, very good for the environment.
“We don’t have a super stable routine, per se,” said Max. “ We work from 10 to 5 and try not to do other life things during that time. We reserve [that time] just for research and farm work.”
This work includes creating biochar, or burnt organic matter, and then burying it into the soil to help capture carbon, as well as grant writing, research on carbon sequestration methods, auditing classes at the Yale School of the Environment, conducting outreach to local farmers and more.
Their ultimate goal is to have eight to 10 students consistently living and working on the farm, which they also hope is driven by a faith-based approach to the land, and, more largely, the environment.
This semester, however, the group is primarily Jewish and, as they wrote on their website’s blog, hoped to “infuse Jewish land stewardship principles into our work.” One way in which they did so was by celebrating Sukkot — a Jewish holiday — as a group and building their own sukkah, an outdoor structure, out of completely organic materials. They are also conducting outreach to specifically Jewish farmers, as well as local ones.
Sheldon, Illinois, which has a population of around 1,000 people, is one of the least densely populated towns in the state; Claire noted that the sheer amount of space and lack of people make it “easy to forget it’s a pandemic.”
Because of how low rates of testing are in the county, no one present in the pod knew for sure what the coronavirus outbreak looked like: Max estimated that there were around 400 active cases in the whole county (as of Oct. 25, that number was 492).
But they all said that they rarely leave the farm (the only outside person they consistently interact with is the librarian whom, they added, they know personally at this point). And, for the majority of them, their previous locations were more densely populated and less safe.
“It’s so nice to not calculate how to see each person,” Gavi said, as she looked at her housemates and smiled.
New memories in New Haven
While most of the pods I talked to settled in places far away from Yale, one pod of sophomores decided to spend the semester in New Haven, in an apartment near the Yale Divinity School.
Belle Thomas ’23, Hilary Griggs ’24, Kayleigh Larsen ’23 and Chloe Shafer ’23, are all, except for Hilary, currently enrolled as sophomores. The four of them, three of whom were suitemates last year, are currently taking advantage of numerous in-person opportunities that being close to Yale allows. Hilary, for example, is taking classes at Southern Connecticut State University, Kayleigh is babysitting for Yale faculty members and Belle, a peer liaison for the Afro-American Cultural Center, is able to interact with her first years in person.
“I missed being here. I missed all the lovely people,” Hilary said. “I also didn’t want to be lonely, that was a big one.”
Each of them have varying routines: Belle, for example, is an early riser and likes to go on morning walks, while Kayleigh spends her mornings doing work (she noted that she’s a forced early riser, because her apartment doesn’t have blinds), and then, after classes, babysits until late afternoon.
Like most of the other pods, they each rotate who cooks each night (when I talked to them, it was Hilary’s turn, and she made tofu bowls with rice and vegetables). They also try to watch movies or shows together at night.
Hilary noted that, whenever one of them goes on a walk, they text the group chat so that the others can join, if they’re available.
Even though the group is all sophomores, with Hilary taking a leave of absence, each of them are tested every week through Yale’s testing program. However, they noted that they still remain extra vigilant regarding coronavirus precautions.
“[We] don’t let outside people into the apartment,” Hilary said. Chloe added that, as a whole, the house is “very judgment-free, not slut-shaming, not friend shaming, but we want each other to be responsible.”
Nearing the end of our conversation, I brought up an argument made by other Yalies that I had seen circulating around social media in the months following Dean Chun’s announcement that sophomores would not be allowed to live on campus unless they petitioned and received special permission to do so.
Sophomores, the argument goes, especially those who are unenrolled, should avoid returning to New Haven. Unenrolled students are not required to abide by most tenets of the community compact, and sophomores in general are not included in many of Yale’s programs due to their classification of enrolling remotely, despite their close proximity to Yale.
As a result, their behavior is less enforceable, leading to concerns that frequently disobeying social distancing guidelines could lead to a surge in case numbers for the city, whose marginalized residents are already at high risk of catching the virus.
Furthermore, the influx of Yalies looking for housing could have negative effects on an already concerning housing crisis in New Haven.
When I started reciting this argument, Chloe began talking almost immediately. She acknowledged that she’s heard the same argument and, she said, recently discussed it with a different sophomore living off campus. She called the argument “well-intentioned” but ultimately “clownery.”
Chloe noted that the petition to remain on campus is not an option for everyone who would benefit from being in New Haven. For her, she didn’t think that the petitioning process would have been good for her well-being.
“[The argument] is really well-intentioned, but it kind of takes away from the actual problem at hand,” she said. “Which is that Yale doesn’t pay taxes. It implies that somehow consumers are to blame for the market, when the market is set by others.”
Kayleigh continued, adding that some people came back solely to party but, in her opinion, moving back and being courteous and conscientious to the city and its citizens is not, at its root, problematic.
While on the road in their converted cargo van, Lindsay and Mikaela, who both work virtual internships, are dividing their week into full Internet connectivity (Monday to Wednesday) and exploration (the rest of the week), where they are often hiking in areas with little service.
Their day starts in their bed (it’s super comfortable, they emphasized), where they have coffee and listen to books on tape. When they find a place to park each night, whether that be a parking lot or a campsite, they cook dinner in the van, read and relax. The van itself, named Crush (The Lady Turtle Van), has a queen-sized bed that also functions as a table with seats, cabinets and a kitchenette.
They told me it was a “mini-home that we built from scratch and Home Depot supplies.”
Because they don’t stay in one place for more than a week, the coronavirus situation varies wildly. When they were in South Dakota and Wyoming, for example, they said that no one around them was wearing masks.
They, like every other pod I talked to, emphasized their social distancing tendencies, as well as their consistent testing.
“By no means were we ever going to be a traveling COVID van,” they said. “We’ve been very conscious of the implications of our travel throughout the trip. Most of the time we are in nature and really quarantining in different places.”
They cited a recent decision to not travel up to Montana due to increasing coronavirus rates as an example of how they are making a conscious effort to be as safe as possible.
The general sentiments of Lindsay and Mikaela and, more broadly, every other pod interviewed, can be summarized by the end of my conversation with the pod in Aspen, where Paul outlined the precautions the group was taking in order to make their stay work.
“It’s been really nice to spend time with my closest friends and do it in a responsible way,” he said. “I will acknowledge, we’ve been very fortunate in our ability to make this happen, but at the end of the day, I’m glad we did.”
Madison Hahamy | firstname.lastname@example.org