Worried About Student Mental Health, a College President Moved Into the Dorms

When an outbreak of COVID-19 cases led Norwich University to put the campus on lockdown, the school asked students to stay in their dorm rooms full time, except to use the bathroom. Pretty soon, the university’s president, Mark Anarumo, began to worry about the mental-health impacts of that social isolation.

So Anarumo made an unusual decision: He moved into a campus dorm himself. The idea was to show solidarity, to see what it was really like and to get an on-the-ground sense of student mental health. He even made some videos that he posted to Facebook about the experience.

Anarumo said he wanted to be treated like any other resident of the dorm, and that he wanted to try to keep it quiet. But word soon got out, including a feature in The New York Times.

EdSurge connected with Anarumo to hear the story of his stint living on campus for this week’s EdSurge Podcast.

We must never put [students] in in-room quarantine again. That is not sustainable for individual mental health."
—Mark Anarumo, president of Norwich Uniersity.

Located in Vermont, Norwich is the oldest private military college in the country, a place where about 60 percent of students are in ROTC. And it’s also a place with lots of traditions that rely on in-person experiences. Anarumo just took over as president of Norwich in June. His previous job was as a professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy and head of its Character, Leadership and Development program.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player below.

EdSurge: Why were you so attuned to this issue of social isolation during campus lockdowns?

Anarumo: My experiences are both professional and personal. I'm a parent of four and two of my children are in college—one at a large public school and one at a service academy. So I got to watch their mental-health issues. And at the Air Force Academy in the spring of 2020 there was a suicide. And there was another death tied to a culmination of other complicated and very tragic circumstances for one of the other students. So just understanding the student experience and seeing where things had gone wrong, but also seeing where things had gone right.

So you decided you needed to move into a dorm during the lockdown?

I had done a campus visit when I was a finalist for the job, and we had a town hall where they asked me about leadership style and what would I do when I got here. I said, well, given my experience and my background, I'm actually going to live in the barracks and the dormitories with you all part of the year, so I can make sure you're comfortable and you have what you need. I'd said that well before there was concern for a pandemic.

And then in the midst of this environment, it was like, you know, I talked about it before. But there was this pressure [by some staff saying], ‘sir, please don't move into the dorm now ... it's too disruptive.’ But I said, you know what? This is probably the perfect time to do this. And I tried to do it very quietly. I didn't want to be performative. I wanted to sneak in and not make it a big deal, but it lasted like maybe two minutes before the word was out. And then the curiosity was there.

So you were just doing your job as president from this dorm room?

I stuck myself in the most stringent category of quarantine where I just stayed in my room. I only left my room to use the restroom. I did ask for a single because it would have been extra awkward for the poor young person who had to live with me. So I got the only single we had left on the entire campus. And it took me about 10 seconds to realize why: It shared a wall of cinder block with the bathroom. And there was nothing left to the imagination from the noise. I had a room that was not the most pleasant for its auditory features.

Is there anything you learned that led you to make any change in how you will handle future outbreaks?

There are two things I asked [the staff] to hear me very clearly as we got through this. The first was, we must never put [students] in in-room quarantine again. That is not sustainable for individual mental health. So if we have a spike in case numbers, we have [now] met [and] exceeded all the standards for having specialized controlled space for isolation and for quarantine for those that are exposed to any positive cases. But the hit to mental health from doing interim quarantine was so substantial that I told them we will never do it again—we would have to go online-only before we did that.

And the second thing I said was, ‘Hear this from me as the president: it is better for us in my leadership direction—called the commander's intent in parlance—we will have 1,500 positive COVID cases before we will have one suicide on this campus. So our decision-making will be informed by that position.

What do you think is so hard about the social isolation of in-room lockdown?

I'm older. I'm at a point in life where I can be alone. And frankly, I work pretty much 20 hours a day right now anyway, since the pandemic. Not many senior college administrators or faculty or staff have had much time off. So I can fill every second of every day quite effectively. But the students can only do their classwork for so long. They only can play a video game for so long. They could only talk to their roommate for so long. They thrive in that age cohort typically in social interaction. They crave it. They need it. They must have it. It's not a nice to have, it's a must have.

There’s a term in the military called “going inside.” If you're on a patrol and you're sleep deprived or you're living in field conditions, eventually you start wearing down, and you just start to get inside your own head and you start questioning your life decisions. You start questioning everything about your daily routine and you drive a low-level mental health. So you have to keep them outside.

So we offer some unique programming. We do some virtual things. They were great. And we do some yoga, some mindfulness. We had some nutrition workshops and puzzles. They had chess clubs. All of these things are good. And they are very strong in a digital environment, his generation. But they still need the personal interaction. That has to be balanced against the other things.

Hear the entire interview on this week’s EdSurge Podcast.

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