No Frisbee-flying on Bascom Hill. No sunset-watching on the Terrace. No bar-hopping on the weekends.
The coronavirus has stolen everyday moments of campus life, the ones advertised in UW-Madison brochures and fondly remembered for years after graduation, from thousands of students whose lives now unfold on their couches and behind computer screens.
While parts of the college experience are impossible to replicate, UW-Madison and its students are trying to re-create campus life anyway.
Student organizations hold Zoom meetings and the Wisconsin Union created coloring pages. The Office of Sustainability moved this week’s Earth Day celebrations online, including do-it-yourself crafts and yoga held over Facebook Live. An informal group of students and alumni are virtually creating the campus on Minecraft, a popular video game where users construct buildings and communities. On tap next week is a university-wide virtual festival for students to listen to a cappella groups, play Badger trivia and more.
With almost all events and interactions moved online, the few students still living in dorms describe the campus as eerie and empty.
Freshman international student Anupras Mohapatra said his biggest distraction from reality has come through The Daily Cardinal, one of the university’s student newspapers, where he serves as an opinion editor. Despite ending print production earlier this semester, students are still publishing stories online. The work helps him escape the loneliness of being one of just a few hundred students left on a campus that normally has 45,000.
“The campus is quite hollowed out of people,” he said. “The heartbeat is essentially the students and faculty. Without people, even being on campus is not really like being on campus.”
‘Just not the same’
Missing out on cherished college traditions may seem small against the broader backdrop of the public health crisis and economic meltdown associated with COVID-19.
But research shows that the more connected students feel to their campus, the more engaged they are in their studies and the more likely they are to come back the following year, according to Lori Reesor, UW-Madison vice chancellor for student affairs.
UW-Madison has historically had a high retention rate. More than 95% of freshmen in the fall of 2018 came back in 2019.
But colleges across the country face new worries about the retention of returning students, particularly if campuses remain closed in the fall and students take time off instead of continuing classes online.
UW-Madison’s move to online education last month, while unprecedented in the speed and scale of the transition, came after years of offering some of its courses online.
Students Affairs, however, has even less experience in virtual delivery, Reesor said. The employees who oversee freshman orientation, mental health services, recreational sports, the Wisconsin Union and other aspects of student life are navigating new terrain in creating campus experiences remotely.
“Every time I hang up a call with students, I choke up because it’s just not the same,” Reesor said. “We feel the loss just as much as they do.”
But the pandemic also brings a newfound importance to their work that could continue into the fall if classes remain online, she said. The office helps students retain ties to campus and also cope with the isolation and anxiety caused by the coronavirus.
In the absence of on-campus events, some students are creating their own.
UW-Madison junior Tyson Holtz helps run a Facebook group where more than 27,000 members post university-related memes. But he decided to use the page a little differently during the pandemic.
Like many sports fans this spring, he missed watching basketball games once the NCAA canceled the tournament. So he filled the void by creating his own March Madness-style bracket competition for the group.
Users voted for their favorite Madison restaurants among a list of student favorites, such as Ian’s Pizza, Paul’s Pel’meni and The Nitty Gritty. To earn extra votes, users could post photos of their take-out orders. Holtz devised the incentive as a way to support struggling local restaurants, something he’s all too familiar with after being laid off from his own part-time job at Cento last month.
The competition drew a lot of interest, he said. After more than 120,000 votes were cast, Mickie’s Dairy Bar came out on top.
“I’m having difficulties staying connected with campus,” he said. “You don’t have much to do when you’re stuck at home. When the Restaurant Madness competition ended, people asked me personally if there was something I could do to keep this going.”
So he started another bracket competition — Madison bars.
A virtual campus
Other students have gone so far as literally re-creating UW-Madison’s campus, block by block, on Minecraft.
A group of 30 UW-Madison students have constructed about 10 buildings so far, but the goal is to eventually design all 936 acres of campus. Phase 2, which includes Camp Randall Stadium, Witte Residence Hall and the Kohl Center, is already underway.
Once the virtual campus is complete, Wenzel said he will open it to the public — that is, any Minecraft player — but right now, access is restricted to project builders.
“It’s kind of like an unofficial student organization,” he said. “We assign buildings, students build them, we inspect them and then add them to the server.”
Builders rely on Google Earth to measure the size of buildings and scale it to Minecraft, where each block represents one meter. Wenzel’s already looking ahead to some potentially problematic builds. Chadbourne Hall’s curved exterior could be tricky, he said.
Wenzel, a business school student who is now living at home with his parents in New Berlin, suspects interest in the project partially stems from students’ boredom. But he also said students are seeking a connection to the place abruptly ripped away from them.
“We want to create a place where people can come together and retain a sense of campus community in an online environment,” he said.
Another UW-Madison student unaffiliated with the Virtual UW project, Hunter Post, is building popular student bars on Minecraft. The senior started the project after he and his roommates talked about how much they miss going out on the weekends.
Zach Powers, who graduated from UW-Madison in December and is now working for the university as a lab technician, joined the Virtual UW project to re-create his favorite campus spot, the Microbial Sciences Building. As a microbiology major and member of the Microbiology Club, he took many classes and struck up friendships there.
Before Powers heads to graduate school in the fall, he wanted to meet one last time with the Microbiology Club. So he re-created Room 1420, where the group often meets.
About 10 people congregated in the virtual classroom and chatted on the server earlier this month, he said. The conversation was fairly standard for a group of science majors — an upcoming biochemistry exam, a discussion on what classes to register for next semester.
But for a brief time, while uncertainty and anxiety looms in the real world, the group found a little slice of normalcy in their virtual campus.