Students share their quarantine stories in Cornerstone contest

Fall 2020 | By David Ching. Photo by ML Watts, Wikimedia Commons.

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An apartment resident in Milan, Italy catches some sun on their balcony during the country's coronavirus lockdown in March.

As a fan of Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York project, Amanda Mayes has come to appreciate how everyone has a story to tell.

Stanton’s memorable interview series came to mind this spring when Mayes and her Purdue Student Life co-workers discussed outreach during the coronavirus shutdown. She had a revelation: Why not invite students to share their own tales of the upheaval they experienced after the world turned upside down?

“The ideas just linked for me that it would be a really interesting thing to do, to ask students to tell their quarantine story and then for us in turn to be able to share those so that they could see the trials and successes that other people were having,” said Mayes, Purdue’s Student Life Curricular Integration and Research Administrator.

Also an instructor in the Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts program, Mayes relayed her idea to Cornerstone director Melinda Zook. Together, they decided not to simply collect students’ essays about what they did after returning home from school. They would instead use this as an opportunity for students to connect more deeply with the works of literature they read in their SCLA 101 and 102, Transformative Texts, classes.

Perhaps they identified during quarantine with Winston Smith, the protagonist in George Orwell’s 1984. Or maybe they felt like Odysseus when the goddess Calypso held him captive on an island for seven years in The Odyssey.

Mayes and Zook wanted Cornerstone students to draw parallels between their modern-day stories and those of the characters in these works, so they launched the “My Quarantine Story” contest to provide this opportunity.

After advertising the contest to all Cornerstone students, more than 70 of them submitted essays, some for course credit and some attempting to win one of the cash prizes available to the winners and honorary mention selections.

“They had to relate a reading that they were reading and discussing in Transformative Texts – whether it’s a poem or a short story or a novel, whatever – to help them think about their situation,” Zook said. “And they did. They had no problem with that.”


First-place winner Brandon Watson

Runner-up Margaret Hutchinson

Honorary Mention Almina Cunanan

Honorary Mention Matthew Kwan

Honorary Mention Alex Lin

In his essay, An American Dystopia, contest winner Brandon Watson compared modern-day America to Gilead, the dictatorship in Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. He and his classmates read the novel this spring in Continuing Lecturer Li Wei’s SCLA 101 course.

Rather than write a traditional academic essay conducting basic analysis on a work of literature, Watson saw the competition as an opportunity to sharpen his creative writing skills.

“I normally read the news every day, so I ended up seeing this article on The Guardian, and there was a picture of a protestor donning the outfit from The Handmaid’s Tale with the bonnet and everything,” said Watson, a junior in political science. “I thought, ‘Man, that would be a really good topic to talk about,’ because it’s topical, it’s happening today, it directly relates to the quarantine. I thought it would be a pretty good discussion on what our society is.”

Runner-up Margaret Hutchinson was thrilled to re-read Anne Bradstreet’s Verses upon the Burning of our House, July 10, 1666, a favorite poem from high school, in Visiting Assistant Professor of History William White’s SCLA 102 course last fall. 

Just as the poem’s narrator contemplated what was most important while watching her home burn, Hutchinson said current circumstances elicited similar feelings. She wrote in her essay that she will come away from this crisis with increased faith in community because of the many small kindnesses she saw neighbors extend to one another. 

“One of the things that I talk about in the essay is that turning point,” said Hutchinson, a sophomore in material science and engineering. “I always thought that was interesting because it’s this woman whose house has burned down. Everything important to her is gone and yet there’s this break. If you read the poem, it’s really abrupt. Everything is rhyming and then all of a sudden it’s French and the line is ‘Adieu, adieu, all is vanity,’ and you’re like, ‘Wait, it’s French. It doesn’t rhyme. What’s going on?’ Then the whole poem just completely changes. It’s been one of the poems that I’ve just adored since [high school], and something this crazy just kind of seemed to align.” 

Although the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown obviously created inconveniences for everyone, Watson and Hutchinson both expressed relief that their families had remained safe and healthy thus far. Watson said he spent much of the quarantine reading, while Hutchinson was actually able to follow through with an internship at a helicopter plant, unlike many college students whose summer internships were canceled. 

“I think I just got really lucky,” Hutchinson said. “So even though I was able to see the ‘All is vanity’ type of situation, being able to see the turnaround, my family stayed safe so far and we’ve been in a position that we’ve been OK. I have family nearby. We’ve still been able to see people, FaceTime. 

“So I think it’s definitely challenging, it’s tough, but at the end of the day I’m definitely keeping in mind how many people have it worse.” 

Hutchinson was not the only student whose essay identified a clear turning point. Regardless of the literary works selected, adaptation was a common theme that many students emphasized in their essays, Zook said. 

“As sad as some of the stories were, they almost all had a turning point wherein the student became acclimatized to quarantine and adjusted,” Zook said. “That was actually very interesting because they almost all followed a similar pattern of missing Purdue, hating being trapped in their childhood home, and then, coming around. 

“You’d be amazed at how creative many of them were and how well they began to use their time,” Zook continued, referencing the many new hobbies the students listed in their essays – from painting birdhouses to playing an instrument to practicing yoga. 

The creativity on display was an especially exciting aspect of the competition for the Cornerstone director. The program reaches students from majors across campus, developing their communication skills, creative thinking, and historical perspective, as well as an appreciation for great texts that helped shape our society.

Although she would have preferred to avoid the circumstances that led to the contest’s creation, Zook nonetheless was encouraged by the depth and thoughtfulness that many Cornerstone students displayed in their essays. For Zook, these responses served as confirmation that the students were indeed engaging with the works studied in the course.

“What was really nice for us to see when we read the essays is how literature from Transformative Texts could inspire and transform and make students see farther and see deeper,” Zook said. “All of those things came out in the essays.”