Shae Hammond, a senior at California State University Northridge, was relaxing on her front porch after returning from a weekend camping trip in September when she got an unexpected text from her roommate, Jen Martinez. Martinez’s boyfriend — who had recently been in the women’s apartment — had contracted COVID-19. The first thing to run through Hammond’s mind was that she had sat next to him on the couch right before her weekend getaway. 

“I felt anxiety shoot through my body,” said Hammond. “And I called my boyfriend and I let him know and I just felt horrible. Like I had done something wrong.”

Hammond and Martinez shared an apartment in Northridge with two other students, and the roommates had established strict rules limiting social interactions outside their apartment, with the exception of immediate family members and significant others. Yet the coronavirus had still caught up with them. 

While their fourth roommate went home to stay with family, Hammond, Martinez and Mariana Marquez, a graduate student pursuing her master’s in clinical psychology, had to quarantine in their two-bedroom apartment while they waited for their test results. Hammond, a photographer who is interning at CalMatters this year, documented their forced isolation, which took a psychological toll but also gave space for contemplation. 

In individual and group interviews with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, the three women reflected on their experience quarantining and how it impacted their mental health and their relationships with each other. Their comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Shae: I had gone camping with my boyfriend that weekend and I (realized I) had sat next to Andrew, Jen’s boyfriend. I was just like, “Oh shit, like, I really hope I’m not sick.” I was just worried at that point. I told my boyfriend right away. 

Mariana: Yeah, for me, I had an initial moment of panic where I was like, “Oh, crap.” Personally, there was no time to panic: We need to start cleaning everything, like, ASAP. We need to figure out a plan of getting ourselves tested. We need to figure out who’s gonna be in charge of passing food over to Jen, while she’s quarantined.

Jen: (I knew for sure I probably had COVID when) I was sipping on some wine. And I was like, did this wine go bad or something? I looked a little deeper and it was new wine. It shouldn’t taste sour or acidic or anything like that. And that’s when I realized, “I’m losing my sense of taste.” 

Out of my entire family, I would be the most at high risk, because I have a mild form of asthma. And they say, you know, if you have any breathing problems, you probably are going to get it worse. So I was a little scared. 

Mariana: Jen would ask me to either go pick stuff up, (or) she would Postmate or Uber Eats something. And so I would heat up food for Jen, put it on her door or pass it to her. And I was pretty much in charge of, like, making sure she was alive. And well fed. 

Shae: It was funny because I remember having a conversation with Mariana about if she would want to stay at her family’s home if she tested negative and Mariana was like, “No, someone’s gotta feed Jen” and I was like, “Yeah, ‘cause I’m not getting close to her.” 

Jen: (Mariana) put the food on the floor, obviously on the plate, and would say “Jen, your food’s here” and walk away from the door. I’d have my mask, grab the food, say “thank you” and close the door. 

Mariana: I brought the coffee machine to Jen’s room ‘cause she was like, “I need my coffee.” We made sure that everything that Jen needed would just kind of be kept to her. We wouldn’t risk even coming into contact with it. And I would wear a mask, even if I was just in the living room and nobody was here. And anytime anybody would come out to the living room, we would wear masks just to make sure that none of us got sick.If Jen did have to come out, she would get a Clorox wipe and wipe everything down. 

Jen: My worries came from infecting others. I just didn’t want to be responsible for passing it on. 

Most of the time, I was just laying down, I slept in a lot, I would go on social media a couple times. I didn’t have any school and I wasn’t working, obviously. I tried listening to a lot of the music, I tried to keep myself busy because I hate being cooped up. Towards the very end when it was safer, I had my mask on and everything and I went into the balcony because I needed fresh air.

Shae: Jen stayed in her room, and Mariana and I, we looked it up on the Internet that we should get tested five days after exposure. And I tested negative and then she tested negative shortly after.

We weren’t leaving the apartment, either. Mariana’s family dropped food off and I had a friend who dropped food off for me. I stayed for a couple of weeks after getting the COVID test. In the beginning of the pandemic, I heard stories like, “Ooh, the virus travels through the air conditioning.” I was pretty sure I was safe, but (it’s hard to know). Like, how many days after exposure could you get an accurate test? How much of a risk is it if someone in your house is in a separate room? 

I am not as noble as Mariana. I was just like, “I want to get out of here.” So I talked to my boyfriend and he had a friend who needed a house sitter. 

Mariana: I work from home. So I was just in my room working all day. I think I quarantined 13 to 15 days, something like that.  (Coming out of quarantine) felt so liberating …(because) when you’re inside for too long, you feel the walls closing in on you. And so it felt really nice to finally be able to walk around my own apartment without having to wear a mask all the time and having to constantly wash my hands, constantly disinfect, and constantly worry about if I had come into contact with Jen. 

Shae: To be honest, I think our dynamic did change a little bit after (COVID). Jen felt like a criminal, she said. I think we all were nervous. We were in the middle of the semester. None of us have seen their friends or their family, not nearly as much as we normally would.

Jen: It was a little irritating. It was a little like, I didn’t purposely catch it. I felt annoyed because people would talk to me like I was a bad person and that I was out doing crazy stuff, when in all honesty, I never went out.  And I happened to get it from my boyfriend. 

No matter how it happened, there’s going to be good and bad parts to it. And I think the best way to handle it is to try to be understanding and to try to talk about it, even though it’s a very uncomfortable thing to talk about. 

We have great communication, like that’s the number one thing that we have in our apartment. When I did get COVID, Shae was the most upset. But I also understood that (Shae) was really worried. There’s always this constant anxiety around just having my boyfriend over. I worried, “Where were you before this? Have you tried to go see your friends or something like that?” This whole thing has kind of pitted you against other people. 

Shae: I think I’m just more uptight about it in general, because going home to family isn’t an option for me. If someone gets sick, I have to be at the apartment. And also, I had an internship at the time. And (having to quarantine) took me out of my internship. It just affected me more, so yeah, (at first) I was mostly mad.

I understand that it’s really hard because nothing is normal right now. You can only get mad for so long. When you start thinking about how you feel, too, and how you want to see people, too, it’s like I can’t stay mad. 

Mental health matters, too. I had a conversation with Mariana about visiting family and stuff. And it’s hard, because your mental health matters a lot. It just sucks to be inside all the time. 

Jen: For me, I already was depressed before COVID even. And I think shortly after getting COVID, it forced me to finally deal with those things, actually. And I started seeing a therapist.

Mariana: I think I’ve been able to cope with the pandemic fairly well, but it does get really stressful because I’m doing a graduate program, working, trying to focus on my career.  The pandemic kind of makes you think on a day-to-day basis. And the future, we’re not thinking about that. I took up more baking, I took up more cooking, I took up watercolors. I tried to just take up other things to keep me taking care of my mental health and making sure that I’m not just in a zombie mode, working all day.  

Shae: I definitely think that feeling like I had to stay in my room for two weeks allowed me to explore my creativity a little bit. I wasn’t doing any of my schoolwork and I kind of just turned back to photography, and started taking pictures like self portraits (and) details of my life. I think that it showed how much my love for photography maintained my mental health.

Mariana: There’s a lot of self reflection. I’ve just thought about what do I really see my life becoming….When everybody gets vaccinated, and things are safe to go outside again, I feel like people will be crowding the streets, with joy and happiness. That is kind of what keeps me hopeful. 

Shae: I felt like my grades dropped a lot last semester. I didn’t want to look at my grades because I was just so horrified because I thought I failed and would have to go back again another semester. It felt good to find out I graduated. The only other person to go to college in my family was my great grandma, when UCLA first opened as a teacher’s college. And that was a long time ago. So, my life was built up to this moment. 

As a student, COVID complicated certain things. Yeah, you don’t have to commute, which is great. But, it’s just not the same … it’s overcoming a different group of complexities that we haven’t had to approach before. I think it’s good that we are encountering this now, especially when we’re young, and it’ll just prepare us better for whatever comes in the future. 

Update: Hammond graduated from CSU Northridge with a degree in journalism in December 2020. Since the interviews in February and March 2021, Martinez has moved out of the apartment she shared with Hammond and Marquez in Northridge. She transferred to CSU Long Beach, where she is studying electrical engineering. Hammond and Marquez have two new roommates and they’ve agreed to limit guests in their apartment to significant others. Both roommates have had at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Text by Angel Fabre and Charlotte West. Fabre is a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. West is a reporting coach with the network. Photos by Shae Hammond. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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Shae Hammond is finishing her degree in journalism at California State University Northridge with a focus on photojournalism. Her interest in journalism began in community college when she was on the Roundup...

Charlotte West is a reporting coach and training coordinator with CalMatters' College Journalism Network. Her work on education, justice and politics has appeared in national publications such as The Hechinger...