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A photo essay from an empty campus


 
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Story by Carrie Chang (’20); Photos by Elise Trissel 

Carrie Chang (’20), like the rest of her classmates, has had her life interrupted and thwarted by the coronavirus pandemic. During the crisis, the studio art major has been reflecting on her four years at James Madison University. As she approaches her virtual conferring of degrees on May 8, the photography intern with JMU Communications and Marketing shares her first-person introspections through a before-and-after treatment of campus imagery. What follows is Carrie Chang’s reality.

As the new abnormal of being away from campus sets in, looking at photos of campus and happier times becomes a daily activity. Being a senior at James Madison University makes reflecting on photos of JMU’s picturesque campus particularly bittersweet. 

“Campus is usually buzzing right now.” I keep hearing everyone say this as my friends, colleagues and family reflect on what would be happening right now. It’s difficult to think about the milestones that would be occurring if things were proceeding as normal. I know that this beautiful place will hold so many of my favorite memories. It just hurts to process the fact that the last time I walked campus as a student already happened, and I didn’t know it. If the photos without students in them were to stand alone, it might appear as a beautiful campus. (Which we all know to be true.) But knowing what campus would look like right now, the emptiness holds a heavier weight. Among faculty, staff and students, I’m sure the feeling varies. But for students especially, I’m sure there are many resonating feelings of longing.

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(Top): JMU’s Quad during a class change in the Spring 2019 semester. (Bottom): The Quad in April 2020 without students as classes moved online in March amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Campus is always the most alive in the spring. During class changes, people don’t feel the pull to go back indoors. Sometimes, I would just end up on the Quad after an aimless walk outside. On a sunny day, I find that the Quad is normally the host of countless spikeball games, slackline crews, circles of friends and frisbee games. There would be so many dogs scattered about. Instagram would be flooded with stories captioned: “Nothing like a sunny day on the Quad.” And it’s true; the vibrancy of the student body is unmatched on a nice day in spring.

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(Top): Students walk toward the newly renovated D-Hall, part of JMU’s nationally ranked dining offerings. (Bottom): It’s quiet around D-Hall, situated near the center of the sprawling campus.
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Another thing I find myself missing is campus food. I’m getting home-cooked meals (shoutout to mom and dad), but it’s not the same as the quick run to D-Hall. I’d always gather a group of friends and we’d wander over together, discussing our options and going back and forth between Chick-fil-A and Freshens. I’m sure that many people can relate to this specific dilemma. Not being at school has made me look back and appreciate even the smallest of moments: from the mundane to the less happy memories. Not all of them were good, but they helped to define the happier moments—the ones I have on repeat.

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(Top): During normal circumstances, students would be hunkering down in Carrier Library as Finals approach. (Bottom): Study sessions now take place elsewhere as academic instruction has moved online.
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Carrier Library has a special meaning to so many people. So many hours spent studying at tables, desks, maybe the stacks. It’s almost impossible to think of Carrier being empty in the coming weeks. We all dread Finals Week because of the challenging task of finding tables in Carrier. It’s normally packed full. There’s usually the occasional student with the courage to give an inspiring speech at 1 a.m. that goes viral for a few days. Starbucks employees take red-eye shifts to keep us caffeinated and alert to cram for that bio test at 8 a.m. It is difficult to count the many small memories that won’t happen the rest of this year.

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(Top): Wilson Hall’s cupola is unmistakable as it overlooks a busy campus on a sunny day. (Bottom): Wilson still presides over the Quad in all its stoic glory, albeit with fewer people buzzing around.
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As I contrast these images, they only solidify the true feeling of home that campus evokes. For many students like me, JMU is far more than just a place where students live and classes are held. From the moment I stepped on campus during my first tour, it became a piece of my heart. The iconic silhouette of Wilson is a comforting image to turn to in these uncertain times. The lack of students in these photos echoes the broken hearts around the country and world, wishing they could walk the bricks along the Quad.

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(Top): Students walk to class on East Campus. (Bottom): The walkways are vacant, making Carrie Chang (’20) realize the value of not taking simple things for granted.
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A lot of these photos captured students on their way to class. (I chose them for that specific reason.) Some of us might have seen the trek to class as trivial, and maybe on some windy days, absolutely awful. But I think it’s safe to say that we’re all missing even our walks to class. It really goes to show how much I took for granted on campus. The simple moments in between the large moments are just as missed. For seniors, I know it’s heartbreaking to know we’ll never make any of those treks again.

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(Top): A popular spot to take graduation photos is adjacent to the Centennial Fountain. (Bottom): The Class of 2020 has to wait, for now, to take photos in the area near the fountain, between Burruss Hall and Wilson Hall.
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This view, in particular, holds special meaning to me. In the spring, I was one of the many photographers taking grad photos for seniors. I can’t tell you how many brisk spring mornings I’d spend right here with groups of seniors, all wanting that iconic photo next to the Centennial Fountain. I’m so glad I was able to capture their final moments in such a beautiful place. I got to hear their stories and listen to their fond memories looking back. Last spring, so many of my senior friends would tell me during their sessions, “You are so lucky right now. You won’t want this to be you when it is.” It’s odd knowing I won’t be able to have that exact experience for myself. If things were normal right now, I’m sure I’d be an emotional wreck around all my friends on a daily basis. And it’s a very weird feeling of wanting to feel sad with others. But for seniors, these last few weeks felt like a rite of passage. We all had lists of things we were meant to do and we were going to check them off as the year wound down. I know it’s selfish of me to want it all back, but I also know that it’s okay to feel sad.

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(Top): Far from just a stunning campus, JMU holds its people dear and operates with a student-first mindset. (Bottom): A silent campus doesn’t diminish the sense of community; rather, the JMU family is stronger than ever.
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One of the best things about JMU is the people. JMU feels so much like home because of the people I’ve found here: My friends, colleagues, supervisors and professors all shaped me in my four years here. When I hear the word, “home,” I think of family. That’s what JMU is: a family. Right now, our family is spread out, confused and intimidated by the happenings going on in the world. Having these photos without people just goes to show how pivotal of a role people play in one’s Madison Experience. 

If there’s anything I want the Class of 2020 to know, it’s that we are in this together, even if we are apart at the moment. And when we do walk into Bridgeforth Stadium, we will be able to look around at each other and smile because we will have finally made it. I am so proud of you, Class of 2020. I’ll see you in August. 

Justin Roth contributed a photo. 

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Published: Thursday, April 23, 2020

Last Updated: Sunday, May 3, 2020

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