Derek Furtado, a sophomore at Norwich University, had just stepped out of the shower in his dormitory and was shaving, a towel wrapped around his waist, when he looked to his left and saw the figure of a man in military uniform.
“That was when my heart sunk,” recalled Mr. Furtado, a cadet who plans to commission into the Coast Guard. He pulled himself together, stood at attention and said, “Good morning, sir!” The circumstances were not ideal. “He has two stars on his chest,” Mr. Furtado said. “I’m in a towel.”
But he would have to get used to it, because, it turned out, Col. Mark C. Anarumo, the university’s president, was his new hall mate.
Among the surprising outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic was that Dr. Anarumo, newly arrived as president of the private military college in Vermont, decided that the best way to support students who were quarantining in their rooms was to move into the dorm with them.
He had ordered the quarantine, a decision he made with a feeling “between caution and dread,” he said. He knew — because he had lived through it — that isolating students in their rooms put them in another kind of danger.
“So that’s when I decided, I’ve got to move into the dorm,” he said. Dr. Anarumo, 50, who retired from the Air Force in 2020 and has a doctorate in criminal justice, said that he wanted to be treated like any other resident.
The risks of in-room isolation had become clear last spring, when Dr. Anarumo was still teaching at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. Younger cadets had gone home, but nearly 1,000 seniors were isolating on campus for two months until graduation.
Conditions were strict: They were in single rooms, eating takeout and studying remotely. Dr. Anarumo was preparing to leave for his new job, when he learned that there had been a suicide in the dorm. Two days later, there was another.
As some parents lashed out, the administration relaxed the measures, allowing seniors to double up in rooms and leave campus for meals. The Academy’s leaders revisited their earlier decisions, reconsidering the risks of isolation, said Dr. Anarumo, who has a Ph.D. in criminal justice.
“There’s a phrase the military call ‘going inside’; it means getting inside your own head,” he said. “Sometimes, when you’re in isolation, you go inside and you kind of get lost in your own thoughts, without the forced interaction.”
Dr. Anarumo had been through this before; over three decades in the Army and Air Force, he had lost 11 men and women to suicide.
By the time he arrived at Norwich, Dr. Anarumo felt strongly that the benefits of quarantine needed to be weighed carefully against its toll on mental health.
“I am concerned enough about the mental health on campus that I believe we may have a suicide if we do not break the pressure and let people leave, and incentivize their departure,” he told the university’s board.
Mental health researchers are just beginning to gather data on the estimated 26 million college students whose lives have been disrupted by the virus.
“We’re enforcing physical loneliness,” said Dr. Rachel C. Conrad, the director of Young Adult Mental Health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “There’s not really anything to compare it to, exactly, from our history.”