Kasteel Well students reflect on departing the castle

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Photo: Aaron J. Miller

The exterior of the Kasteel Well castle

By Shawna Konieczny, Staff Writer

On March 2, 2020, the 76 students studying at Emerson’s Kasteel Well campus gathered in a cramped dining hall awaiting an update on spring break, expecting news regarding where and when they could travel.

Instead, castle officials announced they would be sent back to the United States in a matter of days—six weeks earlier than planned, due to the rise of the novel coronavirus across Europe.

Senior visual and media arts major Max Murphy, who served as the castle’s student documentarian, said he predicted his and his fellow classmates’ early departure from the Netherlands. 

“My advisor had told me that I was probably going to want to film that meeting,” Murphy said. “That, and the fact that COVID was spreading everywhere. I had a pretty good hunch that we were going back.”

Yet to many students, the news of the departure came as a surprise—after all, no Kasteel Well class had ever been sent back to the U.S. weeks early due a global crisis prior to spring 2020. 

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Just a week prior, students were told their academic excursion to Milan, Italy was canceled due to the rise in virus cases, which at the time sat at less than 200. Castle officials barred students from leaving the Netherlands during their spring break.

“I really thought we were going to go on lockdown for two weeks,” Junior marketing communications major Anna Bohman said. “I remember there were only a few people who … were like, ‘I think we’re going home.’ I did not think we were going home.”

Despite his suspicions, Murphy said it wasn’t until the announcement that the gravity of the situation hit him.

“That was when it felt real,” Murphy said. “Until then I had just been joking around with people, ‘Oh, we’re going to go back.’ Hearing it said out loud definitely set it in for good.”

In the days leading up to the news they’d be sent home, students were regularly updated on the growing number of cases throughout Europe by Duclia Meijers, the castle program director.

“We had the briefings in the dining hall every day leading up to it, so to a certain extent, I think we were ready for it,” junior visual and media arts major Mila Rolston said. “But also, it was very devastating because we all had that glimmer of hope we’d be able to travel one last time or go one last place.”

After the announcement, students spent the next three days packing up their rooms and preparing to say goodbye to the pastoral Dutch village. Students were bused to a Hansel and Gretel themed pancake house, in a remote part of the country where there were little-to-no COVID cases at the time, as a surprise prior to their departure. 

Kasteel Well students returned to the Boston campus on March 6 and were told they would finish the remainder of the semester in Boston. Castle students were not given the option to study from home upon their arrival to campus, despite all their classes transitioning to an online format because of their departure from the castle. This rule quickly changed as COVID cases continued to spike across the U.S.

On March 13, a week after arriving in Boston, Kasteel Well students were once again informed that they would have to relocate for the remainder of the semester—now, back to their homes as the Boston campus evacuated.

Bohman said she wanted to return to her home in Florida after leaving the Netherlands,  but Emerson would not allow her.

“I wanted to go home, like home home, and Emerson was like, ‘No, nobody can go home,’ even though they wanted us to do our classes online in rooms in Walker,” Bohman said. “I really didn’t think COVID was going to be that big. I don’t think anyone really knew it was coming.”

The news that Emerson’s campus would close wrought a wave of shock across the entire student body. But for castle students, this decision was another abrupt change of course to their unusual semester. Senior journalism major Leah Jablo, a Residential Assistant at the castle, said the change from one plan to another was confusing.

“It was also really concerning from a public health perspective too,” Jablo said. “If there’s a disease about, why are we moving around so much?”

Though at the time, some students thought that the move back to the U.S. was unwarranted, Murphy said being sent home was the right decision in retrospect. 

“In the moment, it was easy to say, ‘Oh, this is an overreaction,’” Murphy said. “But now, looking back, [the decision was] definitely not an overreaction. In my opinion, it was the right move to send us home when they did.” 

Bohman said her time at the castle felt like a fever dream. She recalls seeing her Snapchat and Instagram memories from a year ago over recent weeks reminding her of the short-lived semester abroad. 

“I can’t believe that’s what my life was a year ago and now it’s totally different,” Bohman said. “I realize how short [the semester] was because I got to see it all again.”

“I can’t believe that we did all those things, went to all those places,” Bohman continued .

Junior business of creative enterprises major Claire Kong said she feels as though years have passed since her time at the castle.  

“It feels like it has been five years,” Kong said. “None of us thought that we would be living in a pandemic this long.”

Jablo said the people and the sense of community in the town of Well—the American Nights at the local bar, De Buun, the trips to the bakery, and the locals she met—was the highlight of her experience.

“I loved the people and how tight knit the community was there,” Jablo said. “There were only about 80 of us over there, and the community that we fostered was so, so nice. Just having that shared, unique experience was a really special bond.” 

Bohman said she felt a unique connection with her castle class, which was only strengthened by the shared early departure experience.

“I do feel a very strong connection to everyone who went to the castle because you went through exactly what I went through,” she said. ”You know exactly what we went through and what went through our minds and how it was mentally exhausting.”

Eventually producing and publishing a final video highlighting the chain of events at the castle, Murphy said he recalls talking to many students and gauging their reaction to the jarring experience of being sent home.

“As the documentarian, it was really interesting to see everyone’s different reactions,” Murphy said. “Some people took it really hard. Some people didn’t really care. Some people were excited to leave. And so even though people reacted very differently, they could all connect over the thing that they were reacting to: being sent home. It did bring everyone together in a way.”