Returning To School in the Midst of a Pandemic

If there is anything my friends and I have felt over the last four months, it’s uncertainty. We were uncertain about how long we would be in quarantine, we were uncertain about job prospects, we were uncertain whether or not we would be going back to college in the fall, and most of all we were uncertain about how to maintain the still budding friendships we had spent a semester and a half cultivating. Now, only a few days after hearing from Brown University’s president, Christina H. Paxon, we are relieved to know, for certain, that Brown will be welcoming students back to our beautiful campus in late August. However, this new information, though good, is breeding as much anxiety and uncertainty as to the email we originally received in March, requesting that students evacuate from Providence as soon as possible.

 

Just as my friends and I have had to acquaint ourselves with our lives in quarantine, and now lives with social distancing and face coverings, we will have to navigate college life shaped entirely by COVID-19.

Students across the country, like me, went from taking finals and looking forward to Spring Weekend to suddenly quarantine at home, at a friend’s home, or on a deserted campus in the event that there wasn’t somewhere else to go. As far as I was concerned, I had just arrived at Brown: I was a freshman who had finally gotten her bearings and felt utterly at home in the new world that was college. I had made wonderful friends, taken up modern Greek, made art for an online magazine called XO, and become strangely dependent on hazelnut Keurig coffee. I was settled in, and then I was back home.

 

All of the independence, freedom, and possibility I had entered into only six months earlier felt almost like a dream, one conjured up by an eager-to-graduate high school senior. I was glad that I had a home and a loving family to return to, but at the same time, I felt that I had gone backward in time to a place I was excited to move on from. The semester was only halfway over, though, and pandemic or not. I was still expected to take midterms, write essays, and show up on my computer screen every day.

 

Prior to quarantine, I did homework, studied and socialized at the Rock, Blue Room, my friend’s rooms, the main green, the Jukowsky Institute, and sometimes my room. I had plenty of places to be and events to attend that broke up what would have otherwise been hours of schoolwork. Life in quarantine was much more stagnant, and there were certainly no impromptu trips to Kung Fu Tea at 11 pm. After a month, the repetition became almost impossible to ignore: I get up, I “get ready,” I walk my dog, I eat, I sit down at my desk, then I stare at a computer screen for hours. Sometimes I sit on my bed, sometimes I sit in the living room, sometimes I sit in the kitchen, but that is it. One thing had become clear, I missed college, and my friends, and being outside, and hugs, and looking at anything other than my own walls and the four square blocks around my home. The feeling of isolation was beginning to creep in, and my brain’s constant comparison of college life to quarantine life, which barely felt like “life” at all, wasn’t helping. The key to staving off the monotony and loneliness became maintaining a routine, setting goals, staying active, and keeping in touch with friends.

 

Tending to those, still relatively new, college relationships proved to be hard, though. The difficulty didn’t come from a lack of things to talk about—we had plenty to discuss—but from the shift in our dynamic. We became friends in person, created and solidified our bonds in person. I hadn’t prepared myself to continue those friendships digitally, and certainly not for six months. What used to be simply sharing space with friends, whether that was to eat, to study, or even nap together, was replaced with frequent texting in group chats and near-constant video calls. As a person who doesn’t text often, and tries to stay off my phone as much as possible, suddenly needing to be glued to a screen for human interaction was overwhelming. My options felt slim. I wanted to keep in contact with my friends, and the only way to do that seemed to be online.

 

Technology is one of our greatest assets right now, and it is worth taking advantage of. However, my phone had suddenly become my lifeline, the only thing connecting me to the amazing college experience I had just begun to have, and that was difficult. I felt disconnected, and at times left out, as though I was growing apart from people I felt so close to only a few weeks before. The only option I thought I had was to get better at being online. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t shake the feeling of isolation. Eventually, I decided to utilize Brown’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

 

I was able to meet with a counselor virtually and talk about how this new way of relating made me feel. Her advice was to trust in the relationships I had forged; if I needed to take a break from all of the technology or simply text in the group chat a little less often. I needed to trust that those relationships would still be there when I decided to be more active or finally get together in the fall. Basically, I needed to set healthy boundaries for myself. So, just as maintaining a routine, staying active, and keeping in touch with friends was essential to my health during that time, so I was intentional about how I was communicating and reaching out to those I missed.

 

Since consulting CAPS, I have felt much more confident about how I use all of the wonderful apps that help keep us connected. I exist outside of them, and I don’t need to be plugged in all of the time to show the people I love and value that I care about them. Setting boundaries has been essential to my life recently, and luckily my friends share the same sentiments. As a result, we plan plenty of Netflix Party dates and virtual game nights so that everyone can join in when time and personal space allows. We’ve had a lot of fun watching Netflix’s Pose together and playing the online version of Cards Against Humanity. Still, even all of the laughter over FaceTime doesn’t quite make up for not getting to be together in person. The topic of conversation is almost always about whether or not we will return in the fall and get to reunite. So, when Christina Paxon’s email came through on Tuesday, July 7th, we were thrilled to find out students would be welcomed back in the fall.

 

After days of conversation and looking more closely at what going back to campus might mean and look like, my friends and I have realized that our excitement might have been premature. Going back to campus does not mean everything will be normal, and that things will continue business-as-usual. Our new normal will be hybrid remote and in-person classes, it will be grab-n-go lunches at the dining halls we normally spend hours in, it will be classes where we sit six feet apart from our peers, it will be days where we may not see anyone at all if we must quarantine ourselves. This new “normal” will be difficult and uncomfortable.

 

Luckily, students do have choices. They have the option to come back, but they also have the option to take leave, continue their studies remotely, come back to campus, and live either on or off-campus. Depending on where students live, their financials, and simply their own health concerns, many students may choose not to come back. Even for students who do decide to return, campus life will look drastically different. Libraries might not be open for studying, students who choose to leave for Thanksgiving break will not be welcomed back to campus afterward, and social distancing will have to be practiced at all times, possibly even from friends. Classes with high enrollment will definitely be online. Professors may choose whether or not to hold smaller, in-person sections, but they are not guaranteed. Thus it would be very possible to be a student who chose to return but still takes all of their Fall classes online. The fact of the matter is that many questions, such as who can I interact with without social distancing, will I get to live near my friends, and can we gather in groups outside while wearing masks, haven’t been answered yet. Things are yet again, incredibly uncertain. The tough part is that many of the things that will be restricted, social activities, in particular, are some of the chief reasons students go to college at all.

 

Beyond attaining a degree in higher education, students flock to college campuses for vibrant, hands-on, and immersive interpersonal experiences. My friends and I applied to Brown for the people, the clubs, the research, the jobs, and yes, the parties, as much as we applied for the classes. With that in mind, going back to campus this fall is a bit daunting. What will college be if I can’t waltz into my friend Asha’s room and plop onto her beanbag, or slide into a Blue Room booth with Davi and Christina? What of the relationships I have yet to form by attending SHAG’s Late Night Conversations and discussing healthy relationships with strangers over Insomnia Cookies? These are the experiences that make up the four years we spend in undergrad, and though compromises will have to be made in the name of protecting ourselves and those around us, those experiences will be missed.

 

Right now, students everywhere are nervous, anxious and many are unhappy. Some colleges aren’t welcoming sophomores, like me, back to campus at all this year. So, some students don’t even have the privilege of choice. For those of us who have a choice, we are intensely and very quickly weighing our options, as I am expected to give Brown my decision about whether I’ll come back to campus in the Fall on July 15th. My friends and I wish we had more information, but we’re working with what we have. We’re avoiding groupthink and encouraging each other to truly think about the best decision for ourselves, not for the group. The prospect of some of our friends staying home, while others go back to campus is tough, and in many ways, life on campus might eerily resemble life right now. I feel that there will be just as many Netflix Parties and video calls, but that will have to be okay. We are supporting each other right now, no matter the outcome. It is my hope that everyone ends up feeling safe and content with whatever decision they make.

 

Though there is a lot to be nervous about, I am certain that I will be deciding to return to campus this Fall. Yes, I will need to wear a mask around campus and to class, and yes, there will be constant testing, as well as social distancing, and probably fewer to no parties, but that’s what I need to do to keep my community safe and healthy. Part of this journey will include discovering new ways to interact with others. For me, biking has been a new way to explore and interact with my neighborhood and New York City as a whole. Unlike last year, I will be bringing my bike, affectionately named Minnie Riperton, to campus with me. I hope that biking will allow me to explore Providence more than I have, and maybe I’ll make new friends while I do it. Meeting new people and forming new relationships is essential to our emotional health and wellbeing as humans; we simply need those connections. So, rather than let my fear dominate the Fall of 2020, I will turn it into an invitation—an invitation to be creative and intentional about reaching out to others, and checking in with myself.

 

As we all have seen, quarantine and social distancing can feel incredibly isolating. We may feel as though if we are not out doing and doing together, then we are all just small islands, but that is anything but true. Even if we’re not in the same room as one another, we’re still experiencing and adjusting together. We can still call, text, video chat, walk from a distance, wave, eat, and share this planet together. For all of the positivity, though, it is worth saying that this is hard. This global health crisis affects us, our loved ones, our livelihoods, and dealing with that is not something we are used to doing. No one prepared us, no one told us to watch out for the pandemic that was going to befall us in 2020, so it is okay to feel overwhelmed and stressed out and sad. I know I have felt all of those things and more, I’d be worried if I hadn’t. What I am most proud of is my decision to let myself feel those emotions, even if they felt uncomfortable. Then they pass, and sometimes they resurface, but by choosing to pay attention to and take care of myself and my mental health, I am more than equipped to deal with whatever uncertainty I feel.

 

I do not know what is going to happen between right now and late August when I am supposed to return to Brown’s campus. I don’t know what’s going to happen between late August and December. I also didn’t know what was going to happen between March and right now, but I was able to keep moving forward. I stayed informed, and I spoke to my loved ones and continued to do the things that bring me joy. So for all of the uncertainty, I feel as though things are going to be okay. If I have learned anything in the last four months, it is that people are incredibly innovative. I know we will find ways to be together even when we have to be distant. I know that professors will ensure that classes are stimulating and engaging even if they must be online. I know that I will still get to wave to people as I pass them around campus even if they’re wearing masks along with their normal Fall gear. I know that all of the student organizations that I have come to love so much will find ways to continue to provide content and programming. And lastly, I know I will still be making the most of my college experience.

 

 

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