Freshman Year: COVID Edition

“This is my first day on campus, my first day as a first-year, my first day of the rest of my college life,” I thought as a woman in Chernobyl-level protective gear rummaged around somewhere near my brain with the world’s largest Q-tip, searching for a virus which at that time had killed over 150,000 people in the United States. I cried a little bit, mostly because I suddenly had intimate knowledge of how ancient Egyptians removed the brains of mummies. Ya know, standard cultural images of the college experience.

My mom and sister helped me schlepp a very well-thought-out assortment of hand sanitizer bottles, baby wipes, face masks, and a mini-fridge that I didn’t actually end up using all that much into my dorm. I received the last intimate human contact I would have for three months and waved goodbye to the people I had spent virtually my entire life around. Now I was alone, looking around my cell and thinking, “Is this how it’s supposed to be?” Obviously, in a typical college year, you’re not quarantined in your room for your first week, but then what does the first week normally look like? I had all these ideas, all these deeply-nestled signifiers for what college — especially a liberal arts college — is, and none of them were present. I felt like I had no idea where I really was: disoriented.

That evening, I had a session with my Peer Advising Leaders group which, outside from the people I briefly interacted with during the three timed meal pickups, was my only real social interaction that day. I can only speak for myself, but it felt a bit disingenuous. I hardly knew these people; the few interactions we had were facilitated by the school and over a screen, and I couldn’t bring myself to care. While the members of my cohort would later become very close with one another, I’ve heard this is hardly the case with everyone. I think PAL lessened the aforementioned disorientation people might have been feeling, and it was something I’m glad the school provided.

After maybe four days of Charlie Kaufmann movies and orientation meetings I was finally allowed to leave my bunker. I had seen Oberlin’s campus before on previous visits, but now I was walking around the College as a student, which was a bit surreal. It felt closer to my December expectations when I received my acceptance letter, though everything was so sedated. There were people walking around, sure, but there wasn’t much energy. The campus has woken up a bit as the semester has rolled along, and there are nights when I’ll hear people singing, or small groups of friends sauntering on by, really enjoying themselves.

Even before everyone was required to conceal half their faces, I was never the most adept at initiating conversation. Such a prospect, over a Zoom call, is unthinkable, considering how everything you say is audible to everyone. Sure, you can send an individual person a direct message, but this can seem too intimate, especially if you don’t know them prior to said Zoom call. If by chance you have a class in person, this can be easier, but again there are the boundaries presented by concealed facial muscles, which usually indicate, “Hello, I am also a human being and can be communicated with.” The best way to socialize and develop friendships has been by joining a student organization or club, which requires one’s physical presence. This is how I’ve met my friends, found “my people”. 

When classes finally started, I was elated, because I felt like I was still fulfilling my actual purpose in attending this school. And as much as I prefer physically being in a classroom setting, there’s something to be said for getting to sit in the comfort of your private concrete block with a cup of coffee while your professor delivers a lecture on the collectivization campaigns in early Soviet Russia — although Zoom discussions are another issue entirely.

The strongest feeling I have at the end of this semester is exhaustion. I’m sitting here swamped in work and not feeling particularly compelled to do any of it. I didn’t expect that I’d look forward to going back home, but I am. I don’t know if it’s Zoom fatigue, or if it’s simply the workload. Is it natural that the end of first semester should feel so anticlimactic? Is there usually more fanfare, one last hurrah before the holidays? Or is this year like any other?