Something that my aunt told me on the journey to Oberlin for the summer semester is that there is a difference between simply being okay and working hard to be okay. I’m a second-year here at Oberlin, so I was on campus during the fall semester, and I was lucky to be okay. Many of my peers during the fall and spring semester struggled immensely. But like almost everyone on campus at that time, I had to work for it. For me, the pandemic was characterized by this dynamic. I was lucky and didn’t contract COVID-19. At the same time, life became a constant effort to be okay. All of a sudden, existing became a lot of work. I’ve been amazed at how life feels easier and more open since I’ve returned to campus. It’s certainly not that I have less work to do; I’m busier than I’ve been in a long time. But something about the openness of campus, the ease of in-person conversation, and the return of a familiar structure, makes life flow more smoothly.
The pandemic warped my world in subtle ways. Some relationships disappeared, while others became defining aspects of my existence. Structures that I relied upon to make sense of my life disappeared overnight. Space was twisted into smaller and smaller boxes — first staying inside my house, then my room, then confining the world to a Zoom window on my computer. I looked at myself more often, my image distorted as every digital reflection is, and consequently I criticized my appearance more. In all these respects, again, I was lucky. I love my home and city, I had a nice room in the fall, and for the most part I’m okay with how I look.
However, it was also easy to begin to rely on the smallness to feel safe. Last year was one of constant buzzing anxiety, with potential danger lurking in the lungs of each person I passed on the sidewalk. Our politics grew more and more polarized and life was suffused with constant logistical problems. Behind my mask — or squeezed into my Zoom box — it felt like I had some control of the maelstrom surrounding me, or at least that I could insulate myself from the outside world and retreat to my bubble. Taking these precautions was certainly the right choice at the time, but through them life became grayer. I resorted to screens more, I wrote less, and I began relying on lists and charts to structure my days in ways that weren’t neglectful and destructive. I lived life less. I think we all did.
And now here I am, lounging maskless on a blanket in North Quad, or gliding through campus on my bike, or reuniting with friends whose faces — real, beautiful faces — I haven’t laid eyes on in a year. Here we are together, stepping out into the summer air, catching glimpses of each other in Stevenson Dining Hall, and hugging, finally.
I don’t think that the College’s shift in policy has been perfect. The cessation of mandatory testing means that we don’t know if the new guidelines are working. To me and many of my friends, the sudden change in our rituals has thrown us off — especially after having grown to rely on those rituals to feel safe.
That being said, with many COVID-19-related restrictions ending as summer semester starts, we are in a historically unique position to savor our lives. After a year and a half of smallness, anxiety, and isolation, the summer semester is a chance to revel in open spaces, relax into the structure of college, and reunite with those we haven’t seen in a year. It is an opportunity to re-expand our worlds like one of those foam dinosaurs inflating in a bathtub. The pandemic is not over by a long shot — The New York Times reports that 50 percent of adults in the United States and 53 percent of adults in Lorain County are fully vaccinated. Oberlin has a significant international student population, so we also need to consider the situation in other countries.
However, for both those students who are vaccinated and for those who haven’t had the chance yet, the summer semester can be an opening up, a chance to spend time outdoors with friends, relax into our intellectual curiosity in a more natural setting, and perhaps not have to try so hard to be okay. There will never be a time without stress or without work to do. But there also will never be another time when we are so obviously presented with the opportunity for a fresh start, to step confidently out into the summer air, back straight, head held high, laughing.