A year ago, I expected the most intimidating parts of my senior year of college to be job-hunting, applying for law schools, and trying to pull an A in physics as a government major. Never could I have predicted that my junior year would be cut short in the middle of a spring break trip to Israel, that the students on that trip would self-quarantine at our college president’s house, or that we’d eventually be sent home to finish out the semester on Zoom.
Nor could I have imagined how quickly we would be swept into a pandemic, inducing fear and heartbreak for many that easily made my inconveniences pale in comparison.
Back then, in mid-March, my classmates and I all reassured ourselves that things would be back to normal by our senior year. We expressed sympathy for our graduating friends, whose commencement was postponed and whose last months of college were abruptly altered. Meanwhile, we breathed sighs of relief that at least our last year of college would be normal even though our junior spring was interrupted.
As March turned into July, headlines began to warn us that going back to school would still be dangerous in August. I watched universities like Harvard announce a completely online 2020-2021 school year, and heard from friends at large public universities that their classes would be largely online as well.
But last week, I boarded a plane back to my small college in small-town Purcellville, Virginia. As I watched crowds elbow into each other in the airport and my airline enforce socially distanced boarding protocols only to seat passengers right next to each other, I started feeling apprehensive. It seemed neither safe nor normal. I wasn’t sure that school would be, either.
After a week on campus, though, I’ve seen caution, consideration, and common sense. No sense of fear hangs over our small, socially distanced gatherings. Instead, there’s an overwhelming sense of joy, calm, and willingness to sacrifice certain conveniences for the dual values of safety and community.
On paper — specifically, on the 20-page document the college published detailing its Covid-19 response — it’s not a normal semester. Everyone’s wearing a mask, and we’re holding some classes in the basketball gym so people can sit six feet apart. Many friends who haven’t seen each other since March greet each other with an exuberant “I wish I could hug you!” and a warm smile.
All our breaks have been cut so we can finish the semester by Thanksgiving, so students won’t be traveling and potentially bringing germs back to campus. My mock trial tournaments will all be over Zoom. All the dances that are hallmarks of each season at school are canceled. Each building has a station for checking entrants’ temperature, and tables in the dining commons have been downsized and spread out.
But the things that defined my college experience long before Covid-19 haven’t changed. It’s not wearing a mask or socially distancing in class that makes me feel safe. It’s knowing I’m in a community where people put each other’s needs first, and are willing to sacrifice for each other’s safety and wellbeing.
It’s having a college president who let students quarantine at his family’s house after an increasing global case count forced us to return early from spring break overseas. It’s seeing professors, several of whom are old enough to be at a heightened risk, smile and tell us how glad they are to have us back and know they mean it wholeheartedly.
My roommate has cautiously limited her exposure to others for months, since a chronic illness means she’s considered immuno-compromised. But she expresses no fear about being on campus again. “If I wanted to live my life eliminating risks, I’d never walk out the door in the morning,” she told me over breakfast on Sunday, before going to an outdoor church service in the local park. “Life is about controlling risks and, because risks always exist, determining what things in life are worth it.”
None of us know for sure if we’ll finish the semester in person. We can’t predict how the outbreak will continue to develop across the country and in our small town sandwiched between Washington D.C. and the Shenandoah Valley.
But when I look at the way my professors, administrators, and classmates are responding to the threat of Covid-19, I see an abundance of what so many people have lost in recent months: a community in which people sacrifice for each other, instead of simply sacrificing each other. Knowing that, I couldn’t feel more secure.