Returning to campus late this August to receive my first COVID test of many, I was struck by how normal Clark felt. While everyone was masked and distanced, the community remained lively, with students splayed on the green and running up to greet one another after a (much longer than usual) summer apart. This return to campus, which so many of us had anxiously awaited, was marked by a sort of nervous excitement. While we were happy to be returning for in-person classes, we did so with the knowledge that even a single cluster of cases within the student body could end the semester early for us all.
While the precarious nature of our semester was nerve-racking at times, it also encouraged responsibility. Although I do not live on campus, my roommates and I were careful not to put each other at risk; we agreed to wear masks within our common areas until we all received a few negative tests, and we set boundaries about unmasked interaction with people outside of our home.
Even with these agreements, those first few weeks were tense as we attempted to navigate social and academic situations in a safe and respectful manner. Over time, the apartment — where we attended Zoom classes, cooked, and relaxed — became a safe haven for fun within our bubble. My roommates and I became makeshift family, constantly popping in and out of each other’s rooms, playing made-up games, and watching movies to pass the time that we might normally have spent out and about.
Of course, the issue of seeing those friends with whom I did not live was more complicated. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of socializing during those first few weeks. Everything felt so new and difficult, and one mistake could have horribly real consequences for those around me. As with everything else, however, outdoor — masked — visits with close friends came to feel normal, and we enjoyed those first warm weeks of the semester, often gathering around a table in the yard to play games and talk.
As the semester progressed and the weather cooled, we began to experience the realities of the accelerated semester. To limit contact, Clark had adopted a hybrid model of classes for the semester, with some meeting in person and others via Zoom, all within a shortened and condensed period. While I am grateful for these safety measures, I cannot downplay the fact that this past semester was the most challenging of my undergraduate career. Since the semester was shorter than usual, the coursework was more concentrated, and some professors expected performance far outside the realm of our current reality. While I — and others — struggled with these expectations, I was met with nothing but empathy and compassion from my own professors, who offered extensions and lightened workloads as the semester went on and stress levels rose.
But not even these adjustments were enough to keep the stress at bay. By mid-November, I began counting down the days to Thanksgiving while spending nearly every night in the library, watching as many of my friends did the same. We were nearing the end, with the promise of family time and a long break ahead of us.
When our semester was shortened and in-person classes stopped a week before scheduled, after Clark saw an increase in cases — six positive test results overnight — I was thankful for the chance to go home early. I had been scrambling to do as much work as possible in the previous weeks, and was looking forward to a little relaxation at home before finishing finals, remotely, in early December.
That relaxation was put on hold by a text from my mom just as I was clearing airport security. My father had tested positive for COVID-19 that morning, meaning that my immediate family had been exposed as well. This felt like some sort of joke. Had I just spent months getting tested regularly and being as careful as possible only to come home to a COVID-infested house? I began to panic, worrying about my family while also scrambling to make other housing arrangements. Fortunately, I was able to stay in my sister’s apartment while my family quarantined, going over to say hi through our porch windows and talk from a safe distance. I took this downtime to work through my final exams and papers, finishing my semester around the time that my family was able to come out of quarantine.
While the past months were challenging, being back in the Clark community reminded me of the empathy and respect that still exists in the world. Thanks to student compliance with the safety protocols, we were able to have the most normal semester possible. Things like picnics with friends, walks, and small outdoor gatherings became rays of light for me, providing joy within the “new normal” to which we are all still adjusting. While I am sure I gained many skills in the fall, I am hoping for a calmer spring semester, and crossing my fingers for some kind of graduation ceremony in June.