Offering a larger perspective too, Julia Bialek documents the “abrupt goodbye from Yale”–and feelings of loss and longing due to a short-circuited semester caused by COVID-19 campus closures and dismissals.
In 2012, a Yale student named Marina Keegan wrote an incredible article that gained national attention, titled “The Opposite of Loneliness.” In it, she explored how although there isn’t an exact word for the opposite of loneliness, we can define it through a feeling, writing: “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I’d say that’s how I feel at Yale.” Keegan sadly lost her life in a car accident only a few days after graduating from Yale, but her words still beautifully describe what makes the school so special. So after Yale’s announcement that it would be joining many universities in closing its campus and conducting classes online in response to the coronavirus pandemic, many of my friends began sharing her article on Facebook as a way to articulate why they felt such sorrow over losing time at school. As I read and re-read her op-ed, I couldn’t help but think about why students, both at Yale and at other universities across the country, were mourning the loss of time at school. And the answer I came up with is that if being at Yale, if being at college, feels like the opposite of loneliness, then not being at school feels like the opposite of memories.
Just over a week ago, Yale bid us adieu and sent us on a generous two-week spring break. As we left campus, there was no official mention of online classes or campus closing. We were sent home during the “in-between phase”: after people began realizing that slowing the spread of the coronavirus may require bold, disruptive action, but before any actions were taken. As I prepared to go home and packed a suitcase, my roommate asked me why I wasn’t taking more of my clothing home with me, why I was leaving my favorite pillow, why I kept my books in my school desk. “It’s only two weeks,” I remember replying. “We’ll be back soon enough.” Thinking back to that moment and how much has rapidly changed since then, I feel a sadness that is hard to describe. There was no way of knowing that it was the abrupt ending to a semester for most, and the abrupt conclusion of their Yale experience for seniors. As I left campus, there was no way of knowing that those last moments were the end to my incredible first year at Yale. And unlike so many students at so many universities, we didn’t get a proper goodbye. We left for spring break fully expecting to return, but for those of us who are lucky enough to have more time there, that return won’t be until August. It’s devastating.
The global situation pertaining to the coronavirus pandemic is evolving rapidly, and it’s scary. People are losing loved ones and losing businesses. People are struggling to support their families as social distancing requires many to stay home from work. The health care system is preparing to be overwhelmed as the United States fails to heed the warnings of history, a history that took place only two weeks ago in nations like South Korea, China, and Italy. The economy is bracing for a massive recession. And – without a doubt less severe, but most pertinent to my situation – hundreds of thousands of college students were sent home to complete the remainder of the semester online. I fully acknowledge that in the grand scheme of this pandemic, having a semester at college cut short doesn’t even come close to the worst of its effects on society. Right now, people are dying and suffering, and the majority of college students will return to our campuses in the fall like we never left. However, the loss of time at school amid this uncertainty just adds to the unsettling nature of this new reality.
For many college students, their university is more than just a place of learning. Perhaps it’s the place where they finally became comfortable with who they were, or found their first love, or understood what it was like to feel safe, understood, and valued. “Going to college” implies more than just going to a physical campus to acquire knowledge; rather, going to college refers to a defined period in our lives – our ‘college years’– full of learning about the world and learning about ourselves, full of friendships and growth, full of moments and memories. We lament the loss of time at school because we lament the loss of all the memories that may have been. The season that the student athletes trained so hard for, but never got to see through. The relationships that perhaps only needed another few weeks of nurturing to become something more. The treasured time for seniors after they finish their exams but before they walk across the stage with their diplomas. The feeling of campus in the spring, when the sadness of goodbyes is balanced by the promise of possibility radiating from the rebirth of the natural world. The big events that form the unique traditions of each campus. The small moments that stay with us, that make our universities feel like home. It is the opposite of memories – those moments that were supposed to be ours but never materialized, now only existing as abstract ideas in our minds of what may have been – that we lament the most.
But we’re home now. Our college quads have been replaced by our backyards. Our lecture halls have been replaced by our living rooms (or our beds for those of us who still need to virtually attend 9 a.m. classes on Zoom). Our roommates and suitemates have been replaced by our family and pets. All of a sudden, nearly overnight, everything is different. We are living in unprecedented times, and there is no playbook for how to proceed. These next couple of months are certainly going to be strange. And for many college students, being away from school means being confronted by challenges regarding their family situation, their health, and their ability to devote time to their schoolwork and access the necessary resources to do so. But despite social distancing and being away from school, no one should feel isolated, and no one should feel alone. Now more than ever, it is all of our jobs to look after ourselves and each other, to check in with and support the people that matter to us, to make the best of these uncertain times.
So now we have a choice. We can spend these next few months contemplating what may have been and feeling sorrow over the moments that never were, or we can take this day by day, feeling grateful for the memories we’ve already made and looking forward to the ones to come. Because for those of us who are lucky enough to have found a place and a group of people who make being away from college so heartbreaking, we have a lot to be grateful for. It’s inevitable, this pandemic will take things from us – all of us. And while we cannot control the loss of what may have been, we can take this time to cherish all the wonderful things that are already ours.