The following essay was written by Shakka Chaiban ’22 as an assignment for the Spring 2021 semester course Topics in Journalism: The Art and Craft of Journalistic Nonfiction.
Perched on the side of highway 191 in a cramped sedan, overlooking the neverending brown, barren desert of Uintah County, Utah on a late October night where only the stars illuminated the darkness, Norm Cotteleer [’22], 21, lightly hit his forehead on the dashboard in a state of perplexity. A little over four and a half hours away from his temporary home in Sandy, Utah, Norm and his two roommates had been pulled over by state police for driving 20 miles an hour over the limit after a day of journeying steep, mountainous hiking trails on the border of Colorado. While Norm himself hadn’t been behind the wheel, it was his car.
As he watched the officer begin a slow strut to his window, he remembered that his registration was two months expired. Norm began to recognize that he was in a potentially devastating situation. In that brief moment, Norm recounted his months of internal conflict spent deciding if embarking on a cross country voyage with two semi-close-ish friends to the undiscovered terrain of Utah had been worth forgoing fall semester of his junior year at Wesleyan University, and he questioned his decision yet again. As potentially catastrophic scenarios ran rampant through his mind, Norm couldn’t help but surrender to pangs of longing for the comfort and sanity that living on campus had provided him. He thought of his closest friends, whom he hadn’t seen in eons, reminisced on the warm feeling of dwelling within a like-minded community, and missed the little pleasures of Wesleyan.
Norm exhaled a deep, cathartic sigh and smiled quietly to himself in disbelief. “That was the turning point,” he later recalled, “The weight of all my decisions and the general anxiety of the situation and life, I never wished for campus more, even if it wasn’t the same as before.”
For university students across the country, the evils of COVID-19 have greatly reshaped the trajectory of the traditional college experience. Amidst a global pandemic that has put the world on pause, college students have been forced to make vastly impactful decisions. While many schools across the country have shut down and switched to completely virtual campuses, others have adopted a plethora of varied testing structures, COVID prevention guidelines, and on-campus hybrid learning models.
At Wesleyan, students were given the onus of responsibility of deciding whether to return to campus in the spring after a relatively successful and contained fall semester, or opt out to either virtual learning or a completely alternative experience. Each student’s decision was fueled by a variety of complex factors, namely one’s socioeconomic situation, family life, and the presence (or lack thereof) of a plan of action if one was not to return to campus.
University administrators expected considerably more students to return to campus in the spring than in the fall. Yet, only 24 more students are physically on campus this semester, according to Director of Residential Life Fran Koerting. She cited the sudden increase in nationwide COVID cases in the weeks leading up to the semester’s start. The numbers also reflect the last-minute nature of these decisions, illustrating a COVID-era dilemma facing students everywhere between opting out or coming back.
For Norm Cotteleer, a junior philosophy major from East Granby, Connecticut, the decision couldn’t have been easier. Amidst the peak of COVID-19 pandemonium in August and uncertainty about campus reopening in the fall, Norm had decided to take classes virtually and drive across the country from his home to the claustrophobic, predominantly white Mormon suburb of Sandy, Utah. There, alongside two Wesleyan peers to whom he was not particularly close, Norm lived in a confined, grey brick house at the base of towering twin peaks and framed by stunning mountain ranges.
His decision to traverse the nation was fueled by an infatuation with the thought of driving cross-country and the desire to explore new lands, a test and reclamation of his independence that had felt dimmed by months of quarantine and isolation spent at home. The plan was for the three to live together within this small ski town, take classes throughout the day, and couple them with a series of nature expeditions and spontaneous trips to nearby states and regions on weekends. It seemed an ideal, fulfilling structure to replace being on campus during these strange times, but the reality of Norm’s experience fell far from what he had expected.
Only a few weeks into the stay, Norm began to witness the impacts of extended social isolation in close quarters: Norm and his friends gradually succumbed to an intense form of COVID cabin fever. The general vibes of the household grew increasingly combative and toxic, cramped proximity bringing the worst out of each housemate. Norm’s relationships with his two casual friends gradually deteriorated to the point of being unbearable. Instead of using his time away to focus on his internal development, Norm found himself looking for ways to remove himself from his situation in search of a sense of holistic peace of mind. His mental health fell into a steady decline.
“In retrospect”, he recalled, “I most definitely was blinded by an idealized, rosy expectation of how my stay and semester was to go. It was a spontaneous decision, and I wasn’t giving weight to a lot of potential downfalls that could have, and did occur. However, I will say, I will be forever grateful for life-lasting lessons sprouted from such vast adversity. Learning the skill of adaptability, facing your own emotions head on, but especially made me realize the significance of those who you surround yourself with.”
When asked about making the decision to return to campus this spring, Norm let out a light chuckle and simply said, “It was never a question.” Norm spent more than 60 hours driving home, entering almost a trance-like state of euphoria as he drew close. For the entirety of the fall semester, he had been robbed of that subtle feeling of relaxation and comfort that he had previously taken for granted. Those feelings would return only when he rejoined a community that made him feel safe. For Norm, that community was still Wesleyan.
On his first day on campus in a year, February 8, 2021, Norm finally felt like himself. Even though the adjustment to a hybrid model of in-person classes and Zoom and the abundance of COVID-19 regulations remained a bewildering journey, he found that he couldn’t care less. The serenity of Middletown, the joy of finally being around those closest to him, and the peace brought by the love of his community: Norm was finally home.