Tag Archive for pandemic essays

Merjos ’23: “How Student Bands Live on During COVID-19”

The following essay was written by Rose Merjos ’23 as an assignment for the Spring 2021 semester course Topics in Journalism: The Art and Craft of Journalistic Nonfiction

It’s a Friday night in February 2019. People are rushing down the outdoor stairwell into the lower level of a dorm. The heavy bass drum and colorful strobe lights pulse through the windows of the basement into the courtyard of West College. More than a hundred people are piled into the WestCo Cafe, barely able to move. The crowd in front of the stage lurches across the room like a wave. The colorful lights illuminate the graffiti on the back walls of the cafe. The smell of sweat wafts through the dense air.

On stage, the student band Love, Grandma is playing an original. The guitarist, Liam Murray, is standing in front. His black painted nails move up and down the neck of his guitar. His messy ginger hair falls in front of his face. The audience dances to the beat of the drum, hollering at Liam and his three bandmates.

That was a typical Love, Grandma show before the coronavirus hit Wesleyan University and the rest of the country.

In February 2020, Wesleyan students resumed classes after a challenging fall semester. An additional 40 students enrolled in the university this spring, where 85% of the student population is studying in person and 15% are remote.

Although the U.S. infection rate is gradually declining and widespread vaccination is on the horizon, Wesleyan is still taking the necessary precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19. On campus, students must wear masks in shared spaces, practice social distancing, and ensure they are tested for COVID-19 twice a week. Visitors are also restricted from campus and students residing in dorms can only have one guest over at a time.

President Michael Roth told The Wesleyan Argus that “after a successful reactivation of campus last fall, we are confident that we’ll be able to offer a vital Wesleyan experience to students this spring while limiting the spread of COVID-19 on campus.”

But cultivating an authentic Wesleyan experience under harsh safety guidelines can be challenging. On top of existing anxiety about the pandemic, students worry that life on campus is less worthwhile. Although Liam, a Wesleyan sophomore, shares this sentiment, he is adjusting to a new normal, creating new experiences along the way.

When Liam returned to campus last fall, he got Love, Grandma back together and started to organize rehearsals. The group wasn’t able to work on any music over the summer months, but they were ready to perform in any way they could.

WestCo Cafe became a regular rehearsal space for the band. People living nearby would occasionally stop by, sit on the couch opposite the stage and chat as Liam and his bandmates tried out new chord progressions.

This was one of the few indoor spaces where Love, Grandma could rehearse while following the university’s guidelines. To practice in the Cafe, the band had to reserve the space 72 hours in advance and abide by the COVID capacity of 10 people.

Liam sees a lot of positives in being a college musician during COVID-19. Using the Cafe as a new practice space provided opportunities for him and his friends to hang out while following safety guidelines. “It’s great to have a practice space close to where everyone lives,” he says. “You’re doing art that makes you feel good around people that make you feel even better.”

But practicing in front of his friends also evokes a longing for the past. “I experience a lot of nostalgia because I’m doing some of the same things I was doing last year. It is a brief moment of escape,” Liam says.

Practicing in the Cafe and producing music in his dorm room provided a sense of normalcy for Liam throughout the fall semester. He chased those moments that brought him back to the pre-COVID era, but also found new ways to express his passion for music.

He did this by organizing a show over Zoom where students performed from their rooms at Wesleyan and across the world. Liam and his band played a song they had written in 2019. The patterned tapestry and flickering string lights hung up in his room emulated a concert hall. In a tiny box adjacent to Liam’s on the Zoom screen, the band’s vocalist, Gib Bernath, sang into a mic in his room two doors down from Liam. After the performance, the applause bellowed out from his computer. “We love Love, Grandma!” two girls shouted.

“It felt strange to play alone in my room in front of 50 people on the computer screen,” Liam recalls. “But watching other student bands perform, I realized that we’re all experiencing a sense of frustration and we need to support each other.”

A lot of bands had been working on music all summer and were excited to share it in any forum. But Liam knew that a Zoom performance wasn’t enough. He wanted to feel the body heat and echoing cries of the audience. He wanted to feed off of the crowd’s energy the way he did on that Friday night in February 2019.

So Liam decided to plan an outdoor concert on a Saturday evening in November. He wanted to organize Duke Day, an annual fall gathering for West College students. By November, the infection rate on campus was low and the safety guidelines were easing up. “This could actually happen,” he thought. And that prospect was enough to meticulously plan out every detail.

Duke Day started in the late 80s as a music festival hosted by WestCo that revolved around drug experimentation. In the past decade, however, it has turned into a school-wide event where dozens of student bands perform on Foss Hill. While a large-scale event was out of the question, Liam had the idea of organizing a modest Duke Day to keep the tradition alive.

Liam made sure that every aspect of the concert was acceptable under the university’s COVID restrictions. Duke Day would take place on the outdoor walkway connecting the second floors of Foss 2 and 3, two of the four West College dorms. The balcony overlooks the West College courtyard, so the audience could watch Love, Grandma perform from above.

The COVID capacity of the courtyard is 25 people. But what distinguished Duke Day from any outdoor performance was the 15 rooms facing the courtyard. Liam envisioned those people dancing on the balconies, leaning over railings to feel closer to him and the band. He could almost hear his guitar reverberating off of the concrete walls. He dreamed about how euphoric it would feel to perform, even at a further distance from the crowd.

On the day of the concert, Liam hung up Duke Day posters on the WesCo bulletin boards and slid flyers under everyone’s doors. He sent out an email asking everyone to social distance and wear masks during the show. And he enlisted a few friends to ensure that the number of people in the courtyard did not exceed 25.

Liam and his bandmates carried amps, mics, a piano, a drum kit, two guitars, and a bass up three flights of stairs. They laid out a mat and plugged in extension cords. It was a brisk November afternoon. The sun was already starting to set, creating a pink hue in the sky.

Love, Grandma started to rehearse around 4:30 pm. Less than an hour later, they received an email from the area coordinator saying that Duke Day was canceled. As of that day, the university had enacted new COVID-19 guidelines, restricting outdoor gatherings to five people.

After he read the email, Liam felt the disappointment rush over him. He had dedicated himself to finding new ways to perform during COVID. But now he wondered if performing was a possibility at all. “That night, our momentum got halted,” says Liam. “We had no idea what we wanted to do or where we were headed.”

Later that evening, Liam and Love, Grandma still played some music. A few friends sat against the railing of the walkway and chatted the same way they did during the band’s rehearsals.

Four months later, Love, Grandma have just released a song, “Grace,” that Liam and his bandmates worked on during winter break. He doesn’t know when Wesleyan will hear it live.

Although the future for Love, Grandma is less than promising, Liam is holding onto his passion. In the absence of crowds, playing music isn’t what it used to be. “Rehearsing in front of my friends is great. But then I remember that all I want to do is perform to a bunch of sweaty people, all screaming,” says Liam. Yet, performance is not the sole reason why Liam appreciates music, and COVID-19 is allowing him to discover new ones every day.

Kling ’24: “The Call”

I'm on the far right with my arms crossed. Olu, who is featured in the story, is squatting in dead center. Coach Reilly also has his arms crossed, and is far right in the gray.The following essay was written by Kiran Kling ’24 (pictured above far left) as an assignment for the Spring 2021 semester course Topics in Journalism: The Art and Craft of Journalistic Nonfiction 

The Zoom was exactly on schedule. The gallery view was full, five minutes early. Coach Reilly ran a tight ship, and all 15 Wesleyan University basketball players, together but apart on this Wednesday night, knew the rules.

“Good to see you all tonight,” Reilly begins. “Everybody give updates, freshman first this time.” 

Every Wednesday at 7 p.m., the nine players who chose to come to campus for the 2020-21 school year, and the six who chose to remain home, meet to hear updates about each other’s lives, network with alums, and crack jokes in the players-only group chat during the call.

“Olu, you’re first on my screen,” Reilly says.

Sitting at his dorm-room desk, Olu Oladitan’s [’24] face is backlit. The only source of light is a set of color changing LEDs that trace the rectangular outlines of the interior walls. It is the kind of lighting that would make a great TikTok, and this is no coincidence. Olu has the combination of humor and dancing skill that garners serious attention on that platform. A green and white Nigerian flag takes up most of the visible wall space, and the team can make out his king-size bed, large for the room, sticking out at the bottom of his video feed. He’s big enough, 6 foot 8 and somewhere around 240 pounds, that the University’s residential life department was happy to accept his application for a large bed.

“I’m doing pretty well,” Olu replies. “Put in a couple of hours with Cane this week.”

Olu works a part-time job keeping the athletic facility running smoothly. The pay is just ok, but the hours are up to him, and it’s a good way to make some pocket money.

“It’s really nice to have access to a gym whenever I want,” says Olu, “much easier than over break.” 

Over break, he was back home in East New York, Brooklyn. Due to a high number of COVID cases, local public transport was limited and gyms were closed.

“I’ve got another in-person class this semester, and I’m hearing that we might be able to return to contact practices eventually, so those are both good things to look forward to,” Olu says. “I’m definitely very happy to be back.”

Coach Reilly pauses for a few seconds to see if Olu has anything more to say.

“Great stuff, glad to have you back. Dylan, you’re next.”

An awkward pause ensues, as Dylan unmutes on his second try.

“Things haven’t changed much here since we last talked,” Dylan tells the group.

This is to be expected. Dylan Ward is coming in live from his bedroom in Westport, Connecticut, a little less than an hour’s drive away from Wesleyan in the direction of New York City. You can tell his room is on the top floor because one of the walls slants, indicating the roof of his house is on the other side. In stark contrast to Olu’s room, all of Dylan’s lights are on. Visible in his video frame are a pair of dumbbells on the floor, and a pixelated inhaler on his dresser in the back corner.

“I’m still looking around for some solo court time,” Dylan says. “It should be easier once the local high school seasons end.”

Dylan doesn’t feel comfortable playing basketball with other people because his asthma puts him at serious risk, should he get sick. At home, he can self-isolate.

“In the meantime I still have the hoop in the driveway,” he adds. “I’ve been on Facetime with my trainer, and we’ve been getting creative with the home workouts. I’ve lost some fat and put on some muscle, I’m staying steady at 210 and getting stronger.”

After a pause, he continues:“Classes are good too, psych, calc, international relations, and a philosophy course. I do feel a little like I’m still in high school, and next year is my freshman year.”

In the absence of a campus experience, or any kind of true shopping period for classes, Dylan takes academic advice from one of his older brother’s friends, who was an economics major at Wesleyan.

“I’m still looking for a job, just to stay busy, but yeah, my life here isn’t too interesting,” Dylan sums up.

Coach Reilly pauses again. On paper, Dylan and Olu should be living very similar lives: they are teammates, both considering economics or psychology. They are both good students living up to high expectations. Both of their older siblings are recent Harvard graduates. But the pandemic pushed their narratives in two directions, at least for a little while. Dylan has never met his teammates, and Olu just ate dinner with them before getting on the call.

Neither Dylan or Olu feels like he had much of a choice concerning whether to stay home. 

For Olu, getting tested twice a week, per Wesleyan policy, is the only way to safely play basketball. On campus, there’s always food, and his friends are mostly on campus, too. He even stayed on campus for a portion of winter break, to reap the same benefits. He spent his entire high school career at boarding school, and most of his friends he met before college live in the Boston area.

On Dylan’s terms, the only way to win is not to play. His childhood friends are around, and they can hang out at a distance. It makes sense to stay home and not take any kind of risks. In his words, “It makes sense to wait. I can have my real freshman year next year.” 

Neither Olu or Dylan feels like he is a real Wesleyan student yet. Olu says that “next year will be my first year as a real college student, and for that matter, a college basketball player.” 

They both say they feel more like individuals than full-on members of the Wesleyan community, and both expect that to change once COVID restrictions are lifted.

Despite their vastly differing levels of interaction with the Wesleyan basketball team, in the weekly call, students on and off campus are equals. “These interactions make me feel as though I belong,” Dylan says. 

Coach Reilly calls on the next player. The call will end in 55 minutes, precisely, another cog in the well-oiled Reilly machine. Dylan and Olu will both sign off feeling justified in their choices, and part of something greater than themselves. Quite the feat in a pandemic.

Curtin ’23: “Time Away Offers Clarity”

The following essay was written by Rory Curtin ’23 as an assignment for the Spring 2021 semester course Topics in Journalism: The Art and Craft of Journalistic Nonfiction.

Pulling off a winding highway into a run-down gas station, Anabel DiMartino [’23] checked her phone. An unexpected text flashed across her screen: “hey this is crazy but me and lila are looking a third roommate for an apartment in western mass this semester.”

After a long, hot morning of driving with her mom, the text was the last thing she expected. The pair were en route to New York City to get Anabel’s first tattoo from an artist she had been following on Instagram for years. After six excruciatingly mundane months living at home in Red Hook, New York, the trip was something Anabel had been looking forward to.

Merging back onto the wooded Taconic Parkway, Anabel was flooded with immediate exhilaration. For months, she had been mulling over her prospects for the impending semester. “It seemed like everyone was making a decision,” she says. Returning to campus felt like a question burdening everyone she knew. She had been texting with peers often, checking in on what their plans were. Seemingly everyone was wary of what campus would look like in the era of COVID-19, but no one was certain enough to actually make alternate plans.

Anabel had found the opportunity she was looking for in Mary’s text, even if it came as a total surprise. Move-in loomed in Anabel’s mind as an equally distant and dismal reality. Despite low numbers of COVID cases, she had an inkling that the worst of the virus was yet to come. Feelings of intense uncertainty had been circulating in the back of her mind.

Making small talk with her young tattoo artist later that day, she found out that he had gone to school close to where Mary was looking for a lease. It had only been a few hours since receiving the text, but Anabel responded to the artist excitedly, telling him she was considering moving there next month. Verbalizing the reality of her prospective life only made her excitement grow stronger. On top of that, the coincidence felt like a sign.

Walking out of the shop, she glanced down at her freshly inked chicken tattoo under the clear bandage. It reminded her of her rural hometown, dotted with idyllic farms and chickens just like the one that now adorned her forearm. That place that had been both a haven and prison throughout the pandemic seemed to look back at her as she finally responded to Mary’s text.

The summer months marked a stressful time as colleges across the country struggled to develop plans for re-opening amidst the pandemic. Students, parents, professors, and employees alike struggled to get answers to their burning questions: How will classes work? What will happen to a student who contracts COVID? What will campus life look like?  The option of deferral lingered in the back of everyone’s minds, but it too was mired with logistic uncertainty.

A flurry of emails piled up in the inboxes of Wesleyan students. Each one seemed to pose a hundred questions for every one it answered. Families around the world were tasked with difficult discussions around dinner tables. The safety and well-being of an entire community were at stake, but no one seemed to have a clue as to how the daunting semester would end.

On top of this, many students had been struggling to adjust to the new normal, facing difficulties with online classes, forced living situations, and restricted social life. The pandemic has posed a major threat to the mental health of college students everywhere. According to the CDC, around 3 in 4 people aged 18 to 24 reported poor mental health tied to the pandemic.

For Anabel, quarantine marked a personal low in terms of her mental health, which played a big role in her decision not to return. “I was really not in the right place to go back to school,” she said. “I just needed more time.” The tumultuous nature of the world, coupled with crippling boredom, took a toll on her.

After receiving the text from Mary, Anabel had about a week before she was scheduled to move into her single in the Nics, a mixed first- and second-year dorm just behind Foss Hill. She put off making a final decision, instead of jotting down pro-con lists on anything she could find. As the moment drew closer and closer, the right decision seemed to naturally emerge. Two days before she was supposed to move in, she officially emailed her dean to defer, sitting on the floor of her childhood bedroom, surrounded by unfilled boxes and walls still full of posters and pictures.

Anabel recalls September as a major turning point in her overall happiness: her deferral provided something to be excited about, while still giving her time to work through her feelings. As on-campus students acclimated to an entirely new Wesleyan, Anabel, Mary, and their third friend, Lila, spent the month securing a lease on a house in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and lining up jobs in the area. Anabel’s final month at home in Red Hook was spent doing many of the same things she had been doing all summer: dog-walking, journaling, reading, spending time with her mom. Yet, somehow she began to emerge from summer’s depressive haze as she turned her focus to a new and exciting experience on her horizon.

Anabel recounts a period of hectic adjustment upon moving into the house with her new roommates, Mary Ahlstrom and Lila Blaustein, both Massachusetts natives themselves. “After spending so many months with just my mom and my brother, it was just such an energy shift that took time to get used to,” she recalls. Their new space was a historic three-bedroom hilltop home down the street from a Friendly’s. Surrounded by families with kids and minivans, the three girls eventually embraced an endearingly domestic livelihood.

As the leaves changed, a sort of rhythm emerged as the trio got used to their new life. Anabel threw herself into taking an online creative writing course through SUNY New Paltz, spending her mornings sitting out on their screened-in porch in Zoom class. Mary took up a job at a local children’s book warehouse, immersing herself in a sort of comfortingly mundane work. An afternoon ritual formed around feasting on the fresh baked goods and coffee brought back by Lila’s early morning shifts at a local cafe.

Weekends consisted of outings around the sprawling Pioneer Valley area, known for its rural beauty and distinctly progressive population. A Holyoke native, Mary showed Anabel and Lila around her favorite childhood spots. Sometimes they would throw small parties with another small group of Wesleyan students with whom they eventually formed a COVID-safe “pod.” Their house, however, seemed to be the heart of their experience, where they grew to relish in the comforts of domestic living. Communal TV time, cooking, and dance parties became staples of their daily lives.

A favorite memory of Anabel’s is their Halloween celebration, which entailed a group costume inspired by their recent Netflix obsession: “Emily in Paris.” Their kitchen walls reflected other relics of their quirky communal fixations that included a poster of Michael B. Jordan above the stove and an off-putting ad for kombucha torn out of a magazine in the foyer. Each crevice of the home filled in over the three months with colorful memories from a semester unlike any other.

Their experience came with its respective hardships, however, especially as the trio navigated COVID boundaries. Their newfound independence left them completely independent to make their own decisions for the first time in months. Anabel remembers a few small disputes over visiting friends and a budding relationship in their pod. Being off-campus was not necessarily a cure-all for the arduous negotiations of social distancing.

For Anabel, the experience was one of healing, growth, and reflection. She fulfilled a long-standing goal of starting therapy and cutting back on her smoking habits, allowing for new clarity on what she wanted from her Wesleyan experience. As the end of their lease approached, it was obvious to Anabel that she wanted to resume being a full-time student. The decision unfolded similarly for the other two, who decided moving back on-campus made the most sense financially and academically.  Above all, Anabel recalls, it “just felt right” to come back to the campus they had slowly grown to miss.

Sitting atop her new Twin XL bed, Anabel surveys her new single in Lotus House. Her belongings have begun to settle into the new space she calls home. A jewelry box with a hand-painted purple werewolf that was once perched on the girls’ “Twilight” shrine now holds pens and pencils. “Being back just mostly feels like school,” she says.

For Anabel, this is a welcome change, despite hiccups in acclimating to campus culture, an adjustment most of her classmates have already made. Her time off has offered her clarity in what she wants to major in, and her renewed academic energy has positively impacted her relationship with school. “Taking time off gave me the perspective to get more out of classes and dedicate myself more,” she says.

Five weeks into the fresh semester, she isn’t totally sold on being back, but each day the new normal grows on her slowly. Despite what she describes as a “meh” beginning to the semester, she is hopeful for things to get easier. A lot has changed on campus, but so has Anabel.

As Anabel finishes that thought, Mary and Lila burst into the room, coaxing Anabel to come downstairs and cook dinner with them. They excitedly tell each other about their days, and Mary shows off new jeans she got in the mail, posing in Anabel’s mirror.  On their agenda for the night is more meal-prepping, music-making, and movie-watching. As I follow them into the Lotus House kitchen something above the stove catches my eye: it’s Michael B. Jordan’s smiling face.

Talcove-Berko ’21: “Ski School”

The following essay was written by Sophie Talcove-Berko ’21 as an assignment for the Spring 2021 semester course Topics in Journalism: The Art and Craft of Journalistic Nonfiction

Speeding down the slopes at 20 miles per hour, Tammy Shine stopped to catch her breath and a glimpse of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. For a college senior at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, this was a drastically different start to the school morning from semesters past, frantically making coffee and rushing to class.

As COVID-19 surged this winter, college seniors from across the country faced an important decision: how to complete their college careers during an unprecedented pandemic. Some deferred, some returned, and some went remote.

At Wesleyan, students were given the option of an on-campus spring semester, as long as they abided by the rules. While students mostly acknowledge that these rules are effective and reasonable for a pandemic, they’re finding that pandemic restrictions have changed the academic and social experience at the school considerably. The rules for the spring semester include a mandatory two-week quarantine, twice-weekly COVID testing, mostly online classes, limited extracurricular activities, and restricted travel.

Administrators tried to replicate the success of the fall semester, when COVID tests yielded a 0.07% positivity rate for students and 0.13% for employees. The restrictions are even tighter this spring. While in the fall, students were allowed to travel within 25 miles of Wesleyan’s campus, travel this spring is limited to grocery stores and medical appointments within Middletown.

Shine, a senior at Wesleyan from Los Angeles, originally planned to return to Wesleyan this spring for her final semester of college. After spending winter break as a retail sales associate at Squaw Valley Ski Resort in Lake Tahoe, California, Shine reconsidered.

Every morning in January, Shine would step outside her lakefront apartment around 6 a.m., feeling the cool breeze and looking up in awe at the snow-covered mountains and their glistening reflection on the alpine lake. This was usually followed by an arduous half-hour of scraping snow off her rental car, working laboriously to unbury the car from a few feet of snow. Once Shine began the drive to the retail stores at Squaw Valley, she would be generously rewarded for the early wake-up call with a view of the pink illuminated ski and a bright yellow sun rising over the Sierra Nevada mountains.

After a month working at Squaw Valley, Shine began to reconsider whether returning to Wesleyan was the best decision. While it was her final chance to live with her college friends on campus, she found the mountains rejuvenating for the mind, body, and soul. Reflecting on the fall semester, which Shine had spent on campus, she recalled feeling stuck and, at times, claustrophobic. While she appreciated the safety that a pandemic bubble brings, the COVID-19 restrictions resulted in a great deal of monotony. In late January, days before students were set to return, she made her final decision for the spring 2021 semester. Shine decided to remain in Lake Tahoe, pursuing an option that she felt would be more of a growing experience.

Shine is one of many college students who have decided to create an alternative college experience during these unique times. According to Wesleyan’s director of residential life, Frances Koerting, 2,446 students have chosen to be on-campus for the spring semester and 441 students have chosen to be remote learners. These numbers are almost identical to the number of on-campus and remote learners for the fall semester.

Off-campus college housing “bubbles” have risen in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the options limited to remaining at home with one’s family or being largely restricted to one’s dorm room on campus, groups of college students have rented out houses across the country. These differ in price and location, ranging from Hawaii to Montana and expensive to cheap.

While in the fall, Shine would spend the majority of her time within her living space, an average spring semester day begins on a ski lift. Shine has ditched her dorm-room workout and become a novice snowboarder, shredding down the slopes. Following a morning run at the ski resort, Shine will spend a couple of hours working at the retail stores before retreating to the back rooms of the resort for a virtual class.

Last semester felt very static. In Lake Tahoe, Shine has regained her busy, dynamic lifestyle. However, Shine noted that the academic experience is considerably different as a remote learner in Lake Tahoe. She feels a lot less motivation. She Zooms into her classes from a storage room in the retail shops. Wifi access is spotty, and she finds it a lot harder to sit down and complete her work in this new environment. While she is no longer living within a college community, she lives with two friends from L.A., which has made the adjustment to her new “campus” a lot easier.

Shine said that Wesleyan never felt like the “typical college experience.” So, while she is experiencing an unusual final semester, it does not feel completely out of place. She is taking the experience for what it is, day by day. Growing up, Shine spent every summer in nature, resulting in a lifelong love for the natural world. The mountains have felt like a nice change of pace. As for the impact of going from a suburban college town to living in the mountains, Shine said, “There are all these man-made evils happening right now and it’s really nice to be constantly reminded that there is a lot of beauty in the world…things can be beautiful: you just have to know where to look.”

Shao ’23: “A Birth of Love in the Midst of the Pandemic”

The following essay was written by Mabel Shao ’23 as an assignment for the Spring 2021 semester course Topics in Journalism: The Art and Craft of Journalistic Nonfiction

“Goodnight, Leon,” Zara says, as she brings the microphone of her iPhone close to her mouth.

It is a little past noon in Ningbo, China. Zara has just finished lunch with her friend at a steamed bun restaurant and is walking home. Leon, Zara’s boyfriend, is preparing for bed in his single dorm room at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Beside Leon’s XL twin bed, his Amazon Alexa glows and says “Goodnight, Leon.” Leon knows the message came from Zara, who occasionally prompts Alexa to bring little surprises to him and make both of them feel a little more connected.

Zara and Leon are Wesleyan students in the second semester of their sophomore year. One is remote; the other is on campus. One is coping with the hardships of distance learning; the other is dealing with the loneliness and homesickness of being more than 10,000 kilometers from home. One has a craving for the Mongolian stir-fry, the omelet brunch, and the pasta bar at Usdan, the main on-campus cafeteria; the other thinks of mom’s cooking whenever he bites into the cold sandwich that he buys from PiCafe, an on-campus eatery. One misses campus life; the other pines for the warm family life of home. Sometimes they wish they could swap lives. And they share a common hope: to see each other in person for the first time since their relationship began.

Zara and Leon were just friends when COVID-19 hit the nation in March 2020 and Wesleyan decided to close its campus. They faced a hard choice between returning home and staying in Middletown. Returning home might expose them to higher risks of contracting the virus, either during the multi-stop flight or the required 14-day quarantine in a government-controlled hotel room. They would starve through the 15-hour flight for fear of taking off the life-saving N95 mask. The trip might overwhelm them with significant fatigue and anxiety while online classes were still in session. Yet, staying on campus also meant isolation, uncertainty about the pandemic, and fear of being away from home during this difficult time.

In the end, they made different choices: Zara made the long and exhausting trip home to Ningbo, China, while Leon decided to stay on campus, one in a small colony of international students marooned in Middletown.

At the time, they only knew each other as classmates in Computer Science I and Multivariable Calculus. Inside and outside class, through face-to-face conversations and texting, they discussed the fundamental theorems of calculus, the derivatives, and the integrals. They coded and debugged together.

Zara thought Leon was a great classmate, kind, genuine, easy to talk to, and always willing to help. But she thought nothing beyond that. “Absolutely no affection at that point,” said Zara, quite firmly.

But when Zara grew interested in Hashcode, an international programming competition organized by Google, the first person who came into her mind was Leon. Leon agreed to team up with Zara, feeling ready to meet her outside of the classrooms for the first time.

Over the course of the competition, they met on the second floor of the Science Library, sitting across desks and quietly discussing codes while Zara sipped iced coffee from PiCafe downstairs. To students walking by, Zara and Leon might have looked like a couple out on a study date. In fact, Zara and Leon were a not-yet-couple. They didn’t yet know each other’s personality, family, likes, and dislikes nearly so well as they knew each other’s coding habits. But that would soon change.

Then, just as the temperature between Zara and Leon finally started heating up, COVID hit.

Everything went virtual. Every aspect of Zara’s and Leon’s and everybody else’s lives was disrupted and relocated. Discussions in the classrooms, laughter in the dining hall, cheering on the basketball court, alternately quiet and loud nights in the dorm — all of it went missing. Nearly everything on the Wesleyan campus came to feel unreal and disordered. But the connection between Zara and Leon moved in the other direction. It became more heartfelt, true, and close.

Before Zara noticed it, she was chatting with Leon on WeChat, a Chinese social media app, every day. It became so natural that she couldn’t even remember when they had started the routine. She wondered one day and checked the messaging history between her and Leon. It turns out that their daily chatting started in September 2020, approximately five months after she returned to China.

Zara wasn’t sure how the focus of their conversations transformed from “things in calculus and coding” to “things in life.” She found herself enjoying hearing Leon share his life on campus: how he went through quarantine, got tested for COVID twice a week, kept safe social distances during in-person classes, and how he worked as an IT assistant. Zara shared her life as a remote student: how she had to stay up until 5 a.m. to take her Politics class twice a week, how COVID restrictions were continually lifted in her city, and her internship at an advertising agency in Shanghai.

Time might have been a catalyst for their relationship, but Zara thinks distance and physical separation played a role, as well. “It’s only when two lovers are separated that they know if they actually love each other,” Zara said, after pausing to think. Zara had been keeping track of her own feelings toward Leon, but she decided to not tell anyone except her mother. She didn’t want to make the relationship public to her friends until she was sure exactly what sort of love bound this relationship — romantic love, or friendship love,

Zara had rehearsed in her mind how she would react if Leon one day asked her to be his girlfriend. When the moment came, on December 24, 2020, she was prepared.

On that day, just like every other day in the prior three months, Leon told Zara his plan for the day. He and a few other Chinese students planned to cook dinner together to celebrate Christmas Eve, a holiday that is untraditional for them but still provides a good excuse to enjoy themselves after a long semester.

They took an Uber to Trader Joe’s to buy ingredients. Zara made a list of Trader Joe’s products that she loves: the Kung Pao chicken, the blueberry and peach yogurt, the mochi ice cream, the sparkling wine. Leon took Zara’s list and found every item in the store. The exercise gave him a feeling of intimacy with Zara on this special day.

After dinner, his morale buoyed by a few glasses of Zara’s favorite wine, Leon opened the chat box between him and Zara, suddenly realizing how much they had shared and how their tone of voice changed from flat to upbeat to romantic over the last four months. It would have taken him the entire night to scroll up to the time when they had only talked about calculus and computer science. His heart pounding in his ear, Leon typed and sent his request to Zara.

Zara, surprised but also prepared, typed, “Sure, let’s give it a try.”

As Zara’s right thumb landed on the green “send” icon on the lower right corner of her screen, she felt a muddle of feelings: cheerfulness, excitement, nervousness, and an uncertainty of how their relationship would unfold under the new normal brought by the pandemic.

Zara was ready. Do what comes naturally, she reassured herself. Try by not trying. “I sometimes find it quite unbelievable that Leon and I are now in a relationship,” she said. “We didn’t try hard on anything. It all happened naturally.”

On Valentine’s Day 2021, almost two months into their romantic relationship, Leon bought Zara a HomePod, a speaker with AI functions from Apple, as a gift. Now, he can command this technology to say “Goodnight” to Zara, too.

Montague ’21: “A Tin Can of Friendship Beans: Creating A Community for Kids in the Age of Virtual Learning”

The following essay was written by Chapin Montague ’21 as an assignment for the Spring 2021 semester course Topics in Journalism: The Art and Craft of Journalistic Nonfiction

When Michayla Robertson-Pine ’22 returned to her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts in March after receiving Wesleyan University’s “Do Not Return” email, a message all too familiar to college students across the country, she knew she couldn’t sit around and do nothing. So she teamed up with her friend Tessa Levenstein, an Amherst College student, to create an after-school Harry Potter book club for children of Amherst professors. After a few Zoom sessions, they realized that while witchcraft and wizardry were an enticing draw for kids, what they really needed was a space to play, a fix that would normally come from recess and play dates but was deemed disposable in the new reality of virtual learning.

Robertson-Pine and Levenstein adapted. They hosted a TriWizard Tournament via Zoom–an iconic competition drawn from the Harry Potter universe. Robertson-Pine manufactured a goblet out of a Kiddush cup and candle, and the kids created their own imaginary academies of magic under the ice in Antarctica or in a treehouse hidden deep in the forest. They hosted trivia nights and scavenger hunts, asking kids to look for something they would find in Dumbledore’s office. The kids loved it, and their parents gained a much-needed respite from the chaos of early quarantine.

Then, things got serious. Word spread among parents that kids were falling behind in math, especially concerning considering data predicting that students could lose months of math instruction in the 2020-2021 school year. Kids also became sounding boards for their parents’ anxieties. They were nervous and frustrated about having to stare at screens all day and could not fathom getting through a 9 a.m.-4 p.m. school day alone in their rooms on Zoom. So, Robertson-Pine and Levenstein got serious, too.

They added three new members to their team — Vanderbilt student Natalie Elliot, UMass Amherst student Rafael DePillis, and Wesleyan student Elizabeth (Liz) Woolford ’22—and started a Google folder titled “Let’s Start a School.” From there, the group came up with lesson plans focusing on everything from pre-algebra to movie-making to a full-blown NASA mission simulation. They added tutoring sessions and additional clubs for crafting and baking. They applied for a grant, created a website, made a budget, and launched an advertising campaign. They decided on tuition—$185 for three weeks—but offered a pay-what-you-can option for parents who were having trouble making ends meet. And so, Tin Can Learners was born—a virtual after-school program for the kids of Amherst, Massachusetts, dedicated to building a virtual, after-school learning community for kids.

To unpack the world of Tin Can Learners is to fall down a rabbit hole of chaotic genius and layers of lore that makes you wish you were part of the gang. The average day for a student may consist of concocting a field guide for a one-of-a-kind mythical creature in Homegrown Naturalists, building a shot list for the Tin Can Film Festival: Murder Mystery production, or experimenting with family recipes with the Cook Book! course. The instructors, in the words of one parent, are young enough to feel more like an older sibling than a teacher. Their enthusiasm matches the kids’ own level of imagination and wonder, showcased best in the final project of the Music VideOh! course where instructors Woolford and Robertson-Pine go all out with their students in a choreographed performance featuring Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold.” Complete with lip-syncing, funky hats, and hairbrush mics, it was like one long virtual slumber party you never want to end.

Each six-week session ends with the long-anticipated showcase—a virtual exhibition for parents to see the work their kids have created and for the students to celebrate. Many students were Tin Can veterans from the early days of Harry Potter, and for them, the showcase was the event of the season.

Emceed by the instructors, these nights were jam-packed with easter eggs of Tin Can lore. There was King Ga Zorp A Zorp, an alien known for abducting instructors and demanding student artwork as ransom; the elusive founder of Tin Can, Old Man Roger Cannery; and, of course, the iconic friendship beans taped to the wall that held everything together. Within a year that had taken so much from them, these kids took ownership over these rituals. In Woolford’s words, it became their thing.

Now, Woolford and Robertson-Pine sit on the floor of Woolford’s room in their wood frame. They decided to come back to campus in-person this semester, and they’re still trying to find words for how they feel about it, but it’s clear they really miss their students.

“Adults on Zoom are just so boring,” says Robertson-Pine before they both assumed the mannequin-esque position of every virtual college student– muted, sporting a sulky face, and slouching.

The Tin Can kids never showed up to class muted with the camera off; they came in blabbering, peering into the lens like a telescope, constantly climbing on desks and peering out from behind walls. They spammed the chat with emojis, came to class dressed as wizards because it was their birthday, and had an ongoing prank of renaming each other in the chats. They acted like kids, and kids are so much more fun.

But Woolford and Robertson-Pine also recognize that Tin Can had to end after their final session this past winter. Eventually, their students had the opportunity to do in-person classes, soccer practices, and tae kwon do in parking lots. They got to actually be together, albeit outside, masked, and distant after the time warp of online school.

“We made the internet the best that it could be for kids,” says Woolford. “In the beginning, some parents told us it was the reason their kid got up in the morning, and now, there’s something better out there.”

And yet, for the instructors, a lot of these kids only ever existed online, which made for bizarre goodbyes. There was no big cleanup, no meeting the parents during pickup, no real closure. Instead, like so many virtual relationships of this past year, these tiny humans they had come to care for blipped out of their lives as quickly as they had Zoomed in. Unlike the fleeting memories of camp, however, virtual learning yielded a vault of Tin Can archives. Now, Woolford and Robertson-Pine are able to marvel at their students’ homemade movies, comics, coding games, and yes, the illustrious Katy Perry music video, whenever adult Zoom just isn’t cutting it.

Chaiban ’22: “COVID Cabin Fever”

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.