As someone who tends to be a fatalist, I realized on March 11th, 2020 that we likely would not have a graduation ceremony in May. I’m a graduate student at Clemson University, and have been looking forward to that milestone for at least two years. I had thought a cancelation might be on the horizon a few days earlier, at the Women’s Leadership Conference. Groups had pulled out, choosing to stay home for their safety. But on March 11th, at the packed dinner event in the student center, the fullness of the pandemic sunk in. Everyone was on edge. There were bottles of hand sanitizer between every dish. People did their best to stay six feet way from each other. I turned to a friend who was there with me and said, “I don’t think we’re coming back after spring break.” She thought I was blowing it out of proportion.
Preparation and Experience
Part of being a fatalist and a full-time, anxiety-ridden worst-caser is that you’re always prepared. I went to the grocery store that night, March 11th. By that Saturday, March 14th, I was fully self-isolating. My pantry and freezer were packed. It might have been a bit early to start- many of my friends were still going about their business. But my friends were still reluctant about cancelling our spring break trips, too. I knew we couldn’t do those. Eventually, most people I knew were self-isolating, too. We cancelled long-planned trips to Austin, Tybee and Asheville. Costly, especially on a graduate student budget.
Interestingly enough, I think I talked with friends more over my isolated spring break than I would have otherwise. Everyone got Zoom and, in the early days of quarantine, was excited to use it. I caught up with groups of old friends. I talked with fellow graduate students about what might come next. To be transparent, I did a lot of sleeping. I wasn’t doing much during the day- watching Netflix, cooking for something fun to do, maybe taking a walk alone- but every day by the time the sun set, I was wiped. Now, on day 63 of quarantining, I know that’s pretty normal. The mental weight of all of this is pretty heavy.
Here are some things that have happened so far in my days of self-quarantining: graduation was cancelled, as I guessed it would be; one of my students got a Fulbright scholarship and I couldn’t celebrate with her in person; another student got into graduate school at my alma mater and I couldn’t celebrate with her in person; 11 of the jobs I applied for decided to suspend their searches; the department I work for lost several million dollars; the university I work for lost several million more dollars; my sister, an emergency room social worker, has continuously been exposed to COVID-19 at work; my dad’s restaurant closed; my little brother found out he wouldn’t have a high school graduation or a college orientation.
Still, the effect that this has on me is minimal. The job search is harder. Things are a bit more emotional. But I have what I need. My job provides an apartment and food. Once a week, my friend and I drive to a locally owned restaurant in Greenville, South Carolina that does curbside orders. We get something good and eat our food more than six feet apart. In a time where so many of our conventions proved to be false, it turns out privilege still matters. Funnily enough, this has caused some of my friends and family to admit, finally, that they’re not so fond of capitalism.
Lessons for Student Affairs Practice
I should start by saying I don’t think it’s necessary, really, to learn anything profound at this specific time. This is a time of loss and grief. It is enough to survive, and to protect others by staying isolated. And, if forward action is important to you, it does not need to be linked to the profession. Tipping delivery drivers extra is a big deal, as is sewing masks at home to share with neighbors and essential workers. Ordering from local business instead of chains when possible is great, and it feels like being part of a community. That being said, I have started to think through lessons I’ve learned and will bring with me into my continued practice.
It’s common to hear student affairs professionals joke that there’s no such thing as a “typical day” in the field. We try to work ahead, to create normalcy in our schedules, but often find ourselves reacting to situations we could not have anticipated. One might think this makes us perfectly suited for unexpected world events such as pandemics. I’d argue that in this case the opposite is true. Successful quarantine is, it seems, reliant on routine. When you’re in your living space all day, alone or with roommates and family, routine can be the only thing that keeps you going. You might get up at a certain time to make sure your work gets done. A friend of mine tries to go outside at the same time each night to watch the sunset. I’ve enjoyed designating time to read each day, just for a break from my phone and the news.
By creating routines, we start to map this uncharted territory. This can be practice for approaching our work the same way, by making our own structure and meaning in the unknown. Adaptability is so important to our work; boundaries are, too. We can set a time to close the work laptop, to stop working if even just for long enough to complete a small, personal task mindfully. Nothing has improved my work quite like the few minutes I take each morning to make coffee- just make coffee, nothing else. I’m not on duty, so if my phone or laptop ping, whatever it is can wait for the five minutes it takes for the coffee to brew. We can take ownership of our own time even if we can’t control the events in the world.
We can also use this time to recognize that we can’t know the full stories of those around us. My experience through this quarantine is vastly different from the experiences of my friends, students, and the manys strangers whose stories I don’t even know. Our privileges are even more visible than before, including my own. Though I’ve worried about money during the quarantine, I have a safe place to sleep and I have work. I have health insurance and a healthy immune system. These things are not true for everyone.
Essential workers are obligated to repeated exposure to harm. Low-wage workers must use public transportation, putting them at risk of exposure. The elderly and immunocompromised are at higher risk and reliant on the social distancing practices of others. People experiencing homelessness have very limited choices in keeping themselves safe. To keep people safe, restaurants are closing dining rooms. As someone who has worked in the service industry, I know that missing even a couple days’ worth of tips can be catastrophic. And, as most of us know, not all students had safe homes to return to when campuses closed.
Even among those who have financial security, the emotional toll of marginalization continues, and has been exacerbated. While we’ve been alone, the video of the murder of Ahmaud Aubrey, a young black man, has surfaced. I am angry and upset, but cannot possibly feel the same compound trauma experienced by many black Americans upon seeing the news and video of yet another racially-motivated death. To experience this again – this time in isolation – is something that I as a white person cannot imagine. It’s an important narrative I continue to seek to learn about, to read more about from black writers who choose to share, and to examine and reflect on inform my future advocacy and activism.
Knowledge of these inequities should not leave our minds as we find our new normal post-quarantine. COVID-19 did not create these inequities; it simply illuminated them in new ways. This may allow us to consider disparities more frequently and thoroughly in our work. If we react appropriately, it could be an experience that helps us imagine pathways towards a more equitable future in higher education.
We are, for the most part, doing the best we can. There is no perfect, but there is plenty of learning. We are more reliant on our communities and our neighbors than before- for our own safety and financial security, to have our basic needs fulfilled, and for emotional connection. A few weeks ago, my office had a Zoom “happy hour.” Except when all the graduate students joined the chat, our supervisors were playing Pomp and Circumstance and wearing their graduation garb. They screenshared a picture of our university’s president on the graduation stage. They called our names one by one and had us “virtually shake his hand,” adding “M. Ed.” to our Zoom display names. It was something small but meaningful, a graduation we didn’t think we’d get.
It’s amazing the lengths we go through to be together at a time when that simple togetherness is harder than ever. When this is all over, our world will be different. I hope that’s something we bring with us – being here with and for each other as friends, colleagues, supervisors, advisors, and community – even from great distances.
Margaret Potter is a graduate student in the Counselor Education: Student Affairs program at Clemson University. She graduates this May. She has a B.A. in English Literature from Florida State University.