by Ryan Konrad
photography by Brady Keegan
My hands were shaking. Sweat, always a pain in the hot sun, began to collect on my forehead like a crown of stress. My mask was suddenly too tight, and had already shifted under my neck, adding claustrophobia to my stress. First days on campus aren’t usually easy, but a first day on campus after one of the most tumultuous years in modern history is something completely different.
To be back on the University of La Verne campus, at times, feels fleeting. COVID-19 looms, as any given week could see campus close once again, throwing students and faculty back into a limbo, where the days blur, and the power of classroom instruction is lost. The long running joke, perhaps observation more than ever, claims the underclassmen don’t know how to act. “They’re high school sophomores who missed their junior year drama,” says one friend. If fully living for today is in, it certainly shows. Fairs, concerts and festivals, while taking precautions for the time being, plan to return to full glory if they haven’t already.
On ULV’s campus, there is little to suggest that COVID pushed students away for a year and a half, save for masks and the occasional exposure email from the University.
After a year and a half of isolation, there is understandably little time to waste. Yet, it contradicts.
For a year and a half, I felt I did very little. I fell in and out of routines, and a lack of sustainable hobbies kept my days very open and repetitive. Classes were detached from my day and remote in all senses of the term. I am awful at texting, so contact was minimal. At the same time, I was involved. I took on positions in my organizations—becoming a senator for the Associated Students of the University of La Verne and treasurer for Phi Delta Theta—which admittedly gave me routine and, dare I say, purpose during the year and a half.
Yet, perhaps the harshest part of my experience in lockdown was the sheer distance. The pandemic had forced me to return home to Chicago, far away from college friends and stuck with a time difference that wasn’t as dramatic as Qatar, but just personally irritating enough to throw off my schedule. Technically, there were no morning classes, as all classes were two hours ahead of California, which in turn made my afternoon classes night classes. For a year and a half, it seemed like life was on pause, with me sitting in a waiting place. Waiting for school to start. Waiting for campus to reopen. Waiting for COVID to subside. In a suspension of time, can someone change regardless of stimulation?
My story begins March 13, 2020. The University of La Verne sent out an email that directed us to pack up and leave campus. What followed were a culmination of directives and constantly changing plans. I was naive, unfazed and believed that we would be back soon. To me, the sudden urgency of COVID-19 would leave as soon as it came. So, I moved out of my dorm, first to Pasadena, then to Denver, and finally to my home in Chicago, all the while holding the firm belief that next fall would be in person.
The first element of the five stages of grief is denial. It’s a feeling that is more subconscious than not, and more passive than active. That spring and summer in 2020, everything was temporary. Why worry about putting away luggage if I’m going to use it in August? Or why look for a job if I’m going to leave soon? What other posters should I put in my dorm this fall? Whom am I going to room with? So, I waited that spring and summer, expecting to come back in fall. It didn’t come to pass in July, when the University announced that the academic year would begin completely online. If spring were the trial run for grief, the coming school year was the full package.
As the new school year began, the situation was different. I was not entirely in denial, as my online classes, if only for a moment, reinvigorated a routine. We all—students and teachers—had at least somewhat adjusted to online classes, so it was smoother. Yet, the expectation that I would be on campus and in person by the end of the year remained. If the second stage of grief is anger, it was minimal. It was (and still is) my dream to get an apartment of my own, so I will admit that I was jealous to see classmates and friends living off campus and away from home. “How come I had to stay at home?” I asked myself. The desire to leave home ebbed and flowed, as the unrequited search for apartments in Los Angeles was more of an escape than a serious search. This, too, was a waiting game. As the semester churned on, the freshness of a new routine was lost. I was going through the motions and felt a disconnect. The search for an apartment I had no money for, and job boards for which I had no qualifications, spoke to the fact I was stuck; stuck in one place, with no job, and thousands of miles away from a place where I believed I could grow into my own person among friends. This was denied.
In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of “Sunset Boulevard,” the subject Norma Desmond is essentially a recluse. She had fame and attention, but the audience and screen left her. Or did she refuse to change, and by effect left it? For some reason, I was really drawn to this reclusive and elusive presence of something once great. Aside from having a very good soundtrack, I felt similarly. This was a recurring theme beyond “Sunset Boulevard,” the center of my denial. Things were good, but now they weren’t, and my inability to understand that made me feel stuck, looking for unattainable things. So, when the email came saying that the Spring 2021 Semester would also be online, the bargaining came as well. Should I live on campus, under strict COVID guidelines? Was I willing to sacrifice the freedom to go out, to stay with family, and have people to spend time with, just so I could live on campus? What was campus at that point either? It was a ghost town, with far and few people in between, all isolated and left to their own devices. I was willing to bargain that, but thanks to my mom, I was spared.
Spring came, and I fell out of routine before the semester even began. I had grown depressed, looking for the after of it all, not focusing on the here and now. I wasn’t paying attention in class, if I was going. I felt empty and alone, which began affecting how I saw myself coming out of this. Would I be the same person I was before, or the person I was now, or someone completely different, or would I remove myself in the name of hedonism and put on a face, not addressing the pain of the past year? Yet, the meaning of spring is rebirth and renewal. As conditions improved across the county, I saw hope. As conditions improved across the county, I saw hope, and with that, came acceptance.
I fell into a new routine. I made myself breakfast, which, as funny as it sounds, helped so much. For a moment, I had begun to make the most of this time. To quote Red in “Shawshank Redemption,” “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” In my own little corner of the world, I felt at ease, at peace. It was simple, a little interlude between the turmoil, and in retrospect, the fast hustle and bustle of my junior year. The spring and summer felt like a fresh start. Discussions about the fall with parents, school advisers, and friends brought me into the now, a sign that I would finally return. The summer began with working at a day camp, which is a story unto itself, but I also reconnected with my close friends, and life actually felt better.
It didn’t feel like I changed until I came back. Maybe it was the claustrophobia, the shaking hands, that served as a metaphor for the past year and a half, but standing in front of Vista Residence Hall seemed to be not the stimulation, but the culmination of it all, with my crossing that threshold from the person left in 2020 into the person I am now. ■