March 11th, 2020: three days until the long-awaited spring break. I arrived to campus feeling a little off, and not just because of the air of weightlessness and excitement that fills college classrooms right before break. Rumors had been buzzing around that Dr. Tripathi might make an announcement about campus closing after spring break, leaving us all in limbo.
No one knew what would happen for sure; this so-called coronavirus that had been circulating in other areas still seemed foreign to most UB students. Not too long before I had been sitting in Talbert Hall reading an article about one Wuhan man’s experience of isolation during the city-wide lockdown, feeling sorry for those residents — albeit with a sense of emotional distance; the way you sometimes feel when you read about terrorist attacks or natural disasters happening on the other side of the world. But now, as I anxiously tracked the virus making its way through New York State, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were collectively on the brink of some sort of Orwellian nightmare.
Heading to my medieval history class, I skimmed the previous night’s readings, hoping to distract myself from my anxiety-riddled thoughts and jog my memory for what I assumed would be a normal lecture. I distinctly remember thinking about how much I loved being on campus every day, surrounded by a seemingly infinite amount of books, knowledge, creativity, and all that UB’s ginormous campus had to offer. (Funny how our brains have a way of torturing ourselves like that.)
I immediately felt the agitation in the room when I got to my seat. Everyone was restless waiting for the announcement — would we be coming back after spring break or not? How much stuff should we take home? When would we see our friends again?
It turns out we would get our answer not even fifteen minutes into our professor’s impassioned lecture on Froissart’s Chronicles. To our surprise, then-Governor Cuomo tweeted out his decision to shut down all SUNY schools before Dr. Tripathi even had the chance to make an announcement. Thanks to the girl behind me who had unabashedly been scrolling through her Twitter feed, we all received the news in the middle of the lecture.
Some in the class were shocked, others had guessed it, but the angst in the room was palpable. It was probably the closest I’ve ever felt to being in a movie. It all felt surreal — the fact that we weren’t coming back to campus, that there was a deadly respiratory virus soon to be floating in our midst (little did we know it was already there), that we would have online classes. It slowly started to click that this virus was no longer an abstract entity confined to our TV screens. It was now beginning to upend our own lives, too.
Our professor made an admirable attempt to finish the lecture, but it was hard to focus on anything other than the looming catastrophe — not just the public health one, but the academic one, too. In a moment of tangible frustration, he slid his lecture notes aside and lamented the challenge of redesigning a course for an online format, mid-semester, in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic (it seems unthinkable now, but at that point most of us had never even heard of Zoom). We spent the rest of the class collectively trying to process this strange situation. People aired their questions, concerns, and comments, to which our equally confused professor attempted to answer. Looking back, I think everyone appreciated the sense of camaraderie stemming from the fact that none of us had any idea what to expect or how to adjust to this new reality.
Leaving class and walking back to my car felt like a fever dream of sorts. On my long walk from Clemens Hall to the Fronczak lot, there wasn’t a single person who wasn’t talking about the situation at hand. The hallways buzzed with excitement, confusion, fear, euphoria and disbelief. The nervous excitement was tangible; it was as if everyone was intoxicated by the drama and surrealness of it all. With so many unknowns, we couldn’t process the situation or even guess how it was going to play out. It was as exciting as it was unnerving.
In what has become one of my most distinct (and comical) memories from that day, I remember overhearing two girls having a discussion about how excited they were for what would be the lockdown. The novelty of not having to come to class, getting to sleep in, and just getting a break from the fast pace of academic life seemed exciting to them. Admittedly, I’d be lying if I said a part of me wasn’t looking forward to the rest I thought I would get, too (emphasis on thought — turns out it’s hard to feel peace during a global pandemic). I can’t help but wonder if they, like me, look back on their naivety and laugh.
To be fair, most of us thought we would be back on campus in a few weeks, or at worst, by the start of the next semester. No one could have comprehended how much our lives were going to be affected by this, and no one certainly could have guessed that almost a year and a half would pass before we were allowed to come back full-time. As juniors at the time, I know my friends and I had no idea that that week would be our last walking the halls of UB as undergraduate students.
If covid has taught me one thing, it’s to expect the unexpected.