SENIOR YEAR IN A PANDEMIC - Long Wharf Theatre

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SENIOR YEAR IN A PANDEMIC

BY SAMMY WESTFALL

I spent most of my junior year editing the Yale Daily News as editor in chief, from 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. every school night after classes ended in the late afternoon. School nights for me meant proofing news pages, answering readers’ emails and monitoring our News building on York Street along with the dozens of editors, writers, and staffers who passed through it each evening. Each night was marked with sounds of broadsheet pages printing, sighs when a design computer crashed, and editors’ arguments over ledes. I absolutely loved the job and it’s the reason I fell in love with journalism—but, as an inevitable factor of the time spent in the news building, most other aspects of my life took a hit. I had to find 15-minute sections in between classes or or past 2:00 a.m. to read my Urban Ethnography of Asia seminar chapters. I never once cooked with my house of six, I wasn’t making it to dinners with friends, and I had to miss most Yale-sponsored social events and traditions. I had weekends free, but those were spent making up for the homework hours I was missing the nights prior. I was growing in my experience and my love for journalism, but my junior year was dedicated almost completely to the News.

So, in anticipating the end of my editorship in September 2020, I spent hours and hours in the spring planning out what my senior year would look like. Realizing both that it was going to be my last few months on campus and that my junior year was necessarily not the most social year, I had enormous expectations and hopes for my final few months on campus. I made a Yale and New Haven bucket list. I decided I wanted to meet one new person every week. I told myself that I would listen and stay focused every minute of my last set of seminars and lectures. (The last goal, I make for myself every year, but it was different this time—I promise!)

In the middle of my junior year spring break, though, when Yale shut down for the rest of the week, and then for the rest of the school year, and then in July when the pandemic showed no signs of stopping as we enrolled for our virtual classes, I increasingly knew senior year wouldn’t be what I envisioned.

But, like everyone else in the world, caught off guard by the novel coronavirus, I made do.

College is said to be the best four years of your life, and senior year is when those four years reach their climax and then sentimental denouement.  But college—and senior year in particular—during a pandemic is different, and things aren’t tying up as neatly as a Shakespeare play. But college right now is different in the way that everything in the world is different right now. So, for us seniors, it is a matter of social and sentimental innovation—with a vital through line of public health awareness, consciousness, and necessary sacrifice.

Twice a week, I take a 20-minute walk from my off-campus apartment to my campus residential college, where I’m directed to a small, ventilated telephone-booth-like box where I self-administer a shallow nasal swab. As college students we are granted the privilege of this biweekly testing, and I’m careful to follow my mandatory Monday and Thursday schedule. Test results arrive in our school email inboxes twenty-four hours later, and though I know I’ve been careful to avoid putting myself in a position to contract the coronavirus, my heart beats fast each time I hit “View Test Results.”

Yale is operating on a hybrid model, meaning campus is primarily open, but almost every class (save for some classes like equipment-based science labs) is online. Seminars over Zoom were strange at first: My professors often have to navigate a few long seconds of silence—many of them have said it is easier to keep conversation going over a round classroom table instead of across  a two-dimensional screen full of discrete, sometimes freezing, framed faces. This makes sense. It’s easier for me to get distracted or to doze off listening to a lecture on Zoom. But like all students and teachers, we’ve not only become used to it, but have learned how to steer forward productive conversation despite virtual obstacles (including when our professor freezes mid-lecture)!

I try not to think about what senior year could have been like without the constant threat of a deadly virus. Sometimes, though, the stubborn part of my brain doesn’t let me forget that I’ll never experience many college traditions. This weekend was meant to be the loud and tension-filled Harvard-Yale football game. (I had never watched football coming into the United States for college from the Philippines, my home, but The Game is the one time it mattered a lot to me.) We said goodbye to fall festivals and the senior picnic. I save no hopes for having a graduation in person.

At the end of the day, these range from minor inconveniences to small changes that just took some getting used to. What was and continues to be the most difficult to navigate, is the air of paranoia and fear not just on campus, but of campus—balancing being back in New Haven and the risks every individual poses to the wider community. At best we are liabilities and at worst we are lethal vectors. My presence here in the United States was even a debated question among my family all summer. I seriously considered staying home in the Philippines for my senior year, taking classes virtually at 1 am to 5 am, so as to avoid the devastating state of the coronavirus in the United States. I have friends and family members doing that across the globe right now.

On campus, every small socially-distanced interaction now must be weighed on a scale of “Is it worth it?’” and often (and rightly!) becomes a group conversation. 

Our baseline system is the pod: the six of us who live in our off-campus house have mutually agreed to a base set of public health guidelines and restrictions that we can trust each other to respect. Outside of that group, seeing someone—with masks and outdoors, usually for a walk or a meal—becomes a wider question.

When the internet in the house is slow, I ask: Is it better to be indoors in a seemingly empty classroom building or outdoors on a campus lawn? Is it safe to pick up this coffee if the line is long? Is outdoor dining actually safe? Safety and paranoia merge into one, but that must be the case when making plans with a friend entails a public health risk. Before I schedule a meeting with a personal essay writing partner or with a close friend living on-campus, I have to ask my housemates if they are comfortable with my doing so.  Performing mental calculus for each social interaction is a strange and not great way to think about your friends— but it’s necessary for everything we’re doing now.

The number of cases at Yale for so long—almost two months—comprised a string of 0s and 1s, with a sporadic 2 on a bad day. It completely helped that the state of Connecticut did a fine job at containing the virus. So too did Yale: the college instituted the mandatory twice weekly testing system—which spits out results within 24 hours—and an elaborate contact tracing system which sees that anyone who tests positive will almost immediately receive a phone call from a Yale health official who will ask them about all the contacts they’ve come close to within the last few days. This process has been initiated with several people I know, and all of them said that the system worked like clockwork and contained the viral spread immediately. 

That system, of course, breaks down when people are not completely honest with their contact tracing lists—and this happened toward the end of the year. Cases shot up, and in the week right before Thanksgiving break, there were twenty-five student cases. In November, for the first time, two residential college buildings were completely quarantined. Yale officials called for all the residential college on-campus students to refrain from leaving their housing building unnecessarily. The college was doing so well for so long, and while I don’t think mini-outbreaks were inevitable, they did not surprise me. 

If I let myself, I can feel sad about what was lost about senior year. I can think if I had just gone to college a year or two earlier, I could have avoided all of this and maybe cemented more friendships, or learned a little more in person, or became closer to a professor, or experienced all the things that a college senior experiences in movies. But obviously this is neither a positive nor a particularly productive way of thinking. And I do not allow myself to go there in my head. 

There is so much going on in the world with the pandemic: The still-rising, innumerable unnecessary deaths, all the political maneuvering and official incompetence, all the lack of sacrifice or lack of trust in medical officials that make the coronavirus stronger and more powerful. I don’t wish I could turn back time and graduate a little earlier. I wish this virus would disappear and never come back. And that all the lives that it took could be restored. And that for everyone who has suffered immense loss and pain through these difficult (in so many ways) months, we could turn back the clock for them. 

I can look around my cohort of students and think that maybe some cemented their passion for medicine or public health or fixing structural inequalities or competent and caring governance as a result of watching this year and all its tragedies unfold. I am almost certain everyone has, from this pandemic, become a little more selfless, a little more innovative, a little more resilient, a little more caring. 

As an aspiring journalist, I’ve seen what good accountability and public service journalism can do after seeing the way some publications have reported on the pandemic, public health guidelines, and an indescribable collective sense of loss amidst a public health tragedy. 

I know I’ve lost out on some opportunities to meet new people, but I’ve become even closer to those I live with in a way I’m beyond grateful for. I miss in-person classes and I’ll be jumping at the opportunity to re-enter one if I get the chance, but I can’t help but think: Did I really used to make a 30-minute walk to a lecture hall and a 30-minute minute walk back for a 50-minute lecture? Or for a 20-minute meeting? With the five other students I do live with, we’ve found ways to innovate through friendship. I’ve been able to explore more of outdoor New Haven, albeit isolated, social-distanced, than I ever have. 

I went to East Rock for the first time. Isn’t it crazy that I live twenty minutes away from it, but have never been to East Rock Park? Only in September, on one of the most beautiful days, did I make the journey. And then I did again and again and again, and again just this last week. I to-go taste-tested every margherita pizza from Pepe’s, Sally’s, and Da Legna. My friends and I submitted little secret ballots that we counted up. I would tell you who won, but I’ll let you all figure that out for yourselves.

My family back home in the Philippines calls over FaceTime, and I’m excited to give them a big hug when a vaccine comes out.

I don’t exactly know if I will have a graduation ceremony this year. I watched my sister’s commencement in May 2020 over Zoom. In our living room we set up some homemade, scraped-together pennants and banners in the living room and dug up a knitted winter hat that doubled as a grad cap. We YouTube searched Pomp and Circumstance and presented a printed-out-on-A4-printer-paper college diploma. I’m beyond ready to do the same for my graduation, and I’m excited.


Sammy Westfall is a Yale senior majoring in Political Science and History. She served as the editor of the Yale Daily News for the 2019/20 academic year.

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