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California college students cancelled their housing contracts and left their dorms en masse following the shift to online classes and statewide lockdown caused by the coronavirus. But at the University of California at Berkeley, several hundred stayed on campus, either because they couldn’t afford to make it home, did not have a home to go to or were afraid of exposing themselves or loved ones to the virus. I was one of them.
Personally, I’d rather wait it out here than risk exposing my family. The Bay Area was an early hotspot for the coronavirus, and there are reports that many individuals are asymptomatic. My brother has cancer, which compromises his immune system and leaves him especially vulnerable to the virus. My mom is pushing 60. I don’t want to be the one who puts their health in danger.
But dorm life in the time of La Rona can wear on you. Concentrating in class takes so much effort, and remembering to complete assignments or even attend class is more difficult than it’s ever been. When my editor at the CalMatters College Journalism Network suggested I document my experiences, I thought it would be a good way to process them. Here’s my diary, with photos I took along the way.
A Nearly Empty Campus: March 13 – March 22
It’s strange to see the streets of Berkeley so empty of students at noon on a weekday.
After Alameda County issued a lockdown order, students flocked over to Bear Market — a convenience store connected to one of our dining halls — and emptied the shelves of milk, cereal, juice, microwavable dinners and candy.
Staff closed one bathroom in the hallway of my residence hall, along with the social lounge and the state-of-the-art fitness center. That’s unfortunate — If we’re going to be inside, we might as well exercise. But of course, gyms are a cesspool of germs and sweat.
The food pantry, though, is still operating. When I visited, the line stretched to the outside, and volunteers made sure to remind us to maintain six feet between us as we waited for cereal, water, spices, rice, and pasta.
One bookstore near campus caught my eye with its window display of books: “FLU: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918,” “Life Without Disease,” “Outbreak Culture,” “Unprepared,” and “Deadly Companions.” Touché, Berkeley bookstore.
Berkeley residents have a nice sense of humor. On my social-distancing walk (which I will try to do more often to fend off stir-craziness), I saw that our lovely sculptures on campus donned masks. I am exploring my campus and finding new paths and alcoves to marvel at, but it makes me feel uneasy to see students moving out of the dorms whenever I go outside, a reminder that things aren’t normal. The dorms are becoming quieter. Am I wrong to stay here? How many of us are left?
I saw a student having his graduation photos taken. The celebration does not stop because of a pandemic! Many of us are worried that our graduations may be cancelled or moved online. First-generation students are upset that they may not be able to share this day with their families. Personally, I am upset about the anticlimactic ending to my university career. I was in community college for about four years. When I receive my degree this summer, I will be 25. Seven years of undergrad and no big ceremony? Yeah, it feels like a letdown.
I forgot to attend class one day this week — d’oh! It’s harder to remember to go to class when you don’t actually have to go anywhere.
The New Normal: March 22 – April 3
The dining hall has switched to grab-and-go lunch and dinner bags for the week of spring break. Food is arranged in a half-moon setup on three tables. You pick up an empty brown paper bag, add a sandwich and select your fruit of choice: bananas or oranges? Then you can choose whether or not you want a bag of Lays. I do not like Lays, but I take a bag anyway because what if I never get any other food ever again?
On my way to the bathroom in my dorm, I see a notice that staff will enter my room to determine if it’s occupied. There is hardly any movement on this floor, and the lights, on motion sensors, are always dim now when I enter the hallway.
It reminds me of the movie “The Shining” — Jack Nicholson going slowly crazy in an empty hotel. This dorm building isn’t haunted, but the walls are so thin that some creaks sound like ghosts playing ping pong.
On the Sunday of our spring break, I hear a girl having coughing fits. I know some people went on vacation during the break, and I can’t help but be a little bit angry as I wonder if they are putting us all at risk. Then again, people on the floor might hear my asthmatic coughing fits at night and think the same about me.
This week, I packed some items that I will not likely use within the next several weeks. Flats, loafers, dress pants, nicer tops — basically anything that is not sneakers and sweats goes to the back of the closet.
Now that classes are back in session, I need to actually remember to attend them. I frequently experience brain fog that I believe is due to cabin fever. UC Berkeley has officially switched to pass / no pass grading, a great relief because I am not keeping up with the material.
A lot of internships, fellowships and jobs that I applied to are being cancelled. The job market never looked promising; now it looks worse.
When I look outside my window at night, to the left I see the lit-up bell tower. On the right, I see Unit 3, a neighboring residence hall. Every night, I count the illuminated windows and think about the students who are still here.
School Daze: April 4 – April 20
“Alexa, what is 478 minus 165 divided by 8?” I ask Alexa a variation of this question nearly every day as I calculate my daily goals for my work-study job.
Before COVID-19 happened, I worked as an assistant at the Berkeley Art Museum/ Pacific Film Archive. Things suddenly ended, and I did not have the opportunity to say goodbye and distribute my trademark chicken-scratch thank-you notes.
My boss, who is very understanding, has given me a job I can do from my dorm: call almost 500 people and thank them for being BAMPFA members. I make the calls in between studying, doing virtual job interviews, and conducting interviews for news stories.
It’s a lot of electronic communication for someone with social anxiety, but the more people I call, the more comfortable I get. Sometimes, they tell me they are touched by my call, a sweet moment to break up the anxious and busy day.
On the other hand, the brain fog is worse and I am too far behind in my classes to catch up. Sometimes, I log in to my Zoom meeting and mute everything while I work on other projects. I no longer read the class material; instead, I play the audiobooks as I work on other classwork. My hope is that some information will subconsciously stick even though I am not listening.
I emailed one English professor and told her that I can’t keep up with her class. I am a novel behind, and I have not been posting in the weekly discussion sections. Before our scheduled meeting, she emailed me and said she understands that students have a lot going on. On our call, we talked about my post-graduation plans, and she reassured me that I am doing fine in class. I just need to read one novel. She said students often feel as though they are failing when they are not getting A’s. It was reassuring to speak with her, and I wanted her to know that my lack of participation in class was not due to a lack of interest. Actually, it’s probably my favorite class this semester.
Why is the weather so pleasant during the pandemic? It makes me think of all the outdoor socializing we’re no longer able to enjoy.
The Latino graduation has been cancelled due to COVID-19 — not surprising, but still disappointing. To be frank, this was the only graduation ceremony I was going to attend. Two people of your choosing walk the stage with you when you receive your diploma. My mom and dad would have walked with me. Someone would have cried.
Back at home, my mother texts me to say that my brother is paranoid, asking that she take a shower and immediately wash her clothes after she comes home from work cleaning houses. My brother and I don’t like that she’s doing a job that puts her at risk, but we understand that she feels like she has no other choice. I wish I could take care of them.
I’ve learned that of the 777 students who lived in my residence hall, only about 130 remain. On a trip to the laundry room, two students waited for me to be finished before they entered. I know they are being cautious and following social distancing guidelines, but why did it strike me as snobby? I look at others the same way: I don’t want them near me right now. Everyone is a potential hazard.
At the Crossroads dining hall, I spoke with a worker who told me that before coronavirus, 1,500 to 2,000 students filled the dining hall for lunch and dinner. Now, they have only a little over 100 students per day.
He said the cooks are proud of the food they make. It makes me sad that so many students complain about the food. It really is not bad! The pizza is better than a lot of local Berkeley places. (Come @ me.)
I also did something selfish. I went to Whole Foods and bought a cake for myself to celebrate a dream job offer: a Hearst Newspapers reporting fellowship that starts at the San Francisco Chronicle this fall.
The End in Sight? April 21 – May 10
I woke up with a terrible headache and accidentally dropped the laptop that the university lent me. Now the cursor doesn’t work. No laptop now, but I will also have to pay for it. Great.
In online classes, the Zoom breakout rooms are intended to produce more intimate engagement, but I have always just muted myself and turned off my video. Now, I see everyone else doing the same. It’s like most people just can’t be bothered to put in the effort. So we just wait until the professor allows us back into the main class. These five minutes are the longest.
It is sad that I just want to do the bare minimum. I used to like school. On the bright side, this is the last week of instruction. It’s almost over.
Apparently, one other person is still in my hall. They are very quiet. I am not. I’m sorry Tyler, if that’s your name, for being loud during my phone calls and for blasting reruns of “The Good Place” and playing Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” — these are my happy media.
Because it is near the end, I feel a bit unhinged. When I go to the bathroom, I end up leaving my keys on surfaces there. I wash my hands for 20 seconds with soap and scalding hot water. Then I wash my keys, and take hand sanitizer from the dispenser for both my hands and keys. The lowest point for me this semester might have been when I spent half an hour under the hand sanitizer dispenser filling up my own bottle with that elusive liquid, jumping at the slightest sound of people approaching.
At the last session of my American Studies class, professor Jon Winet put on a graduation cap and gave us some final words to send us on our way. He spoke about how wild and “unprecedented” this semester has been. I giggled at the silliness of the cap, but it was a thoughtful gesture. If I don’t attend any other graduation ceremony this year, at least I’ll have this.
I’ve asked my dad to drive up to Berkeley and take me back home to Los Angeles. I am anxious about going home. What if I’m unknowingly carrying the virus? My brother wants me to isolate before I come back down, but I don’t know how successfully I’ll do that if I need to get food from the dining hall every other day. I think those trips have kept me sane.
I’ll also miss the privacy I get by being in this dorm. I’ll be sharing a room with my mother again back home. The TV will always be on and my brother will be in the living room. I don’t know where I’ll get a quiet place to work. I wish I could stay here until all of this is over, but we don’t know when that will be.
More than anything, the novel coronavirus made me regret not completing school sooner. But I am also grateful to have experienced all of this through the perspective of a college student, and to be graduating with an amazing job lined up.
The journalism job market was already on shaky ground, and media outlets that were hanging by a thread have been destroyed by COVID-19. Many graduating students don’t have any prospects, not because they aren’t capable or talented, but because employers don’t have the means to hire amid budget cuts and layoffs.
Scary headlines proclaim this economic crisis to be worse than the 2008 recession, and from a student point of view, I agree. At least the graduating classes in the late 2000s could attend their ceremony in person.
Arredondo is a fellow with CalMatters’ College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists around the state. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.