On Tuesday, August 31st, I called Edmond while walking back from Smith’s Welcome Back Orientation to my rented apartment. I said over the phone “I feel very exhausted to be surrounded by so many people.”
I still vividly remember the last time I sat in a normal classroom. It was in March 2020, my last semester at Montgomery College (MC). I distinctly recall the urgent email asking students to not return to campus after spring break. I completed my last semester at MC from a study-desk in my room on Calvert Street and graduated as “the Honors Student of the Year” — all online. Since then, the world changed to remote learning because humanity has continued to face a deadly virus-Covid-19. At the time, I missed the normality of going to classes, raising my hand to ask questions, running into my classmates, going to office hours, eating with friends, and sitting with fellow students in the library. I terribly missed that normal life. Then, I got used to isolation.
In fall 2020, I began my studies at Smith College as a transfer student. Although I moved to live closer to campus, I took classes remotely. It was very difficult to study from home. There were times when I felt isolated and unmotivated to complete my responsibilities. But I learned to love isolation. I slowly embraced the slogan “We are in this together.” I sometimes woke up 5 minutes before class yet I still made it on time to Zoom in. I studied and worked remotely and mostly by myself for about 16 months counting from spring break 2020 until now. Now I have returned to in-person classes and it hasn’t been easy.
This semester, fall 2021, Smith decided to bring back about 2,400 students to campus, not to mention other staff and faculty members. The campus is a lot busier than I’ve ever seen it. Smities are walking all around campus, whether going to classes, heading to libraries, or passing by to grab coffee. Although I am heading into the third week of the semester, I have not yet settled down into an in-person learning environment. I don’t feel at ease sitting in a classroom with other students even though all of us including the instructor are wearing masks– and maybe all of us are fully vaccinated. Paying attention to lectures has become a new challenge when at times the instructor’s voice sounds mumbling behind the mask or the microphone is a little too loud. Raising my actual hand to ask questions has become a habit that I need to relearn: in zoom classes, I could easily raise my cartoon hand by clicking on a screen icon.
Now in class, most of the time, I am asked to repeat myself when I have a chance to share my thoughts in a discussion because it is not easy to speak to more than 20 people in an auditorium. Attending a class in an auditorium itself makes me feel a passive presence because the setting in the room creates an audience feeling while the instructors giving lectures on the stage resemble a performing environment.
Attending two classes a day with more than 30 students while wearing a mask feels very tiring. In all the indoor-study areas on campus, one must wear a mask. When I am not attending classes, I usually return to my study-desk at my rented apartment where I don’t have to wear a mask while reading or writing an essay. The quiet environment in my bedroom which used to make me feel isolated from studying alone has now become its opposite. Although office hours offer an option of meeting in person, I still choose to meet on zoom because I don’t have to wear a mask while sitting across from my Professors which I would need to do if I were to meet them in person. If I don’t have to go to work in the library or do research in the special collections, I choose to stay home to do my work. That way, I don’t need to interact with anyone. That way, I feel more comfortable and less anxious about possibly catching the new Delta-variant even though the chance of that is very low.
On one hand, I am finally getting to experience what it is like to be at Smith in the in-person learning environment. On the other hand, returning back to in-person interaction has created a new anxiety that I’d never would have never expected to happen to an extrovert like myself. I am hoping that soon, I can adapt myself back into this new in-person learning environment. I hope I will feel excited to meet new people and enthusiastic to hang out with friends for more than an hour. I have hope that I will get there because history has shown us that Humans are the most adaptable species on earth as Charles Darwin once said “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” But until then, if you are also feeling the way I feel, you are not alone. It is very challenging to strive in this current learning environment.