What felt like a distant reality for the past six months is finally here. In just few short weeks, students across the nation will be reckoning with school start-ups — whether that means cautiously moving into a new apartment on campus or logging onto Canvas from your hometown. As we gear up for the long-anticipated fall semester, inboxes are filled with campus-wide public health-advised guidelines for courses, clubs and sports, and I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic for a time before COVID-19 and masks. The optimist in me had hoped that summer would be the end of it, but now a corona-less future seems unimaginable — or at least until 2024. Working at a local grocery store this summer, I feel my current cynicism deepen with every customer that refuses to wear a mask during their 10-minute grocery runs despite Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s statewide orders — that, and seeing videos and Snapchat stories of “COVID-19 petri dish” parties and gatherings. 

I’d like to think my peers and I will be more responsible and considerate on campus, but higher risk of infection on college grounds across the country has already been deemed inevitable by a New York Times survey prior to the new academic year. Unfortunately, this is not all that surprising given the night-life crowds that took over Ann Arbor bars after Whitmer’s rescinding of the Safer at Home Order in June and Theta Chi’s careless summer kickback. Our image as the Leaders and the Best was rightfully scrutinized then, and it is bound to face even heavier surveillance during this experimental semester. 

As university students, it’s high time our increasingly expensive schooling be put to productive use this semester. According to a New York Times article, we are impulsive, risk-taking college students that study together, live together, party together and sleep together. And they’re right. As thousands of students are welcomed back, campuses will become what psychologists call a strong situation in which external environmental forces define the desirability of potential behaviors despite an individual’s personal tendencies and personality. This is especially true in cultural systems like that of universities where the norm is the often anti-intellectual nature of college student culture. The enduring coronavirus calls for a reevaluation of hookup culture and reckless school spirit, and we must be the ones at the forefront of this battle against amateur human tendency. 

While reopening campuses seems like a doomed endeavor from the beginning, we should take this opportunity to redefine our college experience apart from tailgating and Thursday night excursions — whether that means spending more time on Zoom meetings and nights in, or looking deeper into the flaws of our own college culture. Amid a global pandemic that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon, it’s time for a cultural reset, if you will — one that encompasses a little more accountability for our actions. The only question is: Are we up for the challenge? For everyone’s sake, I sure hope so. 

This quarantine period has woken America up to the glaring systemic issues of highly politicized public health initiatives, structural racism within every established institution and the collateral damage from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement policies. It would be for naught if we did not bring those issues back to our own schooling as many have done with the newly resurfaced review and reassessment petition for the University of Michigan’s Race and Ethnicity requirement as well as the student-led petition in response to ICE’s recent international student regulation. 

A return to normalcy is not necessarily in order. Rather, heavier precautions and inquiry imposed by administration and the student body is vital to ensure that we do not succumb to the normal we once knew. We must keep demanding more from our institution and from our peers as privileged pioneers of higher education. This fall will be extremely uncertain, but one thing is for sure: Public health must be a priority in the eyes of every individual on campus. In the best of scenarios, our collective efforts to reduce risk of infection in an environment that thrives on social interaction will still result in unforgiving blame for any campus-related cases. So don’t give our academic administration another reason to look down upon the fickle and instinctive college population. 

As future leaders, having experienced this hardship will make us more perceptive to better problem solving and policy making. We will have experienced the frustration and courage to let disproportionately unheard voices be heard as we pursue a new normal. This semester will be trying for us all, but I remain — perhaps naively — optimistic in the fact that we will come out of this as better change makers, six feet apart. There’s nothing I hate more than being disappointed, so wear a mask, wash your hands and don’t be a jerk.

Easheta Shah can be reached at shaheash@umich.edu.

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