The (really far) off-campus experience

Sunday, September 13, 2020 - 3:26pm

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Illustration by Maggie Wiebe

Last March, when the University announced that classes would be moved online, I was in a philosophy seminar, cramming with my classmates for the exam we had in five minutes. It was one of those classmates who read out the University’s official statement, the rest of us sitting in hushed silence, our notebooks lying open and forgotten in front of us. “Well,” another classmate said, “I guess we all get to go home now.”

“Not until you take your test,” my professor said and dropped a thick stack of exams on his desk.

***

When I think back now about my decision to return home last March, I don’t remember many specifics — other than how quickly I made the decision to leave Ann Arbor. As soon as I stepped outside my philosophy classroom, my midterm finished, I was pulling my phone out of my pocket and texting my dad: “Classes moved online. When can you come get me?”

The speed of my decision was made partially possible by my family’s proximity to Ann Arbor — my dad lives in Hamburg, less than half an hour away — but also by the fact that my “decision” barely felt like a decision at all. Everyone seemed to assume a shift to online learning would mean a shift off-campus. Around me, friends and classmates were making plans to return home and ride out the pandemic with family. It seemed like the smartest move, especially given that, at the time, we didn’t have specifics about how fatal or contagious the virus was. If I had any lingering resentment over having to take classes from my dad’s guest bedroom, it was softened by the knowledge that everyone else at Michigan was in the exact same boat as me.

When I decided not to return to campus this fall due to safety concerns, I expected my experience to be much the same. Yes, I would miss game days and Espresso Royale, doing homework in the Arb and browsing Literati, but everyone on campus would be missing those things with me. We were still, I thought, all in this together.

I was surprised by how wrong I was. In August, before the semester had even started, I began to feel isolated from the campus community. Though it didn’t bother me to have fully-remote classes, it was hard to see friends in Ann Arbor posting photos of each other posing and laughing. I FaceTimed in; it wasn’t the same. 

Public Health senior Scott Orlov expressed a similar sentiment in a phone interview with The Daily. Though he acknowledged that staying home had its benefits, he said, “One of my clubs is having potentially one or two in-person events, and obviously I can’t be there, which is really disappointing.” He added, “I think it’s different (than last semester) because a lot of people weren’t, like, socializing on campus like they are now. A lot of people were in the same situation I was, which was they just went home.”

Students who chose not to return to Ann Arbor this semester often had multiple reasons for doing so, and many were motivated by factors unrelated to safety. Some students I spoke with chose to remain home for financial reasons, reducing housing costs by staying for free with family or in areas with rents lower than Ann Arbor’s. Others were motivated by job availability or a desire to live in a less cramped space than your standard student apartment. But, regardless, the reason most often cited was health and safety concerns.

In a phone interview, LSA junior Piya Garg commented on her decision not to return to campus, noting her skepticism of the University’s reopening plan and student behavior.

“I feel like there’s a lot of people who are very responsible, but there’s a pretty significant chunk of people (who are) decently irresponsible and not really following the rules,” Garg said. “And they’re not really being enforced, so I feel like it’s definitely just best to stay safe in this situation.”

My decision not to return to campus was similarly rooted in safety concerns. I had a lease lined up in Escher House, a co-op within the Inter-Cooperative Council system. Though I had a private room, I knew I would also have at least a dozen housemates with whom I would share living and dining spaces. Having seen several reports in early August about COVID-19 clusters at other major universities, I decided returning wasn’t worth the risk.

It wasn’t an easy decision for me, as I imagine it wasn’t for others. I had to say goodbye to my vision of what my senior year would look like; now, instead of (legally!) drinking gross beer at frat parties, I’m sipping ginger ale on my mom’s couch. I believe I made the right decision, for the right reasons, and I don’t regret it. But recently, I’ve found myself harboring an emotion different from regret: I’ve become resentful of students who returned to campus. 

It’s like travel shaming, a new COVID-phenomenon wherein people taking vacations — and sharing about them on social media — are often deluged with criticism about their decision to travel. Usually, as the above article points out, it’s those who have canceled their own trips who are quickest to judge others. I made a sacrifice to help stop the spread of COVID-19, the thought process goes: Why couldn’t others do the same?

I recognize that my feelings aren’t completely logical and that most students who’ve returned to Ann Arbor have done nothing to earn my resentment. If everyone appropriately obeyed social distancing protocols, as many students have, the process of returning to campus could be safe for students, staff and community members. 

But it’s difficult to remember that when I’m sitting in bed with my dog, watching Snapchat videos of my friends wandering down State Street to get burritos and wishing I could be there, too. Harder still when a mob of white-shirted girls appears behind my friends’ shoulders, their lipsticked smiles clear and unmasked even in the dim evening light, because, of course, many students aren’t obeying social distancing protocols at all.

***

The year 2020, so far, has been a year of extremes. For many people, the world feels like it’s at the worst it’s ever been. It should be no wonder, then, that the University of Michigan campus community also feels more disconnected than ever. The on-campus/off-campus divide is only one fracture line in the smashed mirror of our community. Everywhere I turn, there seems to be another difference of opinion: divisions between roommates about adherence to social distancing protocol, arguments about the potential for a return to fall sports, debates about the GEOResStaff strike for change and campus COVID-19 policy.

That’s not to say there aren’t normally divisions among the campus community. University students are not a monolith, and, diverse as we are, we should be used to disagreeing in social, political and even ethical opinions. But for the first time ever, I’m unsure where the thread is that ties us all together. This time last year, maybe we would have slung our arms around our drunk friends and hobbled down to Michigan Stadium for a collective karaoke session, which would have healed all wounds, if only for a verse or two. Of course, this year, that’s not an option. So, what do we do instead? Set up a Zoom call? Make another GroupMe?

Knowing this is the Michigan I’ll be graduating from is hard. I’ve spent so long here, and yet I know this endless year will be what I remember most. Part of me wishes I could go back to Ann Arbor for the afternoon, just to see it. I haven’t returned since March, and when I think of campus, some part of me imagines it just as it was before I left, filled with students and businesses and the detritus of everyday life. If only I could go back, I think, maybe everything would be normal again.

But that campus doesn’t exist anymore. Now, it’s scattered and distant, a ghost of its former self. I hope one day it’ll return to normal: It would be nice, in a few years, to be able to return and see everything put back in its proper place. Still, it’s hard to imagine the path that would get us there. Could everything really return to the way it was before? And even if it did, what help is that for those of us now, sitting lost and disconnected on the fringes?