By Dan Goff
“Remember when I said I doubted the university would move classes online because it would be a logistical nightmare? Well, I was only half right. UVA will and has moved classes online. And it’s a logistical nightmare.”
This quote, from an email sent by one of my professors, nicely sums up the sentiment of UVA faculty and students. I’ve heard and read a lot of grumbling about the university-mandated switch to Zoom, and I’ve done a fair bit of it myself. We fourth-years are especially bummed, since it’s more than just a “logistical nightmare” for us. It looks like the rest of our time at UVA isn’t going to be at UVA at all.
The latest update from President Jim Ryan, letting us know that final exercises as we know them are officially canceled, was a particularly upsetting blow. Graduation ceremonies were the one school-related part of being a fourth-year I really didn’t want to miss. We’ve been told that UVA is “developing creative alternatives,” but I’m skeptical. I shudder to think of the Zoom call that would accommodate a crowd of 4,000.
Charlottesville is not unique here, of course. This is a trend happening at universities across the country and the world, and it’s a necessary one. We can whine all we want about how much the rest of this semester is going to suck (and admittedly, it’ll probably suck), but these are prudent precautions.
What I’ve been trying to do these past few days is keep in mind how relatively fortunate I am. I’m still in Charlottesville (sorry, President Ryan) because of my job as delivery boy at New Dominion Bookshop. My parents live outside Richmond, an easy drive in case I need to return home. I’m an English major in the creative writing program whose thesis is being written in isolation anyways—my degree doesn’t depend on student teaching or hands-on lab work.
I’ve heard stories of other students faring worse—like my friend Aline Dolinh, a fellow fourth-year who recently returned from Germany. Her trip should’ve ended days earlier, but thanks to what she calls a “comedy of errors,” involving a stolen backpack that contained her laptop and passport, she was stranded. Things were looking grim as Germany continued to close its borders and restrict travel, but she (incredibly) got at least her passport returned to her and made it back to the States earlier this week, where she’s now hanging out in her parents’ basement “like a medieval plague victim.”
Aside from such ill-fated trips abroad, what about the students whose actual homes are overseas? According to recent data, UVA has nearly 2,500 nonresident alien students enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs. What percentage of these students is trying but unable to return home? How long might they be stuck here? Questions like these make me remember how lucky I am to be an in-state student with a car, and my right to complain shrinks that much more.
Of course, there’s the social side of this to consider too. We’ll find creative ways to graduate, but what about creative ways to remain in touch? When I chatted with Aline the other day, she agreed that “it’s the small things that are hitting the most. I won’t be able to do x or y with my friends, and I don’t know the next time I’ll get to see some of these people.”
Charlottesville—particularly the university side of Charlottesville—is starting to feel like a ghost town. Two of my three roommates are still here, but from what I’ve seen, this is pretty unusual. My Instagram and Facebook feeds are stuffed with fourth-years posting bittersweet photos of the Lawn with captions commemorating their “3.75 years” and giving an emotional goodbye to Charlottesville.
As far as I know, the majority of my fourth- year friends have already packed up and headed back to their family homes. This includes Veronica Sirotic, who was the first friend I made at UVA—though I’m sure I wasn’t hers. Veronica is one of the most social people I’ve ever met. It seems like she can make friends with someone as effortlessly as shaking their hand—two activities which I guess are prohibited for the time being.
When I FaceTimed Veronica to check in, she answered the call wearing her cap and gown—graduation photos, she explained. She had a mini ceremony with her roommates (from a socially safe distance, of course), after which she drove to her parents’ place in Arlington.
She was understandably upset about the situation, but was also trying to keep a fair perspective. “I’m not dead, and my family is safe,” she said. “I have a lot to be grateful for.”
We both acknowledged that while being a fourth-year sucked right now, “it could suck so much more.” I referenced a post I had seen her share on Facebook from Take Back the Night, UVA’s sexual assault prevention group that she co-chairs. The post said that “people currently experiencing sexual harm or survivors of that harm may be particularly affected” by the pandemic—for a variety of reasons, including lack of access to in-person counseling and an exacerbated sense of isolation. The post was a wake-up call, another reality of this that I hadn’t even considered.
Talking with Veronica was a bit of a wake-up call, too, and it helped put things further into perspective. Sure, what’s ahead is concerning, and not just in the context of public health. This is a less-than-ideal time to be entering the job market—I have no idea what the economy will look like when I graduate in two months.
I’ve been trying not to worry about hypotheticals like that, though, and take things day-by-day. It’s easy to feel helpless in a situation like this, but we still have some agency. Veronica’s photo shoot inspired me—come May 16, if President Ryan’s “creative alternatives” don’t pan out, I might have a personal graduation ceremony in the safety of my apartment. I can wear the honors of Honors in my bedroom and hand off a diploma to myself. I won’t have a Lawn to march across and my ceilings are a little low for cap-throwing, but it’s better than nothing.