The Realities of a Virtual Reality

Well Campus Journal, all this time I spent getting ready for an alien invasion and it turns out we should have been preparing for the plague instead…

Times have changed since I last wrote for this fine publication. We are all in much different, and, in many cases, much more difficult circumstances. I know that dealing with change can be hard. I use the same mug every single day of my life, set my alarm to the same time every morning whether I need to get up or not, and check the Sharples menu as soon as I get up so I can plan all of my meals for the day — I am not great with sudden, unexpected, unforeseen occurrences. So when sudden, unexpected, and unforeseen occurrences occur, small pieces of normalcy are what help me get through it.

I’ll be the first to admit that I miss Swarthmore. I’m sad seeing the trees and flowers bloom on the Arboretum’s Instagram page and not in real life. There is a gaping hole in my email inbox at 7:30 a.m., where the Reserved Student Digest is noticeably missing. And I highly suspect that my leg muscles will atrophy without my twice-daily climb up Willets hill. But there are some things that, even though we’re scattered far and wide, even though we’re scared and confused, remain the same.

Classes, for one thing, have never been more welcome. The familiar monotony of listening to a lecture at 8:30, the fight not to fall asleep in that seminar right after lunch, the notes, the problems. Yes, it’s all electronic. Zoom, as hard as it may try, will never be an in-person class. During live classes, our professors don’t (generally) buffer or cut out because of WiFi. Yet these connectivity issues are reminiscent of Eduroam’s notorious tendencies to crash right when we needed it most. Professors’ valiant efforts to figure out screen sharing is not so different from their attempts to use projectors in class. So even the things that are not quite right are similar enough to be comforting. 

Schoolwork, of course, will always be schoolwork: the dread of an upcoming problem set, the relief of finishing three chapters of notes, the slow climb of the word count as you write an essay. These things can no longer be our priority. In the face of all that has happened, it can be hard to find the time, the capacity, the resources to continue along the path toward knowledge. For a lot of students, school work cannot, at the moment, be much more than an added burden to an already scary situation. But the work can also be a distraction, an escape. And in the end, we came to Swarthmore to learn. And if we admit it, we really do love to learn. So even though the assignments, papers, and questions are longer so important, they’re still there for us (whether we want them or not).

But, although lectures can be pre-recorded, classes can happen online, homework can be scanned in, school is more than classes. Being with friends, classmates, and peers is one of the most important aspects of college life, one that Zoom, Moodle, and email simply cannot replace.  Late nights ‘studying’, trying not to laugh on McCabe third floor, smiles of solidarity or mutual confusion from across the classroom, hugs after a stressful class: the list of precious, mundane moments we share every day at school goes on. I despaired of these when first I read Valerie Smith’s email on that fateful Tuesday morning. But I’ve come to realize that the thing I love most about Swarthmore – the community, the people – is far from gone. No, not even a global health crisis can sever the connections among a group of unique, sleep-deprived, and slightly socially awkward students like us.

I have found that the miles between us don’t stop me and my friends from laughing at memes, discussing bizarre West African films, or trying to understand the strange weather patterns we experience. I can still talk about planet-related Buzzfeed quizzes with my classmates, still share news articles with my professors, still sit in awkward silence during class group work. 

This is not the end of the year that any of us wanted. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still learn, can’t still grow, can’t still be there for each other in infinitely many ways. I’ve attended a few Zoom classes in the last week, and I’ve already done at least two problem sets, a homework assignment, and taken more notes than my grip strength could really handle. But even after all of that, what I have really learned over these past days is this: even though we’re isolating, while we have one another, we are far from isolated.

Don’t worry my dear readers, I know how cheesy that last sentence sounded. I will be back with snark and sarcasm next time. For now, I hope everyone is safe and healthy. Take care of yourselves.

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