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Until We Can Be Together Again

March 18, 2020

On Tuesday morning, I was preoccupied with making sure the frisbee team’s jersey order was all set to ship out. I was organizing check-ins with new players for after spring break and emailing with representatives from the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association about receiving head cook training.

By Tuesday night, all these things I had been worried about Tuesday morning felt foolish and irrelevant. The news was spreading that cases of coronavirus were rising rapidly around the country, and the school had sent out a message letting students know they should be prepared not to return to campus after spring break.

An air of confusion and fear hung heavy over campus that night. Something that had seemed very far away suddenly felt near and real and scary. Questions lingered in the air. What would classes look like if they moved online? How would students move out with such short notice? What resources would be in place for students who couldn’t go home because of quarantines or other factors?

Over the next few days, these questions were addressed one by one, but perhaps more important for combatting uncertainty was the tremendous wave of love and support that spread across Oberlin. This love did not drown out the fear completely, but it sat with it as we sat with each other and it made the future navigable and less overwhelming.

On Wednesday, many classes broke from strict syllabus schedules to make space to talk about the approaching changes. That morning, my writing teacher began class by asking everyone to go around in a circle and talk about anything that was on our mind. My classmates expressed dismay at canceled events and athletic competitions, concern for older relatives and the residents of the nearby retirement home, and sadness at the thought of leaving the place and people we love much sooner than we had expected.

Though the class has been working all semester to build a sense of community, I have never felt it come through as strongly as it did in that moment as my classmates shared their worries and offered support. My teacher listened carefully. She gave us her cell phone number and encouraged us to text her if we were ever panicking or needed help.

Over the next few days, many teachers offered similar support to students. My chemistry teacher took the first fifteen minutes of class to answer questions and listen to concerns, my history professor let us know that he would be available for rides to the airport or help storing boxes, and my research mentor emailed me to make sure I had gotten home safely.

In small ways, Oberlin professors make it clear they care about their students all the time. Still, the outpouring of love and support I have seen in the last week made me feel deeply safe and supported not just as a student, but also as a person.

It’s funny, but at the same moment we were told we must stay six feet apart, most people I know wanted nothing more than to be hugging their friends goodbye. Instead of having practice on Thursday night, my frisbee team sat in Wilder Hall for four hours and shared stories about what the team meant to us.

The next day, my research lab called a last-minute meeting so we could make sure everyone was doing okay and say farewell to our seniors. I spent the weekend switching between packing up my dorm room and saying goodbye to friends. The one thing I’m grateful for in all of this mess is that it’s given me a reason to tell the people I love that I love them.

Oberlin students are good at many things, but perhaps the greatest of them all is community organizing. By Wednesday night, a mutual aid spreadsheet was circulating with offers of transportation, food, storage, emotional support and more. I found a person who was driving to Boston on the spreadsheet and, even though I’d never met him before, he took me and my things home to Massachusetts. When I offered to pay for gas, he refused.

As Obies moved out, many things had to be left behind. I have a friend who organized a food swap at their house so people who were staying could stock up on essentials and people who were leaving didn’t have to throw things away.

Over the weekend, a large quantity of food was donated to Oberlin Community Services , a local food bank and community center. Students who are staying on campus devoted themselves to helping others pack, and, when it became clear that we would have to leave Oberlin before the Ohio primary, students with cars spent all weekend driving their peers to a neighboring town for early voting.    

By Monday morning, campus was growing quiet. The morning was clear and cool as the last few people packed up cars and headed home. I had finished packing at two in the morning, so there was nothing to do now, but sit in my empty room and wait for my ride to arrive. It was strange looking at the bare walls and empty shelves, knowing what was supposed to be there.

At the same time, it struck me that they wouldn’t be empty for long. Like all things, this situation is temporary. Next year, new Obies will move into Baldwin. They’ll fill the room with their own posters, pillows, rugs, and art and hopefully find some of the same community there my roommate and I found this year.

In the meantime, communities will have to move online for a little while, co-op lunches over Skype, home-workouts posted on Slack, classes on Zoom. As the world moves behind a screen, I find I’m no longer worried about feeling isolated. Over the last crazy week, I have seen so many examples of members of the Oberlin community going above and beyond to take care of one another.

Seeing this kindness has made me realize the strength of the bonds we build here. As we get ready to hunker down for a long spring of social isolation, I have every confidence those bonds will sustain us until we can be together again.

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