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When the Inevitable Occurs: Coping With the Sudden Switch to an Online Semester

My enthusiasm for all things related to college was unmatched. With nine days until move-in, my floor was covered in piles of clothes and miscellaneous dorm items that seemed unnecessary, but packing lists on the internet implored me to purchase. With nine days left in the place I have lived in since I was born, I was ready to reach out to people and gather (socially distanced) to say my goodbyes so that my high school experience could finally be wrapped up and tied with a pretty little bow. With nine days left to prepare for a major life transition, I meticulously crafted a vision for the upcoming year in my mind, an experience that could finally be uniquely and exclusively mine. But now, the inevitable has occurred, and as Michigan State turns to a fully online model where living on campus is an impossibility for me, I am faced with yet another avoidable and crushing consequence of this pandemic. Of course, the decision prompted reactions from national news outlets, confused parents, and stunned students. As a first-year student who has taken cancellation of high school graduation, summer plans, and other seemingly trivial pre-college rites of passage with relative grace and maturity, I find myself having to garner up the energy for yet another response.

This sudden change in plans was unequivocally the correct decision. Was the decision made at the right time? Well, that would imply that there is a correct time for a decision like this, as a decision like this at any stage bears its own implications. Was the decision communicated clearly? While the announcement was vague, we must remember that this constantly evolving crisis is nuanced and requires universities and other institutions to work together and make quick decisions (as MSU’s ultimate decision was likely influenced by occurrences on other campuses). I am hoping that the university continues to prioritize the health and safety of students by working with and providing a safety net to student employees, like Resident Assistants and Intercultural Aides, to ensure that they have sustainable housing as planned, as well as working with international students and others who may be reliant on on-campus housing. This is an excellent time for the university to address student demands for a more equitable and progressive student experience, and I am excited to be a part of this push for broader change. Was the decision convenient? Perhaps the decision should have been made before payments were due, before I purchased items for my dorm room, and before out-of-state students made complicated and costly travel arrangements. But it is important to consider that retracting a plan (“pivoting,” as the university likes to call it) requires just as much planning, if not more, as implementing the original, on-campus plan. 

As I grapple with the news, I can’t help but remember that a pandemic of this magnitude could have been avoided, making this conversation inherently political. The lack of serious federal intervention and the blatant denial of science is a major reason that we are here. Most of my anger is directed at our current presidential administration, not the institutions that have been forced to make the toughest of decisions. I am also deeply ashamed of our country’s individualistic and frankly selfish mindset as I continue to see others attending and hosting large gatherings like graduation parties that could easily contribute to outbreaks. 

Of course, I am personally upset about not being able to live on campus and have the residential college experience that initially lured me to MSU, but I am confident that my first-year experience can be intellectually stimulating and engaging. This semester, I am lucky to have the privilege to be taking writing-intensive and discussion-based classes in policy and education. My professors and the faculty and staff at MSU have been incredibly reassuring, responsive, and compassionate, and all of this makes me so grateful for educators. As I said way back in March in my Detroit Free Press op-ed (which now, for the most part, seems hilariously outdated), there is no better time to be learning about and then tackling major social, economic, and political issues. 

I have also learned, before even stepping foot on campus or attending my first fall semester class, that community means everything. Everything. The past few months, an unexpected amount of free time has allowed me to (virtually) meet many of my driven and kind peers. When the news was released on Tuesday, I immediately grabbed my laptop and opened Zoom (and stayed on until the middle of the night), crying, laughing, planning, pondering, and analyzing the Democratic National Convention (we are James Madison students, so political analysis is required, even in times of great personal strife). We created a space for each other that allowed everyone to process their emotions in the way that they needed. The dreaded day after called for a spontaneous (socially distant and masked) ice cream meetup with my new friends who live relatively close by. And for that, for the newfound friendships formed entirely through Zoom and GroupMe, I am grateful. We will not have the chance to bond over welcome week traditions, to feel the adrenaline rush of sprinting to our first 8 AM class across campus, or to be a part of the unparalleled camaraderie that accompanies a touchdown at Spartan Stadium. But we still have a group of incoming students who possess diverse perspectives and experiences that must be shared. We have the chance to bridge gaps and create our own unconventional yet intimate space. If I’ve learned anything since March, it’s that my generation is capable of cultivating community. I have so much love for my new friends and peers who make me feel accepted and valued, even through a screen.

As always, I’m trying to roll with the punches and handle these situations with maturity, while also allowing myself to feel sad. I couldn’t be more proud of my friends and peers who continue to maintain a positive but realistic attitude. I’m still looking forward to my fall semester at MSU and my tentative plans, even though none of them will take place in East Lansing. If anyone can conquer another challenge that this pandemic has evoked, it’s us. 

If you are a student who has been impacted by the recent news, please refer to https://liveon.msu.edu/ for updated information on this developing story or to https://caps.msu.edu/ for mental health resources and services.

Ellie is a student at Michigan State's James Madison College and Honors College, where she studies Social Relations and Policy and Secondary Education. When she isn't studying or writing, she enjoys hiking, binge-watching reality TV, talking about progressive politics, and finding new ways to get involved in her community. She is passionate about education, mental health and disability advocacy, and equity, and hopes to use her writing to amplify and explain current issues in these areas.
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