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“Can I hug you?”

I asked my best friend this upon catching up with her for the first time since the end of spring semester. That’s a totally normal question, right? Completely ordinary. I’m a hugger, but I like to ask just in case. The context of the question is usually based on consent and the comfort level of whoever is getting hugged, but I suddenly realized that I was living out a very normal thing under very unusual circumstances.

It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has left and continues to leave major impacts on how society functions. Hugs, for example, were just… a thing. I grew up in a very physically affectionate family, so hugs were commonplace. We often refer to my youngest sibling as a “sticky” for their propensity to not let go of whoever they’re hugging. I spent a lot of time with friends who were equally “huggy,” and physical affection was, again, a big part of my social and personal life. I thrived off this expression of love and closeness for my whole life, and then things went sideways.

The first thing COVID-19 did was remove me from my high school classmates. I had spent 17 years with the same friends, and even though we lived in the same town, they felt millions of miles away. I was suddenly without my best friends. I know that sounds dramatic, but when you find yourself accustomed to that kind of environment… it rattles you. Online classes in March 2020 were vastly different to online classes in March 2021, and we weren’t even at the point of using Zoom or Teams yet. I spoke to my friends over social media or text, but I didn’t “see” them.

The pandemic continued to influence me academically and socially even after I graduated. My family had planned to visit my university, SLU, for the first time in March 2020, but they suspended travel right before Spring Break. I spent my last summer before college sending emails, attending Zoom meetings and packing for the move. My first-year orientation was online. I met my classmates online. I met my roommate online. One of the most memorable experiences I had was standing in line to be COVID tested as it dumped rain outside on move-in day. There, I met my roommate in person for the first time. Over my first semester at SLU, I had some in-person classes, but it was still impossible to gain that kind of physical connection I thrived on. There were many an impromptu train ride back to Kansas City because I felt so desperately lonely.

Watching the evolution of pandemic responses has been eye-opening. I spent my spring semester online, waiting to be vaccinated, still wearing my mask everywhere, still dying for a hug. It felt like an eternity to see every news story about vaccine research, case numbers and lockdowns. I won’t lie; I was nervous. But I ended my first year at SLU with a vaccine card, a renewed sense of hope and a hug from my roommate. I spent a new summer with unlimited hugs from my family, a friendly workplace and feelings of contentment about my next year at school. COVID-19 hasn’t lost its influence, especially with the Delta variant. I still wear my mask, I subconsciously socially distance myself and I often forget that I can ask for hugs again. I am absolutely sure I’m not the only one who’s felt lonely in the pandemic’s wake, but there should be at least an understanding that you are not, in fact, alone, and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s been immensely comforting to return to somewhat normalcy. So, I’m sure we both could use it:

can I hug you?

Hi! I'm Brenna Russell and I use she/they pronouns. I'm a Junior at SLU with a major in Anthropology and minor in History. Few things in life are better than iced coffee, cats, and musical theatre. VP of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for SLU <3
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