The first day of class is probably one of my favorite days of the school year. For the last year and a half, we’ve been robbed of this special day with all the first days being behind the white and blue glow of a laptop screen. This year, I was more excited than ever about returning to classes and starting things off in person. However, coming back to campus for the “first day” in the midst of a global health pandemic was not a sentence I ever thought I’d be saying. I was all set on Tuesday night, my backpack stocked with extra masks and hand sanitizer and an outfit planned out in my head. I thought I knew what I would be walking into, but it turns out, a lot had changed. Looking at everyone around me, except for the masks that hung loosely on people’s faces, you could never tell there was an airborne virus amidst us. While the first week back was definitely exciting, it was also vastly different from what I have been used to for the last three years. What I was greeted with on campus was ultimately not what I had been picturing in my head for all these months.
For starters, there were people everywhere. People standing in groups, people standing in lines, people walking alone, and people sitting in the grass. It was like anywhere I turned, any of the spots I knew and loved to go to on-campus were now filled with people. Now that’s not really the surprising bit at all. We have a fully functional campus and we’re a very big university, so of course, I expected there to be people around — I just didn’t expect to feel the tinge of anxiety upon seeing it all. Usually, I absolutely love the buzz of people and the way our campus is never quiet, how there’s something happening in every corner, but it felt a little different this time around. Somehow, the stakes were a lot higher.
Going to lectures and having to shuffle across rows of seats to get an empty spot somewhere in the middle of the classroom used to be a tedious task a year and a half ago, but now it’s turned into more than that. It’s also become a little bit nerve-wracking when you consider the safety of it all, as you think about all the people you’re moving across as you shift to find a place to sit and then look around to a class filled to “maximum capacity.” Standing in lines to get a cup of coffee or getting on the bus, squeezing to fit with students packed like sardines isn’t just annoying like it used to be, but it’s also a little overwhelming considering how much time we’ve spent apart. I for one have forgotten what it feels like to stand in the middle of a crowd, where everyone’s rushing to get to the next place they need to be, as I’m sure so many people have.
It’s also been weird thinking about how easy it usually is to discern the freshmen from the rest of the crowd — they tend to be the ones sticking to their phone and Google Maps for directions with a dazed and confused look on their faces. This time around, however, almost everyone sported that look. It quickly dawned on me that while I was a senior having had a fair bit of time on campus, my cohort is the last group of people who have roamed around campus without the threat of a looming global health crisis, and without their freshmen year being cut short. Most sophomores and juniors had their college experience cut short a lot earlier in the process than I did and then quickly had to transition online, with very little time to explore campus and get to know the lay of the land. All of us have also spent the better part of almost two years never seeing or interacting with the people we have classes with, just seeing small black squares with names on our screens. Actually interacting and making small-talk before classes, or “discussing with a partner near you” during lectures and group discussions has started feeling like an alien concept now.
I believe everyone is going through some version of these realizations, what I’m coining the “readjustment period”. The getting used to seeing so many people every day, the fatigue that comes from going to classes in person and meetings every evening all while taking travel time into account, and the polite nods, smiles, and eye contact you make with strangers along the way. I think this period will take time for all of us considering how it’s all such old but also new territory. While some of us might love being back, for others it might be a little bit scarier. So, while I’m excited to embark on a new school year, I’m also telling myself to take it easy and to take it one day at a time. While it might be my fourth year as a student at Davis, it’s my first year as a student returning to campus during a pandemic, and that’s important to remember.