It was snowing in Grinnell when I left two months ago, on Saturday March 14th. This felt appropriate, especially since, in the early part of the week, the sunny weather had contrasted so painfully with how most of us were feeling. As I was showering that morning, mentally preparing myself to face the chaos of cardboard boxes still littering my room, I heard Ivy Schuster’s voice come floating down the hall of Read 2nd. “Good morning! Can I help?” She and other volunteers, staff and faculty, were patrolling the dorms, ready to lend a hand to any students who needed help moving their belongings.
As I continued to pack with my door open, the hallway buzzed with activity. The husband of my first-year tutorial professor passed by, pushing a cart loaded high with boxes. A woman I knew by sight from the dining hall reported to Ivy for instructions. Professor T. J. Rakitan from economics, who I’d never met before, helped me carry my packed boxes down to the mailroom to ship home (thanks T.J.!). As we crossed campus, I saw other volunteers heading purposefully toward the JRC, where Rachel Bly, Susan Leathem, and others I can’t remember were calmly and cheerfully directing operations from one of the tables usually reserved for lunchtime club tabling.
That morning, and the four days preceding it, were incredibly stressful, but also exhilarating. There were a few cases in Iowa City, but no evidence yet that coronavirus had come to Grinnell. As people rushed from final classes to hastily planned senior breakfasts and photo shoots, few of us made an effort to social distance (in fact, as far as I can remember, “social distance” didn’t become a verb until several days later). We group hugged, spent late nights talking in each other’s rooms, and ate our final meals at Relish and other restaurants in town. We lent each other storage totes, frantically tried to wrap up campus jobs, and cried together. It was like the lead-up to a normal graduation—except that we were united not just by the usual nostalgia but by the knowledge that we were living through a global crisis together. I was more intensely aware of being part of a community than I had ever been at Grinnell before.
Nothing about those last few days on campus felt normal at the time. But in retrospect, they were the last days of social normalcy—the last time we met in large groups or hugged people who weren’t members of our family.
Coming home after those five days was a shock. From a campus of over 1600, I moved to a family of four. For the first two weeks, I tried to avoid close contact with my parents and grandfather, worried that I might have picked up the virus on the plane ride back to Los Angeles. From news headlines, I watched the number of Covid cases rise exponentially each day, unable to do anything except stay inside.
But classes continued after spring break, though they were now online. Instead of dorm rooms, my friends met on Zoom “rooms” to talk, laugh and do homework together. Instead of office hours, I met with professors on Webex. It wasn’t the same, but it was something, and I feel a great sense of gratitude for the people who made it happen.
The day before yesterday, May 18th, the class of 2020 graduated from Grinnell—again. This time we did it virtually, watching our names flash across the screen accompanied by pictures we’d sent in, and watching Anne Harris, President Kington and others speak from an empty commencement stage buffeted by wind. We congratulated each other over email and text, rather than in person. My friends and relatives watched the link from their own homes, and called us afterward to talk over the ceremony.
I am sad that our class will never have a normal graduation. But the last few days in Grinnell, coupled with the many virtual goodbyes of this last week, were more intensely moving than a normal graduation would ever have been. I am grateful for four years of caring, face-to-face liberal arts education, and I hope that that kind of education will long endure!
Of course, that’s just my take, and if any student historian many years from now descends to the archives to research Covid-19, I hope she’ll consult a wide range of sources! Here, though, is one student voice on the virus.