College during COVID

“Seldom have I ever questioned the end,

Still I grow frost when I’m reminded.”

-Parquet Courts, “Before the Water Gets Too High”

On the best of days airports are cramped, busy, and stressful. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sprinted to a gate, Herschel duffel bag in tow, my laptop slamming around the inside of my backpack, my shoulder straps giving me some sort of esoteric future back problem treatable only by inscrutable doctors with exotic oils and foreign herbs. Security gives me the stink eye, I flash them a haggard smile – “Shoes and belt? Oh, all right.”

That’s on a good day.

Add a global pandemic to the mix and you throw a grenade into an already fractured transportation system, especially when students (like me) start going back to school. The American university system, the supposed bastion of public higher education, has been all over the map when it comes to the response to COVID.

I’m an Alaskan-raised sophomore political science major at Washington State University in Pullman, a small college town on the Washington/Idaho border. We’re surrounded by wheat fields, end-scene-of-Gladiator-like, as far as the Natty Light-soaked eye can see.

I left Anchorage, in the middle of August, at 5 AM. The airport was eerily empty, playing canned music that soaks into my bones and gives the whole scene a very “last days of the Roman Empire” feeling. A dead-eyed baggage attendant weighs my suitcase, and informs me that it’ll have to drop two pounds – or else. I performed an emergency surgery on my bag and ripped out a sweatshirt, a vital organ in the world of suitcase physiology. It doesn’t matter – the patient is D.O.A and now weighs the precise 50 pounds mandated by the airport gods.

My sweatshirt is tied to my backpack as I hauled ass towards security. I met another dead-eyed airport type who needed to match my masked face with my 3-year-old driver’s license photo (back when I thought I could grow a beard and hadn’t learned that wire rimmed glasses make me look like Jeffrey Dahmer). “Please remove your mask, sir.” I am then allowed to pass.

Half the stores on the concourse are shuttered – no Starbucks Americano for me. Breakfast is a bag of Target beef jerky.

I look out the airport window and think, “Is there a universe where I might be getting pleasantly toasted on bottom-shelf vodka and listening to my friend explain Pink Floyd in a poorly lit dorm room. A universe where the word ‘coronavirus’ brings only to mind the 6-pack I drank on 4th of July. A universe where I might have gone to a Boise music festival, posited half-baked opinions in a political science class and found some kind of quiet accomplishment and closure at the end of my in-person freshman year?”

People are staring at me. I wonder if I’ve been free-associating out loud. It doesn’t matter, we’re boarding.

I feel like a biological specimen in a test tube as we neared 18,000 feet in the air. I lift my face mask for a second to grab a sip of water, and the flight attendant stares daggers at me. I wondered what the point was. There was no one within three seats of me and I’m a shallow breather. This is not the first time I will think this.

I take off in Seattle.

I land in Pullman.

It’s surreal. The inversion that’s occurred since I left in spring, when they sent us home for spring break and said, “Don’t come back.” My roommate picks me up at the airport in the scorching heat. We drive and drive and see hardly anybody. Pullman was, at its core, a party town for a party school. But now, like the anti-Duffman, the party has been sucked out of this little burg nestled between two hills in the wheat tidal waves.

A month and a half later. Some strange form of higher education has replaced the proud settings of National Lampoon, The Social Network, and Old School. Have halls of ivy been replaced with columns of code?

I think that my school, to an extent, has done the best with what they have. But it feels like it falls short of the mark. I think schools all around the country are going to be forced to shut their doors for good. Especially the ones without the solid name recognition or an alumni base like the Ivies, the Pac-12, or the Big 10 – and even those are going to take a major hit.

Even my hometown school, UAA, has felt the hit of the virus, combined with last year’s budget cuts. If it’s forced to cut more programs, a sizable chunk of students who weren’t able or chose not to go out of state for school are going to feel the hit.

This is the fundamental issue that higher education institutions have had to reconcile – there’s no digital replacement for everything. I’ve sat through 50 days of Zoom lectures. It’s not the same.

It’s also not fair to pass the cost on to students like me and thousands of others. Harvard, for example, is maintaining tuition and fees despite moving to remote learning. WSU has done the same thing, offering some limp justification for a hike in our fees.

Whether or not the virus is as dangerous as they all say is a debate for another time. It’s not something I’m particularly interested in addressing at the moment. The response, in many ways, is proving worse than the cure. Jobs are disappearing, unemployment is staggeringly high, and businesses all around the country are closing their doors – many for good.

It’s time to examine the facts, and ask ourselves: is this really the course of action to which we want to commit, living in a world where risk is an automatic negation of reward?

Quads, which were once bustling with activity, are empty. Lecture halls are cavernous and filled with dead air. It’s time to reevaluate.

Jacob Hersh is a sophomore political science major from Anchorage, Alaska. He’s been described as neurotic, emotionally distant, and unhealthily obsessed with national politics – all by the same person. In his free time, he scrolls obscure Internet forums for Jeffrey Epstein conspiracy theories, and writes election coverage for his college newspaper.

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