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One small part of the crowd

Tianne Jensen-DesJardins

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Helena Miranda Ventosa and Leen Naser

Sometimes I think that I caused the pandemic.

I spent all of my second year wishing I could use the five hours a day I spent commuting to school on other things. Namely, homework. But I didn’t mean to mess up everyone else’s lives just so I could get my assigned readings done a little earlier. I didn’t mean to cause this.

Okay, so maybe I’m sort of, most likely, probably sure that I didn’t cause COVID-19. It just happened to have really coincidental timing.

For instance, my extra-long commute from Mission to UBC suddenly disappeared. My immune system didn’t have to tackle the consistent colds I picked up during my five-hour commute. I could sleep in for the first time during my degree.

But not all the changes were good. There was no more running into classmates in line for my chai latte from Starbucks before class. No more stumbling upon events on campus. No more seeing friends at all.

With many of the social aspects of university stripped away, the days began to blend into one everlasting day, where the events of yesterday were also the events of tomorrow. Everything was COVID all the time: the news, the radio and even social media were constant onslaughts of infection rates and hot spots.

So I adjusted. I watched YouTube yoga videos and nabbed some of the last weights from my local Walmart. I downloaded Zoom and got used to virtually connecting with people — and not just for class! I even took up crocheting and beadwork to stave off the loneliness.

But nothing felt real.

Everyday was the same. I’d wake up, slap my glasses on and turn on my computer. Opening Canvas and navigating my courses’ homepages was something I could do in my sleep (and trust me, I know from experience). As I anxiously triple-checked that my mic was indeed turned off, I would begin to check my social media. No one was ever doing anything interesting, but even the boring stuff was worth reading when the alternative was rising case numbers and new restrictions. Classes would begin with the usual “Can everyone hear me?” and would always end with “Stay safe and see you next class. Well, virtually, at least.”

The monotony began to bleed into my dreams. I would wake up and complete my morning routine only to wake up again, this time for real, when my phone alarm went off. I began to wonder if I was ever really awake. This, of course, kept me up most nights. Between general anxiety (because the world was going to shit) and existential anxiety (because my brain was going to shit), I felt like I was losing touch with reality. Did my comments have any consequence at all when the chat log was wiped after every class? Does it count as participation if I’m blearily staring at my screen, pinching myself, trying to decide if I’m really awake? Does anyone else feel like this?

Of course, the answer is yes.

When classes transitioned to a hybrid format in the Fall term, I began to notice some of the names I’d seen on Zoom popping up in my classes. Now they were much more than muted black boxes — they came complete with bodies, entire lives. It was like being a kid again when running into your teacher at the grocery store made you realize that they had a whole life outside of the classroom. It was easier to bond over the hellscape that was last year when I could bring up that time our class was cut short by a professor’s kid having a meltdown in the background or an unfortunately timed power outage. The loneliness I’d felt the previous year started to thaw with each in-person conversation.

Turns out that I wasn’t the only one struggling. A lot of the people that I connected with in those first few months of hybrid classes mentioned feeling similarly. They’d also had a hard time focusing in class. And motivation? Yeah, that went out the window almost as quickly as the home workouts. It seemed like almost everyone had a shitty year.

But now everything was fine again because we were back to in-person learning (well, half in-person learning, technically), right?


Everything still sucked, just slightly less so.

Sure, seeing my classmates and professors face-to-face was great, but it also meant that they could see me, which was a little harder to navigate after a year of hiding from the world in my room. Being able to roam the campus that I’ve come to love in my four years at UBC was fantastic, but it also meant that I had to physically come to school to go to class — so much for free time. And COVID-19 wasn’t over. That panicky paranoia still hung over me like a weighted blanket, leaving my head exposed to the constant worry. The vaccine helped, but with new variants looming, I still felt exposed.

And on top of that, it just felt wrong to be surrounded by so many people after so long alone. Every bus ride felt like a guilty pleasure. Walking along Main Mall in the last ten minutes before any hour was an instant flashback to first and second year, before the pandemic made social interaction something significant. It was like someone had given me a brief glimpse into the old normal but was holding it over my head threatening to take it away at any minute.

Not everything was bad. I learned to appreciate the benefits of being a student. I took advantage of office hours for the first time in my degree. I didn’t mind the line-up for Starbucks in the Life Building as I waited to grab my chai latte between classes. I rediscovered first-year dining halls as I desperately tried to use up the rest of the money from my time in Totem in first year.

Campus became so much more than a physical space, and becoming one small part of the crowd was as exhilarating as it was terrifying. Being a UBC student meant more than attending UBC. It was also complaining about the long bus lines, getting excited to see the fountain turned on, physically feeling the relief in the air after walking out of a final exam.
It was being part of something bigger.

As a kid, it was my dream to go to the university where my parents met and fell in love. I thought that I wanted to go to UBC because it was another way to continue my family’s legacy, to follow in their footsteps, but I was wrong. It wasn’t the fancy stone buildings or the expensive piece of paper that I was searching for — it was connection. I wanted to submerge myself into university life and come out drenched. And I did, just not in the same way.

As I near the end of my undergrad degree, I remind myself of the friends I’ve met during my four years here, of the professors I’ve been lucky to learn from, of all the bus drivers I’ve said “Good morning” to. Whether your classes are online or in-person, the pandemic present or absent and your degree beginning or ending, the connections you make are what carry you through.

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