June 08, 2020

Observing Help and Hope During a Pandemic

When field experiences ended suddenly, students continued to learn from the world around them, wherever they were, by observing social reactions to COVID-19.

When the coronavirus disrupted the spring semester, a student enrolled in the Duffy Community Partnerships course had to leave campus for his home in Vietnam, but first he had to sleep without a mattress for two weeks during a required stay in a quarantine camp there. Others in the class eventually returned to their homes in India, or Afghanistan, or—if they had already left campus for spring break—they hunkered down across America, some helping to homeschool little brothers and sisters while juggling their studies from a distance.

None of these students could continue their regularly scheduled field experiences, a central part of the hands-on sociology course referred to informally as “the Duffy.” The Duffy Community Partnerships, founded and supported by James E. Duffy’49, focus on what makes a good society.

In a normal year, the class places students in businesses, schools, government and health care offices, and social service organizations, where community leaders show them the ropes. These field site placements are the centerpiece of the class, while a weekly seminar-style workshop complements and broadens the students’ experience.

Carol Wickersham, a professor of sociology who teaches the course, swiftly shifted the workshop portion of the class online. But to take the place of the field experiences, she assigned students observational projects, including one that had them writing field notes about the social reactions to COVID-19 they witnessed. From wherever they landed during the time of the coronavirus, they observed and recorded what they saw that was helpful and hopeful. They sifted their notes down to short, reflective essays for publication in Beloit College Magazine. These are some of their stories.

Whose battle is this?

Duffy student Gatter TranBy Thu “Gatter” Tran’21
Vietnam

“We are all in this together.”

Are we really? If there is one thing I see most clearly during this pandemic is that it exposes the inequalities of social classes. Being in a mandatory quarantine camp for 14 days in Vietnam makes me realize my privileges by exposing me to unfamiliar circumstances.

My first night in quarantine camp, I could not sleep. I was laying on top of a bamboo mat that covered the metal surface of the bed, no mattress. My whole body was aching and the small blanket I had was not enough to keep me warm. “Only 14 days,” I mumbled to myself and was suddenly reminded of photos of homeless people sleeping in parking lots in Las Vegas and how my little inconvenience was nothing compared to the struggles they are facing right now. People say that this virus is an “equalizer,” that anyone can be affected, but with our divided social classes, it makes people at the bottom the most vulnerable. Nevertheless, I still called my mom the next day and had her send me a thick blanket I could lay atop.

The second privilege I realize I have is access to the internet. With classes going online and no Wi-Fi available at the quarantine camp, I knew I was gonna be behind and have to catch up once I was back home. It was only temporary, but for some people, not having a steady internet connection negatively affects their education. In a 2017 report by the FCC, 30 percent of American households did not have even a slow broadband connection. We go to college to feel equal, same classroom, same dorm, but now college has shifted back home, the inequalities are evident.

The last privilege is being able to quarantine. Social distancing is recommended, but for some that’s not an option. Frontline workers still have to carry on their duties every day, risking their lives of being infected. I got daily temperature check-ups by health workers in my quarantine camp, and one person I talked to told me that it has been two months since she last saw her family. She has been staying in the living quarters with other health workers for fear of spreading the virus to the community and, most importantly, their families. “I keep asking myself every day, ‘Is today the day I will get infected?’” she said.

New perceptions

Duffy student Rose StahlBy Rose Stahl’20
Kansas

I feel like I am running in a dream, but the time has slowed, and my movements have become lethargic. I try to react to the situations around me, but any response is delayed and seemingly pointless. It feels like there is nothing new to report or do, yet everything around me is changing and whirling about. It’s eerie, as if I am in the eye of a hurricane, a pocket of calm that does not belong in the storm.

The only real indication that time has passed are the trees budding, the tulips and daffodils blooming, and the weather warming. Reality doesn’t exist. Both slowly and quickly time passes. It feels like everything should get easier, but it’s still incredibly difficult.

While at school, I had the luxury of being in one place all the time, of focusing on studies and developing career interests—it provided a form of removal from the immediate reality of life at home. This is partly because of my family’s view of education. It’s been instilled in my siblings and me that our educations are something to pursue, value, and prioritize. It should be one of the main focuses. At school, everything was slightly filtered, and the intensity of home life was not as present. Being at home means being confronted with the unpredictable reality of life. College is an escape of sorts, and home is real life. Being here means facing the slow deterioration of my mother’s health. It means confronting problems and realizing that the responsibility to find a solution rests on my siblings’ and my shoulders.

Maybe the hardest part is realizing that I don’t have enough life experience to know the solutions, so outside help is needed. But it’s basically impossible to seek outside help because, at this time, it’s “non-essential.” And I understand that. I know the importance of staying at home, of not risking others’ lives, and practicing social distancing. But it is so incredibly difficult to see all of these problems and to just be stuck in them. We can’t make appointments because there is no one to see. It’s non-essential even though this is an essential part of our lives. It is so strange to feel suspended in time but to still be aware of everything that is going on—both in my family and in the world.

Personal shopping during a pandemic

Duffy student Danielle StrejcBy Danielle Strejc’20
Illinois

As someone who has taken up independent contractor work every summer since I graduated high school, I suppose it should not be much of a surprise that I now find myself doing this same type of work during the pandemic. Whereas my typical past work would be at trade shows or music festivals, I am now in Target, perusing the aisles for various produce, canned items, or anything else one could find at a “SuperTarget.” Before, I would have been interacting with as many people as possible to increase brand awareness, but now I hardly speak with the people at the store, and I deliver groceries to a silent doorstep with a worn-down welcome mat. But even as I run away from the groceries and get into my car, I often get some sort of friendly greeting from the customers. People are afraid, but they are not losing their humanity.

In our Duffy class field notes, we all reflect on the remarkable contributions individuals continue to make; from knitting masks, to donating food, and giving their stimulus checks to those who need it more. As people across the nation lose their jobs and sources of income, we have seen unprecedented aid at the individual level from the federal government. I could write something soppy saying we are all “coming together,” but in a way, we are being forced to. The concept of social distancing is putting aside personal grievances and staying home for the good of society. We have seen millions of people embrace personal responsibility and understand that the world does not revolve around any one person.

In my own life, I see drastic changes every time I leave my house. Masks are everywhere, as are lines to get into most stores. When I go into Target, I wear my scratchy and uncomfortable mask, for the benefit of those around me. Normally, I tend to zoom through my activities with little regard for those around me. Now, when I am out, I have to be more conscientious and aware that those around me may be annoyed if I move too fast and get too close.

This situation has forced me to slow down and observe more about what goes on in my community and home. I am thinking long term about our economy (since I am an econ major) and the consequences this pandemic will have for the job market. Our world has been turned upside down, but what continues to give me hope is the selflessness and generosity of the people who are able to see the bigger picture and help everyone get through this one day at a time.

COVID: A time for forgiveness

Duffy student Mezekerta TesfayBy Mezekerta Tesfay’23
Iowa

Today, a good friend sent me the link to a podcast on Spotify, titled “I forgive you, New York,” with a message from journalist Roger Cohen. In it, he shares a paean—of sorts—dedicated to his city that “never sleeps” in light of the COVID-caused shutdown. He starts off by saying, “I forgive you, New York. I forgive you for your snarl, your aggression, your hustle, your hassle. I forgive you LaGuardia…,” expressing sorrow for the temporary absence of his former nuisances and offering his forgiveness only on the condition that they return.

This piece of written art made me think of all of the time I wasted complaining about my nuisances in Beloit. Too many of my days and nights were filled with missing people I couldn’t see and things I couldn’t have while continuously obsessing over what was next. Looking back, I certainly failed to remain present and grateful. Had I known that halfway through my spring semester, I would be whisked away for the rest of my academic year, I desperately would have tried to hold on to it all. This, however, was not the case and I must let go. So, for what it’s worth, I forgive Beloit College.

I forgive Beloit College for being located in a sometimes impossibly boring Midwestern town, for its untasteful members who chose to be outwardly exclusionary, for not providing a black woman with her ideal community, and for shutting down Java Joint. I forgive Beloit College for all my grievances with it, provided that I can have them all back.

Before coronavirus, there was so much to be done and look forward to that it was easy to have a list of things I would discard in a heartbeat; a symptom of my lack of gratitude.

Cohen’s exercise is an important reminder that gratitude should be practiced for everything, even this present moment. I now realize how incredibly lucky I was to have had so many things I could dislike and how much I unknowingly valued them all. I ache for the ability to time travel to my past and treat some things and people differently, but that’s impossible, so I will stay at home and try and be a little more grateful every day—I hope you’ll join me.

Quarantine and Zoom: COVID Field Notes #5

Duffy student Robert AveryBy Robert Avery’20
Vermont

In the past few weeks, I’ve gone to a few birthday parties over Zoom. One of the birthdays was a surprise where we all hid off camera and jumped into view when the birthday girl got on the call. With the stress of watching the progression of the coronavirus, it’s important to still celebrate important days with friends. These parties are good ways to see friends and feel together in quarantine.

I find it super interesting how we are all learning how to navigate new social settings like Zoom. When should the mic be on? Is it okay to have the camera off? Where’s the buzz coming from? It is a platform that is trying to recreate a classroom feel, but you can’t recreate many aspects of being in-person. For example, you consistently need someone to moderate the talking and drive the conversation. People are way more hesitant to speak out in these meetings than in a classroom. I think it’s a lot harder to read body language, to know when it is appropriate to speak, or when another person is going to speak up. But with all these new difficulties, I’ve seen how quickly professors and students have been able to adapt over the past few weeks.

I read an article about Zoom that explained how the platform creates the emotional connection that our body and brain expects when talking with other people, but lacks other important factors in communication. I’ve noticed the significance of having separate work, sleep, and study spaces. By having my bedroom as my classroom, I’ve struggled to focus and separate my work and class time. I’ve had a lot of friends share the same feelings. They feel like motivation is one of the most difficult parts of online classes. I don’t have younger siblings, but it must be incredibly difficult for elementary school kids who had separate spaces, but now are learning and living in one area. My dad works at a high school, and he said that many parents of younger children are starting to push back on demands from teachers for screen time. They are finding that kids are really struggling to look at a laptop screen for six hours a day. Like elementary school students, the Zoom/free time balance is a new experience that I’ve had to learn to navigate in quarantine.

A coronavirus story

Duffy student Nayomi NeelangalNayomi Neelangal’22
India

I was at Beloit when I watched the knocked-on effect of the spread of COVID-19, as tourists cancelled trips, travel was uncertain, and students were packing and leaving. On a Sunday night of spring break, my family and I decided that it would be best for me to return home, to India. I spent Monday packing and shifting and before I knew it, Tuesday morning, I was boarded on the plane!

From the day I reached home, people from the municipal corporation and the health department made regular visits as a way to closely monitor my health status. With my travel history, I was asked to remain in home isolation for 14 days, which later extended to a period of 21 days. It had just begun! Additionally, a sticker/ poster had been pasted on the front of our house saying that a person (a traveler) and house members were being quarantined, after which I was officially stamped for home isolation by the health department of the state and the city. To give you the context behind the stamp, it served like an alarm that would notify the police, and they could lawfully file charges against me if they were to see a person with this stamp around in the area. There’s more!

An initiative taken by the state and national health department is a mobile application that worked like a tracker. The application, monitored the movements and location of a home-quarantined person using their mobile devices, not to mention the daily “selfie attendance” that I needed to post. This marks the end of my first two weeks after arrival.

Within no time, the hot topic in India shifted from coronavirus to “anti-muslim” vs. “anti-hindu” movements. Videos and images of people beating up police, doctors, and nurses went viral! This hadn’t been personal until a Muslim friend of mine called me in the middle of the night for help because her family was threatened! It turned us all upside down.

As a nationwide lockdown continued, dozens of cases were reported about farmers committing suicide because the only income for some is made when their harvest is sold, which, due to the quarantine, is not happening. People avoided public spaces and other market areas to avoid maximum contact with others. The lockdown affected every member of the society, be it the most elite or the poorest one.

People have been asked to take a pay cut for this month, while others are anxiously anticipating potential layoffs. This adds another financial stress to an already difficult time. Having said this, there is a part of me that looks forward to the excitement, gratitude, and appreciation of life that this pandemic will bring to us. This is my story.

COVID: An unforgettable year!

Duffy student Uzma SayedBy Uzma Sayed’22
Afghanistan

I was surprised by how pervasive the effects of coronavirus are; it not only affects individuals, but even institutions, such as colleges— which are often seen as very stable— are foundering in the face of the multifaceted effects of coronavirus. More specifically, it made me realize how much I rely on Beloit college in particular—for personal growth, valued friends, and education (online classes do not feel the same!). Moreover, the students and faculty alike are attempting to adapt to this new online style of teaching. It seems that everyone is learning something during this pandemic. I see tech-savvy students help professors with technology, in the first weeks of the pandemic offering time and help in moving the classes online. I also see professors often checking in with all the students, taking extra care to make sure no one is too inconvenienced by the online format—I have even heard that some classes forgo class lectures entirely and work via email correspondence, simply to make sure time zones and household situations do not interrupt learning.

Nevertheless, I greatly miss my friends, our classrooms, the library. I miss campus life. More so for me because Beloit is like a second home for me, yet one I cannot return to today due to the pandemic.

All in all, the coronavirus pandemic has been a great disruption to everyone—for myself, others, and even colleges. I greatly miss the experiences of college, in person, that online courses simply cannot replicate. Of course, much of the quality of education can be replicated, that of which I am thankful; I would not want to be delayed in my education. Nevertheless, this same adaptation to online courses has put colleges in a tricky situation. While the coronavirus pandemic will eventually pass, it’s effect in proving the viability of online education threatens much of our current physical classwork. Thus, it is likely that much of the classwork will move online, with only the more complex and nuanced coursework actually occurring on campus— this disrupts the entire process, culture, and institution of college.

We might be one of the last generations who see a traditional four-year college, where hybrid degrees will reign in the future, part online, part physical. In the end, I really want to head back to Beloit, yet I also worry about how this will change college education as a whole—will its value stay the same? I do not know, although I am very interested to see how the coronavirus pandemic will shape our education for the next years ahead—in a post-coronavirus world.


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