In February, as we approached one year since the COVID pandemic took hold in the United States, causing sweeping shutdowns and untold loss, we launched a student writing contest. We wanted to give members of the Class of 2020 and all current students the opportunity to share their experiences of the last year. We welcomed stories of hardship, triumph, or both. We urged students to “use your voice to tell your story.” Their voices were strong, compelling, and inspiring.
A View from the Classroom
By Graham Fassero, philosophy major, Class of 2023
Editor’s note: This essay takes place in the spring 2021 semester. Students were under quarantine and studying online for the first couple weeks in order to help mitigate the spread of COVID. The previous semester, classes for the writer — and most upperclassmen — had been completely online.
This semester began as the last one had ended. Twenty-five faces were tiled across the screen, separated from one another by a black grid, and my face was among them. I had started to like it, and I certainly didn’t miss walking to class.
The professor lectured into her webcam. Last year, she would have been pacing in front of the class while we tried to read the dusty scribbles on the chalkboard. Now she sat in a white room with a cactus that had one little orange flower. I thought I might like to have a cactus. There was only a crucifix on the dorm wall behind me. I wished I were home.
A few students really were at home. One was sitting on his deck — it looked warm and green outside — maybe somewhere in the south. Another student leaned back in a gaming chair, holding a dog on her lap. Another sat with her back to a wide bay window, the sun brightening the walls around her and coloring the whole room gold.
Forty-eight weeks we had been online, or on break, quarantined, bunkered — I wasn’t sure what to call it anymore. And two weeks we had been back on campus, watching our livestreamed classes as the snow turned to rain outside. The dorms were looking homier now after a few days. Flags were pinned on the walls. String lights ran around the ceilings. Someone had hung up a map of Middle Earth, and I could see a little blue phone booth sitting on a bookshelf. I saved a screenshot of the professor’s cactus — it might make a good meme someday.
By Monday morning, the rain had stopped. There was mud everywhere, but I’d rather walk around puddles than mess with the Wi-Fi again. I went outside.
It was something of a victory to be back. Students with their packs over their shoulders rolled across campus like an army reclaiming its ground. Two lines converged briefly on the sidewalk, separated, and regrouped six feet apart.
When I found the classroom, I heard a murmur: real voices with rich vocal tones, the noises of notebook paper, and desks and chairs, and wet shoes squeaking. They were real noises, without any headphones or computer speakers. Nobody was muted.
I dropped my backpack onto a desk and sat down. The panorama of the room was a little shocking. There were solid walls with doorways, and open spaces with desks, and real, three-dimensional people that I recognized from our virtual classes. The room was full of life, and motion, and conversation, and it felt like nothing had changed since we left campus a year ago. I turned my head to see it all. None of the students looked quite the same as they had on camera. Most were taller than I expected.
Class hadn’t started yet, and I already felt restless. I wished I didn’t have to wear shoes. I was bored, but my mind couldn’t wander like it did when we were online. This was a bracing, immediate boredom with a hard edge to it. I couldn’t open my computer to escape. I was here, in this classroom, at this moment. I had a purpose — if I could find it — and it was here and now, because I was here and now.
I looked around and saw the guy behind me. I wondered whether I should introduce myself, but we already knew each other’s names. I hesitated.
“Dude, I almost forgot how to get around campus,” I finally said.
He laughed. Even with a mask, he looked more friendly in person than he had on video.
“I’m more upset about having to get dressed,” he said.
“I’m with you,” I agreed.
“Here comes the professor,” my friend said. “You think she brought the cactus with her?” I smiled and turned toward the door. The professor came into the room and looked at us for a moment, almost laughing with her eyes.
“Aha!” she said. “You’re human!”
What a Lost Class Has Found
By Liz Shoemaker, politics and media studies major, Class of 2020
There are very few college seniors unfamiliar with the feeling of finality that at times seems to loom over senior year. Whereas freshman year was all about our firsts, senior year was all about our lasts. Last first day of school. Last time registering for classes. Last time attending banquets for sports and clubs. Last time that classmates and friends from the last four years will all be together. And so on ...
That was all to be expected. We had watched our friends do the same things during their senior years. We watched them note every “last” as they neared graduation and savor every moment with their friends before spreading out from Catholic as apartment leases in Brookland expired and classmates found jobs, graduate programs, or service elsewhere. We were expecting all of this for us — the class of 2020.
A lot of those moments we were promised disappeared very quickly last year, but we certainly got to experience a diaspora as our friends and classmates left Catholic. The only difference is that while the pomp and circumstance of graduation and the unbridled fun of senior week usually warms seniors up to the idea of moving on, we seemingly did it all in one weekend in March.
“Ok, so you’re going to stay in D.C.?” “Oh, you’re in Spain on spring break and you’re trying to get a flight home?” “No, I’m going to stay at home with my parents I think.” “Well, we’ll definitely be together for graduation … right?” “Oh no … I think I left a cup of yogurt on my desk at work before they closed the office.”
These are the kinds of texts that I and many of my friends received the weekend of March 13, 2020. Everyone was suddenly facing significant challenges, instead of enjoying the last few exciting weeks of college.
It was tough. It was tough for both ourselves and our professors to adjust to online learning for the first time. It was tough to be separated from our friends. It was tough to not know when we’d be able to see each other again.
But now a year after the pandemic really “began” in America, 10 months after graduating as a member of the Class of 2020 in May, I don’t find myself asking for pity or sympathy. I cannot speak for all of my classmates, but I hope they feel the same. I’m still disappointed that my classmates and I did not get to experience a senior gala or celebrate the end of our very last finals week together, but I’m more proud of what we did do.
We did keep in touch. We did check in on each other when everything was uncertain. We did find ways to make Zoom meetings special. We ordered takeout and ate together over FaceTime like we were still crammed into a booth in the Pryz. And normalcy crept through wherever it could. My mom was still running late to graduation, even though it happened on the couch in my living room. I still got to walk around the University Mall and reflect on the last four years when I moved out of my apartment. I would’ve done that same thing with no pandemic. I might not have worn a mask, but you get the picture.
The Class of 2020 had an accelerated “growing up.’” We started hobbies we might not have tried until much farther down the line. We learned how to better communicate with each other. We learned how to care for each other. And care for each other we did, in the hardest of times.
When I tell people that I graduated in 2020, even now, people compare us to wartime graduates, or people who didn’t get the standard year of college. I think there is an inclination to refer to us as a lost class, a class that missed out on so much. I sincerely hope people don’t remember us like that. I wish they could instead remember us as being triumphant while looking the hardest times directly in the face.
Remember us as the class that figured it out and got through it. I hope that is the legacy we’ll leave behind at Catholic.
Being in that Number: The Enduring Spirit of Mardi Gras in the COVID Era
By Kate Lorio, English major, Class of 2021
“The city is dying,” said Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Billy Nungesser in describing New Orleans in December of 2020. Indeed, he had hit the mark in more than one grim way. New Orleans, a place whose lifeblood depends on the instinct to come together — represented by its ubiquitous parties, festivals, parades, and live music — was throttled by the COVID-19 pandemic in a particularly soul-stifling way. As the bars, fairgrounds, and social circles of New Orleanians closed and the hospitalization and death tolls rose, residents found themselves swimming in more than the smothering humidity: an everyday horror in which a death march pervaded the city of jazz.
As the months of quarantine and silent streets staggered on, anxiety and ambiguity replaced the usual preparations for the Mardi Gras celebration that occurs before the solemn days of Lent. Historically a touchstone for joy during Louisiana’s darkest hours, the 163-year-old, multi-week assortment of elegant balls, technicolor floats, marching bands, and glittering trinkets flying through the air embodies the city steeped in both revelry and Catholicism.
Even after the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005, the 2006 Mardi Gras had confidently sashayed on, as New Orleanians returned to their devastated streets to hear the marching bands echo once more off damaged buildings. Mardi Gras unites every Louisiana resident through that which runs in our blood: friendship, family, and festival.
As a lifelong Louisianian and a Catholic University senior, I have spent the past four years aching for my home in a particular way every spring. Living in a city that does not cancel school for parades, my college years were the first in my life in which I didn’t venture out into the streets of New Orleans with my family and friends to join the pageantry. Every year the week before Ash Wednesday is a little sadder, as I remember the brassy boom of trumpets coming from blocks away or my father hoisting my younger self on his shoulders to see the glowing floats. However, this year I was united in my yearning for Mardi Gras with more people than just my fellow transplants.
In light of the inevitable announcement that the festivities would be cancelled due to the coronavirus, all Louisianians would have to miss the celebration in 2021. None of us knew what would happen this year, until it started happening. Following the initial disappointment, every resident banded together in a burst of creativity and perseverance to create a COVID Gras.
Almost as if simultaneously moved by the kind of loony spirit that possesses anyone who lives in New Orleans, residents collectively decided to celebrate Mardi Gras more fervently than ever. Hosting live musicians for the neighborhood from their front porches and hiring the out-of-work float artists to turn their houses into papier-mâchéd, technicolored dioramas, Louisianians ensured that the show would go on.
I watched with joy from a 1,200-mile distance. Texts poured in every week of the month leading up to Fat Tuesday from family and friends eager to show me the maps directing drive-by tours of the new float houses (over 3,000 in total!), the costumes people were making to wear solely in their homes, and the bands with instrumentalists playing stationary in the streets, six feet apart from each other.
On Mardi Gras day itself, the final text came in. My mother had sent me a link to a project she worked on for the whole Mardi Gras period. A video accompanied by the songs we usually hear floating through the streets, it was filled with photos she had collected of all my extended family members and other loved ones celebrating Mardi Gras in their own new way. I cried out of happiness seeing my baby cousins in their purple, green, and gold rompers; my brothers smiling at the camera; and the bands parked in the road. In the most unexpected of years, for once, Mardi Gras could be brought to me in D.C. I couldn’t help but feel that the soul of my beloved city had prevailed once more. Its unity and love stood defiantly in the face of despair, embodying the best of the human spirit which has come through during the COVID era.
UNPRIVILEGED AND RIGHTLESS
By Brayan Hernandez, politics and education studies major, Class of 2022
I headed into lockdowns with a worry. This worry was not about being able to socialize with friends, transitioning to virtual learning, or rushing back to normality. This worry was about the health and survival of my family. I worried because I only had $200 to my name, whereas my family did not have as much as I did. My mind had no space to worry about school; how can I worry about school if I had no clear vision on how the next week would come to be? How would my family and I survive with $200? How can I survive without even knowing if I could have food on the table for my family? Along with these worries, I had one major insecurity that dictated my life and the course of my experience as a college student in a pandemic, which was my citizenship status.
I am a Salvadoran immigrant who came to this country at the age of nine. My parents are also immigrants who have also been here for the past 15 years. Throughout my life, I’ve been reminded of the privileges and rights that I cannot hold because of my status, as well as the opportunities that I will never be able to acquire in my life. I’ve been cognizant of this since I came to this country, but the beginning of the pandemic fueled these restrictive circumstances.
While I was able to gain government benefits to support my family in the best way that I could, my parents were excluded from any form of aid and were ultimately disregarded by society. The initial reaction was disappointment, despair, and feeling that we are not given equal opportunity or treated equally despite our contributions to society. However, with the support of friends, family, and resources provided by the University, I was able to provide my parents temporary relief and a sigh of relief as long as we were able to have food at the table.
On a hot, May evening of finals week, I was shaking as I dealt with various symptoms. With an apologetic opening, I informed all my professors that my father and I had contracted COVID. Three weeks later I trembled as I virtually watched my father intubated in the intensive care unit. He was unconscious, on the brink of death, and at many times the doctors could not assure us that he would survive. The times of uncertainty and fear brought by COVID were further strengthened by the possibility of losing my father, who had given up everything he had to get me to where I am today.
After a two-month hospital stay my father was able to recover from COVID but suffered severe injuries that forced him to learn how to walk again and live independently. To this day, his hospital day breaks my heart because he went in there with personal grief from his exclusion from society. I shared the same beliefs that he did. It is frustrating, exhausting, and depressing.
Three times. That is the number of times that I’ve had the ‘conversation’ with my father. The conversation is about whether I will be able to achieve the goals that I want in life in light of my status. On three separate occasions, my father and I reached a consensus that our life in uncertainty will eventually lead to me not being able to achieve my dream of finishing college, having a work authorization permit in this country, and even going back home. Our conversation during lockdowns was the hardest because nothing seemed achievable. My plan was to drop out, but thankfully I did not. Despite submitting my finals a month late, my father continued to encourage me to work past the adversity that I was facing. Day after day, I continued to work to have the same opportunity as others. My experience as a college student in spite of COVID is in no way unique. Like thousands of immigrant students in the US, I face the dilemma of being poor while trying to achieve higher education. This experience taught my family and me that a person’s privilege can be someone’s right and that despite our adversity we will not stand down because of the support that we are able to receive from family, friends, and Catholic University.
LOVE, LOSS, AND CINNAMON FRENCH TOAST
By Amanda Muscente, English major, Class of 2023
April 9, 2005: Saturday mornings were always my favorite. They always came with the promise of sleeping in and cinnamon french toast. There was something different about Saturday mornings, even in the summer when I had no school. It was almost as if they possessed a certain magic. Ever since I was little, I’ve lived with my grandma. Saturday mornings were our favorite. I would stumble in her bedroom and lay next to her. Being a Pre-K teacher, she knew well how to keep a little girl occupied. We would sing nursery rhymes, watch TV shows, play memory games. Sometimes, when she didn’t feel like entertaining me, I would sit and just play with her hands. I would adjust the rings and trace the lines of her palms. I felt I knew those hands better than I knew my own. Then those hands would eventually nudge me out of bed and downstairs for breakfast where she made the best french toast known to man. As I got older the relaxing of Saturday mornings was replaced with soccer games and trips to the mall with friends. My grandmother and I still remained close. She grew up to be my closest confidant.
March 14, 2020: It’s been one day since Catholic University announces we’re moving online and widespread lockdown begins. Like many people, my grandma and I had no idea how long the pandemic would last. She had nowhere to go, no one to see, and took things as cautiously as she could, especially since she was in a vulnerable population. I began to cook more and the role began to switch. I would make her breakfast (a cheese omelet became my signature dish. I couldn’t come close to making her french toast, although I did try). Quarantine took a lot out of everyone, but it especially hurt my grandma who hated being stuck inside. She was always so full of energy and the long time spent inside seemed to drain her of that spark. I spent weeks in my house, spending time with her, watching her deteriorate. I checked on her in between classes and the only noticeable difference as one semester ended and another started was the sickness growing greater within her.
October 17, 2020: My grandmother passed away on a Saturday morning and on her 50th wedding anniversary to her late husband after a 13-year-long battle with cancer. I sat next to her that morning and held her hand, that hand I know so well, and said goodbye. There was no magic that weekend, just a gap that felt too big for anyone or anything to replace.
March 13, 2021: It has been a few months since she left us. COVID-19 is still not over, my grief is not over, but there is hope. I am learning to fill that gap with love - with the things she loved. I dance to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” her forever ringtone. I smile every time I see an elephant with its trunk up, a good luck charm for her. I make Irish soda bread with a family recipe only allowed to be used in March. I remember her and hold onto the love as if it was her hand. Saturday mornings have begun to have that magic again and sometimes, when I wake up, still foggy from last night’s dream, I swear I smell cinnamon.
By Kierstin Shea, English major, Class of 2022
Fluorescent lights and elevator music of 80s songs probably doesn’t sound like a good time to many people, but I like to go grocery shopping. Something about picking out the produce and weighing brands of pasta against each other is relaxing. I started doing weekly grocery stops with my dad in high school, heading in on Sunday nights after dinner to stock up for the week.
At school, my trips to the Giant in Columbia Heights each week were coveted alone time with a podcast as I selected my vegetable of the week. I still went on Sundays, but in the middle of the afternoon, right after lunch. In cold months, I’d stop at Wawa for a tea to keep my hands warm on the walk down the block from the Metro station. It was a race to finish the drink before checkout - I needed the hands to carry my bags home on the metro.
Even on spring break last year, my last “normal” week in the world, I found my way into a grocery store. In the entire city of Camden, New Jersey, there are only two grocery stores. It’s a veritable food desert. As a part of our service experience, we went to one of them. The average Camden resident spends only one dollar on food each day - and we were going to do the same.
Split into family groups, with four dollars between us, we had to buy enough food for three meals that day. It was an exercise in weighing price and quantity against nutritional value. Are black beans worth $1.39 a can? Or would that money be better spent on a loaf of bread? I do not claim to be an expert on the topic of food insecurity, nor can I say one experience gives me the authority to talk about the experience as if I’ve lived it.
However, even in that hour roaming the grocery store, comparing prices in a way I never had, I was comfortable in the building. It was a different store and a different city but the experience of walking each aisle and physically picking up different items was the same.
The same could not be said for a week later.
We all know the story of the initial panic last March and I won’t bore you with the details. I moved back home and didn’t go to a grocery store for two months. My hometown is not the food desert of Camden, but every store in a reasonable distance from our house was out of essentials, and intensely limiting customer capacity.
We started driving to a local farm for our produce. A place known for apple picking and homemade sleeves of donuts became a parade of cars winding between cones in the parking lot. When your car pulled up to the front, pre-packed boxes of fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy products were placed in your trunk and a card reader on the end of a yardstick came through the driver’s side window. It was truly contactless.
I got back to my beloved grocery store experience in July, living with my grandmom as she rehabbed her hip. Under the oppressive heat of the suburban Maryland sun, I went once a week to the local Giant for watermelon and seltzer, baby food to donate at church, and frozen waffles if my cousin joined me.
I was glad to be back in the stores because it was a familiar place, but it was no longer the comfortable and relaxed experience I so looked forward to each week. Now, there were arrows bringing me down each aisle and distances from other people to worry about. It was disorienting and stressful.
A year out from the national toilet paper shortage, grocery stores are re-entering the calm place I know them to be. I’m waiting for the day I can once again linger in the aisles without worrying how far away other customers are standing. For now, I’m sticking to smaller places and keeping a sense of urgency while I shop. It’s not the same, but that doesn’t mean I can’t find the joy in it.
CLASS OF 2020: PANDEMIC EDITION
By Katheryn Wethli, music major, Class of 2020
My anxiety surrounding Covid-19 started before that sad March day when both my college experience and the world I knew ended. Weeks before I had heard any news of a pandemic, my father and I traveled to the place the pandemic first originated: Wuhan, China. My brother, Daniel, was living in China on a Fulbright Scholarship completing research on the 1911 Revolution, a revolution that largely took place in the city of Wuhan. Despite being in a largely non-Christian country during the celebration of Christ’s birth, the city was still magical in its own way. Wuhan was brighter than Times Square and had a few million more people too.
After returning home to the United States for New Years, my father had read about a mysterious virus that was reported to be growing rapidly in Wuhan. I didn’t worry about it until my brother called me to tell me that he was ‘secretly’ being evacuated from his dorm room and would hopefully be one of the 600 lucky Americans who were cleared to return to the United States aboard a large military aircraft. My parents were anxious, and my brother was scared. Thankfully, my brother arrived home safely and tested negative for Covid-19.
When my brother arrived home after completing a two-week quarantine on March Airforce Base in California, I was excited to see him but saddened that his experience as a Fulbright scholar was shortened. I also felt for the people of Wuhan being trapped inside their homes for what went on for more than a few months. My brother’s fellow roommates went on to be locked inside their dormitory for six months. But, still, the coronavirus did not change much of my own life for another month after my brother returned home.
You would think that with all this information and the initial spread of the virus so close to me, that I would have been more prepared for Covid-19 to hit the U.S., but I was not prepared in the least. I was not prepared to say goodbye to any of the things I took for granted: my time as a student, spending time freely with my friends, performing music, or even eating out at local restaurants.
As we all know now, the virus took a lot more from us than we imagined. Despite the pain and suffering people have faced during this past year, I almost feel guilty for wanting a moment to sit in the sadness and unfairness that I faced finishing college and graduating during a pandemic. The coronavirus took away the last few months I thought I had of my youth in a sense. I thought I had more time to enjoy the little moments and safety that I felt as a student before entering postgraduate life. I wanted all of the things that I had been promised when I applied for graduation a few months prior. I wanted to experience my senior recital, senior week, and walking across the stage at graduation. I wanted all the in-person milestones I had dreamed. I thought all of those experiences were guaranteed, but unfortunately, they were not.
As all the things I looked forward to doing were cancelled one by one, God gave me little blessings in return. Perhaps the greatest blessing he gave me was the support of my family. He gave me a new gratitude for technology, a greater admiration for my professors who did not have any more answers than I did about the state of the world, but somehow still gave me hope and security. When I dreamed of graduating from the Catholic University of America, I never thought it would have taken place in my living room on Zoom. Yet, my graduation was more beautiful than I could have ever expected as my family surprised me with a party for the six of us. Finishing college during a pandemic was not easy, but the experience was more fruitful than I could have ever imagined!
Thank you for allowing me to share my story!