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What it’s like finishing college at the beginning of a pandemic

On Monday, March 9, I was a regular college senior at Cornell University, enjoying my last semester. I had finished nearly all of my graduation requirements, and had been enjoying my less academic courses like Swing Dance and Introduction to Wines.

I was meeting up with old friends, making new ones, and looking forward to Cornell traditions such as the annual spring festival, called Slope Day, and special trips and events we call Senior Days. Most of all, I was excited for my family to celebrate my four years of hard work with me at graduation this May.

Josh Eibelman

Josh Eibelman Image by Courtesy of the Author

All of that was upended on Tuesday, March 10, when as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, Cornell announced it was moving classes online and requiring students to finish the semester at home after spring break. What was supposed to be perhaps the best two months of my college experience was reduced to two weeks.

Now, I plan to make the most of these two weeks, even though many events on campus have been cancelled — gatherings of 100 or more people have been prohibited. But I can’t help thinking about everything I have imagined these last months of my college years to be, and that now have evaporated out of existence.

Only last semester, any time a fellow student would ask me whether I would miss Cornell, my reflexive answer was always no — I had no doubt in my mind about that. Only weeks ago, my exchanges with friends and strangers alike would include the usual and well-accepted deprecations about how uncivilized and small Ithaca is, and about how we all cannot wait to move to New York, or Boston, or San Francisco.

But now, confronted with the reality of suddenly leaving Ithaca for good, it no longer seems so enticing. I was supposed to part ways with Cornell and my era as a college student on my own terms. Instead, COVID-19 has made that goodbye a double knockout: sadness over the loss of my time here and fear over a deadly virus that threatens to ravage the globe.

Cornell University

Cornell University Image by Courtesy of the Author

I do not even feel safer going home to Boston. Tompkins County in upstate New York, where Cornell is located, has so far reported zero cases of COVID-19. In contrast, there have been twenty confirmed or presumptive cases of the virus at home in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, where I will be finishing the semester virtually.

There are also many Cornell students from Westchester County, the center of one of the biggest outbreaks of COVID-19. Will going home truly keep them safe from contracting the infection?

The economic effects of COVID-19 are another worry. The Dow Jones officially entered a bear market on March 11, falling almost 1,500 points. This might have negative long-term consequences for college seniors like me, who are entering the job market and workforce. Approximately half of those who graduated during and just after the Great Recession of 2008-09 were underemployed and experienced delays and setbacks in their careers.

Having grown up seeing the effects of that recession on my family, I certainly hope the economic setbacks are temporary. Still, despite all the economic and public health uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, I plan on making the most of my circumstances. Perhaps I will meet Boston-area students coming home from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, NYU, and other universities which have taken similar measures as Cornell.

I will get to spend more time with family, including my recently-born half-sister. If the old adage “everything happens for a reason” is even remotely true, I hope it is true now. And here’s to hoping that these sacrifices truly prevent the spread of COVID-19 and save lives.

Josh Eibelman is a senior at Cornell University and a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @JoshEibelman


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