These days, it feels like every social college activity is a super-spreader event. I find that over the past year and a half, everything makes me feel just a little guilty in college. Though life seems to be moving back to normal, until COVID-19 no longer poses a serious health threat, everything’s going to feel a little guilt-inducing. For most of my college experience, it’s been an interesting dichotomy of guilt, whether for doing things that might not be the safest or for skipping out on important things because I was concerned about COVID-19.
Being a part of Chabad at Binghamton and Greek life — some pretty big communities on campus — means a normal year for me includes a lot of social interaction. In our attempt to get back to normal, college life has been weird to navigate. When I go out to eat at The Colonial, do I still wear a mask per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendation even though it’s not required? And if that’s what feels right to me, do I take it off when I get to my seat or only when I get my food? Do I put it back on when I go to the restroom? Can I go out when numbers are low because I want to have the college experience most students get, or should I never allow myself to go out until COVID-19 is no longer a big risk? How small should my social circle be?
One mother whose son tested positive for COVID-19 as a freshman in college wrote on Today.com, “Don’t feel guilty, whether you are the student … or the parent,” because this is something on everyone’s minds. When my friends at other schools told me they got COVID-19, they often followed up by saying, “But I wasn’t going out,” or, “Honestly, I deserved it because I went out.” Since testing positive is one of those things that involves so much judgment, people are nervous to tell one another. They feel the need to justify their actions by saying they tried to be safe, or, on the other side of the coin, to own up to it by morally compensating for their poor judgment.
Much of the college experience feels directly opposite to what pandemic life is like. It’s good to be in multiple social circles. Involvement should be diverse and mingling with everyone is encouraged. It’s all about meeting different people from different communities and backgrounds and having an entirely unique experience compared to that of anyone around you. If my day is spent interacting with 50 different people, beyond just sitting in the same lecture hall as them, I feel I’ve done it right. When there are in-person classes and events, this is organic to me. I don’t have to put lots of effort into making that happen — In fact, I’d have to put lots of effort into not making that happen.
As a third-year student, my first year was normal until March. Since then, my time in college has looked completely different. I went from meeting 1,000 people a week and seeing rooms filled to capacity as a good thing, to solely interacting with a small group of people and ordering in from the Lost Dog Cafe and Lounge. While some of my communities tried to maintain some semblance of normalcy, there has definitely been a rollercoaster of comfort levels when it comes to hygiene and safety.
When I look back at my college experience thus far, I can’t help but think about the eyes that are on the college campuses throughout the country. I know many people think we’re selfish and endangering ourselves and others. Generally speaking, the college population isn’t known to have the highest regard for the prevention of sickness, considering we treat our bodies pretty badly. After all, drinking, not sleeping and having high stress levels, topped off with mac and cheese bites and hot pockets at 2 a.m. aren’t generally conducive to a high-functioning immune system. Maybe that’s why we’re all complaining about the “Bing plague” on Yik Yak.
The weird thing is, before this semester started, all anyone was talking about was vaccination requirements on campus. Obviously this sort of thing is always changing, due to the Delta variant, other variants, the full approval of the Pfizer vaccine from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other factors. Regardless of that fact, it should be a point of comfort for those outside of our college communities to know that we are essentially living within our own ecosystem, which has a higher vaccination rate than most of the country. That said, the surrounding community is inadvertently affected by most of the things we do in a pretty real way, and we can’t forget that.
This sort of thing also makes you wonder, who really is to blame? Are the students responsible for doing exactly what college kids do, or are the administrations of all these colleges at fault for opening campuses back up in the first place? This isn’t just a question for the fall 2021 semester — this is a question for most of my college career at this point. Was last year conducted in the best way it could have been done? Were all administrative actions in the interest of the students and their health? I wonder if it makes sense for me to be feeling guilty for doing all the things most of my college community is doing. Why should I be skipping out if everyone else is opting in? Zackary Turner, executive director of the Washington Student Association, noted in August of 2020 that “no higher education institution in the country can rightfully claim that they handled this pandemic perfectly, and few can claim that they have handled it well.” I think this remains true a year later.
The way we change our approach to social interaction because of COVID-19 isn’t just about the actual health risk. It’s also about guilt and the fear of judgment, among other things. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, COVID-19 can cause a lot of shame and guilt surrounding the potential to infect others. Having our lives intertwined with one another as part of the nature of college makes this a pretty complex issue. While trying to toe the line between feeling guilty for missing out or guilty for not taking things seriously enough and actually just being in college, I’m learning that this is not a black-and-white issue. Although it feels like we’re missing out on the glory days, we have a big safety responsibility to the greater Binghamton community, and we’re finding new ways to reinvent the typical college experience every day.
Ariel Wajnrajch is a junior majoring in psychology.