Boris Tsang/Sun Senior Photographer

A student reads on Libe Slope in March 2020.

March 16, 2021

How It Started, How It’s Going: A Year Since the World Shut Down

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It has been a year of Zoom, of nose swabs, of swift policy changes. It has been a year since the lives of Cornell students turned upside down, as the coronavirus pandemic pushed students off a bustling campus that remains a world away.      

Cornell announced its transition to virtual instruction on March 10, 2020, sowing panic across campus, as administrators told Cornellians to leave at the start of spring break and to stay home for the remainder of the semester. On March 13, Cornell suspended classes for three weeks and urged students to leave as soon as possible. In a span of days, the busting prelim season campus transformed into an abandoned ghost town of buildings and quads. 

Since students fled Ithaca and Cornell rolled through a rocky fall reopening, mask wearing, online classes and regular surveillance testing have become the new campus normal. In the shadow of the virus, students supported one another from a distance. They studied for exams, celebrated milestones and tried to stay safe, whether in Ithaca or multiple time zones away.

As vaccine rollout begins, here’s a look into the lives of students who lived through a pandemic-driven year as Cornell looks ahead to a future once again filled with Lynah Rink games, Slope Day and Schoellkopf Field graduations. The following interviews — conducted on March 12 and 13 this year — have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Spring closure announcements stun Cornell students  

Liufu ’21 takes a selfie in April 2020.
Liufu ’21 snaps a shot a year later.

Jack Liufu ’21: ‘I didn’t think it was going to last this long’

I honestly can’t believe it’s been a year. It’s shocking. I had a meeting last year on this day, the Friday, at the Statler, and I remember the weather was stunning that day. Today, it’s shockingly similar, how nice the weather is today. And I feel like everyone’s kind of in that space. I didn’t think it was going to last this long.

Jack Tracey ’20: ‘I remember the rush on hand sanitizer started’

Last March, I was a senior studying government living off campus, but still going to classes in person. I was working two jobs on campus at that time, one at the LGBT studies department and another at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. I was a building monitor. I just remember, February was coming through, and we’re like, “Oh, this COVID thing is real.” I remember the rush on hand sanitizer started. I took an extra bottle from one of the closets in the LGBT studies department, because we were like, “What is going on?”

George ’21 poses on Libe Slope before the pandemic and Cornell’s closure.
With longer hair and a fuzzy friend, George ’21 finds herself in new circumstances.

Rachel George ’21: ‘Everyone was buzzing’

I remember this distinctly. I was eating a scone. It’s a very specific scone, a spinach and feta scone at Gimme! Coffee in the Gates building Gimme! Coffee bar, and I was drinking an oat latte. I checked my email, and it was with a friend that was a graduating senior at the time. They were obviously very distraught, and I was just very surprised to hear about classes getting canceled.

Everyone was buzzing. You could go up to anyone that you saw that you knew and just start talking about the email with them because people were really confused as to what it meant and what the future would look like.

One thing I do remember is how many people were on the slope that Friday we found out … I’m sure a lot of graduating seniors were reminiscing about their past four years. I feel like when I go up to Ithaca in a few weeks to collect some things, I’ll probably be on the slope, too. It is one of those places where you sit on the slope with your friends and look back on the years that you spent there.

Matthew Pruden grad: ‘I remember having to scramble with the professor on how to deal with everything moving forward’

It was quite the shock. I was TAing at the time, and we got a flood of emails that first stated that we should start thinking about transitioning to online a few weeks after we had our spring break. The next day, we got an email saying that the switch is going to happen earlier, right after spring break. The day after that, we mainly got told everything was being shut down — in three days, we went from thinking we had to switch to online to everything being shut down. 

I remember having to scramble with the professor on how to deal with everything moving forward, especially in such a short amount of time that we are given. 

For me personally, too, it was a time of confusion. I’m an international student from Canada, and when it came down to going home, and with the border shutting down, I didn’t know what was happening. Did I have to go back to Canada? Was I allowed to stay in the United States? 

Everything with that was exacerbated in the summer, when there were talks under the administration at the time to revoke visa statuses for those who weren’t taking classes in-person. It was definitely a very confusing and worrisome time.

Over the summer, students struggled to adapt to a virtual world.

Emerson Sirk grad: ‘I can connect more with the students, and I try to think about how they are feeling’

We [Introduction to Oceanography professors and TAs] started planning over the summer how to effectively communicate course material and allow for flexibility with students. There was a lot of stuff that needed to be considered while teaching students in that capacity in class. In that environment with over 1,000 people, it was not an easy task for my advisor to try to figure out how to communicate effectively to that number of students. 

In my lab sections, I had about 30 students that were pretty much just taught by me every week for the weekly labs. I had students all over the world. I had students in China that were in lab at 3 a.m. I had to figure out the ways to make it easier for them. It’s the role that we played. We wanted to make it as normal as possible for the students, and it was a challenge. 

It’s still a challenge with the class and team this semester to get all the material we want to get across while also offering flexibility to students. I think that it worked out really well for the situation, but it continues to be something that needs to be considered when we’re talking about how to effectively communicate with students. I feel like I’m that middle ground in between a professor and themselves. I can connect more with the students, and I try to think about how they are feeling, what they might be going through, a full spectrum of ways of thinking about the class. It just requires that flexibility to maneuver throughout these types of courses.

Oscar Martinez 23: ‘I found that the most valuable part of Cornell was the people’

What happened in the summer was that I was reflecting on my time as an undergraduate and thinking about my goals, what I wanted to do and where I wanted to eventually wind up. I had just transferred to Cornell and that was really, really huge for me because I wasn’t prepared for college in high school and I knew nothing about college until I got to college. It was just one of the most uphill battles of my life. 

I quickly realized the value in just being at Cornell and being in an Ivy, and it’s not necessarily just in the classes — I found that the most valuable part of Cornell was the people, the extracurriculars, actually being physically present in class and talking to professors. You’re truly in an environment with a ton of intellectual people and so many crazy thoughts among everyone. I really found a lot of beauty and so much value in that. 

I was just thinking about how I was to make the most out of my time as an undergrad because I am the type of person who doesn’t like to regret things. I hate regret. I hate thinking, “Man, I should have done that, at that moment in time where I’ll never have that chance to make that decision again.”

When I saw that the fall was going to be online, I decided to take a gap semester — which turned into a gap year — to pursue an alternative form of education in a manner that would allow me to do more reflection on where I’m going in my path and also gain some experience.

As the pandemic dragged through a new school year at Cornell, students learned new lessons about themselves and rethought their work.

Liufu: ‘I need to do things that are good for me’

Maybe it’s a senior thing, maybe it is a pandemic thing, but I’ve really started internalizing the idea that I need to do things that are good for me. I feel like I used to take some classes that I just didn’t enjoy because I thought it was what I wanted to do, or I was participating in things that I was like, “Do I really want to do that?” Now, I think it’s really making me realize how precious and valuable all our time is, because at any moment it could be taken away. 

James ’22 poses before the pandemic.
James ’22 cut his hair to change things up during a monotonous semester.

Daniel James ’22: ‘Because of the pandemic, I wanted to do something totally different’

I’ve made some interesting decisions. On one level, I cut all my hair off. Just because of the pandemic, I wanted to do something totally different, a new look for 2021. I’ve also taken on quite a few more responsibilities in the past year, creating and hosting my own podcast [Black Voices on the Hill] last September. It’s celebrating six months on the air. We have over 500 followers now on Instagram, and it’s growing daily and weekly. We’ve had Mayor Svante Myrick ’09, great guests and students around campus, TikTok queens who’ve gotten millions of likes, the county chair of the legislature. We’ve had so many different guests on the show now. It’s been a great thing to just be able to do that and express myself that way, about not only how I feel about my culture, but about my people. That’s been distinct. 

I am now the president of the ILR Student Government Association — that happened in October, a month after I launched my podcast, and so I lead a student body of over 1,000 people. That changed in the past year. I’m doing a TED Talk this year at Cornell, and that will be very interesting.

Lam ’24 adjusted to a remote schedule and college transfer in his first year at Cornell.

Karl Lam ’24: ‘Things can change in the blink of an eye or a blink of a moment’

I think the one thing that’s changed about me is probably my perspective on how fluid things can be. I used to think back then that decisions or acceptances or these seemingly big life decisions are set in stone. And I think that looking back, in hindsight, I realized that these kinds of things can change in the blink of an eye or a blink of a moment. No one could have anticipated a full-blown pandemic. I’m taking it slow and I’m appreciating what I have right now, because I know that things can change so fast.

George: ‘I’m more cognizant about the time I’m spending’

I’ve become more present in the fact that I’m not so worried about the time that I’m spending not doing homework or prepping for exams. I’m more cognizant about the time I’m spending with my family or doing something for my own self. I do think that especially at Cornell, and for my first two years, I was very concerned about studying all the time or just being productive. We’re in this culture of, “If you’re not productive or not working all the time, what are you even achieving?” It’s those little things that help ground us and allow us to be present from activities that aren’t homework or work related.

Tracey: ‘I also feel like I’ve lost a large part of who I am’

Sometimes I think I’ve become a more distilled version of myself, because I’ve had a lot of time to reflect and to think and to read, and being done with school is also really great, because it opened up my time. The opportunity cost of time when you’re at Cornell feels very high.

So in one sense, I do feel like I have really expanded myself and grown a lot from COVID. But I also feel like I’ve lost a large part of who I am. I used to shave regularly. I just can’t even imagine shaving every day or every other day. Waking up, going to class, getting a coffee, having a chat with someone, then going to another class, then going to my job and writing stuff and then meeting someone for a drink and going home. Now, I can do one thing a day. Grocery day, that’s the day. Shaving day, that’s the day. 

I make it sound very bright and funny, but also, I’m tired. I can’t talk to my friends. I have a few friends around here that I could go outdoors and socially distance with. I get sad sometimes because I’m tired, and I feel like not myself.

Despite yearlong struggles, Cornellians hold onto hope.  

James: ‘There’s an accessibility issue that Cornell has addressed to some degree and still needs to continue to address’ 

This past year, we’ve dealt with not only racial injustice and police genocide at large, but the questions of what it means to have paramilitary on campus. I think all that is couched in financial and socioeconomic inequity among students. I think that there has been, number one, a definite understanding of the fact that COVID does not create an unlevel playing field — it reveals the unlevel playing field that has existed for so many students. I think that Cornell has realized that in terms of being very cautious about students, where they are, content tracing, quarantining and being very vigilant. 

A lot of privileged students don’t have the same worries that people who are not have. Even when it comes to the classroom, Zoom, Wi-Fi, technology, I think that there’s an accessibility issue that Cornell has addressed to some degree and still needs to continue to address. But I think it has improved greatly. The blindfold has come off in the past year when it comes to this issue of accessibility and its correlation with socioeconomic status and race. 

I think that we no longer mythologize Cornell as being the most egalitarian and the “first American University.” We can stand up for other people outside of our community when it comes to racial injustice, but when Black and Brown students say “I feel unsafe with cops walking around with guns,” Cornell does nothing. So I think the good part, believe it or not, about it is that it has stopped us from selling that false narrative. Cornell has work to do; Cornell, do better. It has work to do when it comes to making Black and Brown students feel safe on this campus.

The third thing is having the conversation. I’ve seen a lot more equity and justice conversations concerning students, and I think that’s really important. I think our student leadership, as well, has taken a huge stance and a huge undertaking in that role as well, being authentic and letting their voices be heard. 

Tracey ’24 has grown used to wearing a mask, like all Cornell students.

Tracey: ‘I want to have shenanigans happen again’ 

I want to make out with a stranger again, that’s one. I want to travel again. And I want to eat in a restaurant and I want to get drunk with strangers. And I want to have shenanigans happen again. I want to see people, and I want to see people without masks.