February 8, 2022

SPARACIO | The Second First Day

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All I can do is stare at my reflection, boxed within two pairs of bisecting parallel lines and four right angles; nothing feels right, and I’m paralyzed once again by my rectangular composition. By now, we all know what it feels like to stare into the pixelated abyss that is Zoom. Even the word “Zoom” seems to trail off into the distance, attempting to bridge our distant worlds, but lengthening the divide instead. 

Zoom creates a world of its own filled with Zoom “norms.” The silent breakout room. The impossibility of eye contact. Turning the camera on. Turning the camera off. Going from visible to invisible. “Can you hear me?” Muting. Unmuting. Wondering whether Zoom has “muted” college; the bustling lecture halls, dining halls and hallways, all silenced by a button on a screen. The blurred backgrounds. The blurring of ourselves into the background. The blurring of two years’ time into one long Q-tip COVID-19 test. One long never-ending saga of precarity. The fear of illness, the immense loss and bouts of divisive politics blend into the background as well, but they cannot be scrubbed off with hand sanitizer. 

These past two weeks have felt particularly upsetting for many students. Perhaps a better way to describe it is an overall sense of dread, hopelessness or lack of morale towards a pandemic which seems to never end. It feels like we are taking a step backward after our previous completely in-person semester, even though it ended with the emergence of the Omicron variant (which resulted in final exams being moved online). 

Students are left with the painstaking uncertainty of whether this semester could have started in person with 97 percent of the student population vaccinated and 85 percent boosted. However, the pandemic college experience is trapped between two pairs of bisecting parallel lines; one set represents public health, while the other set represents the college experience. Public health always comes first — and it should — but these two ideas have intersected to create a college experience that is continuously metamorphosing. As a result, I watched carpooling to vaccination sites become a weekend activity and shifting course modalities create new habits. I watched dorm buildings function as dining halls, lecture halls, gyms and places for friends to socialize.

It’s when what should have been or what could have been is locked inside the dining hall take-out containers which continue to pile up. I learned that having a steady Wi-Fi connection does not foster a deep connection to Cornell or to the people that you interact with on Zoom. This lack of connection has manifested in the form of loneliness and poor mental health amongst the student body. It’s when you begin to wonder: Can you think outside the Zoom box, when you are stuck within one? 

A reckoning with uncertainty continues to define our college experiences. I think part of this involves the debate about abolishing the Dean’s List and median grades from transcripts. Every current student at Cornell has watched the collapse of normal life and the unraveling of the college experience. It feels like grades attempt to quantify the unquantifiable at this moment more than any time before (though they always do). A letter on a transcript will never encompass the abnormal circumstances in which the grade was earned. I don’t think the abolishment of the Dean’s List or median grades will necessarily improve student mental health, but it will serve to expose the shortcomings of grades in an unprecedented time. This goes to show that the pandemic has changed the way students think about their realities, and that Cornellians will continue to tackle the questions that arise. Some of the most pivotal being: How do we transition back to normal life? How do we search for lost time? 

One caveat of this particular semester is a “second first day of school.” What I would really like is a second first year of school, but alas, that is impossible. For now, it’s time to turn screen sharing into shared spaces, time to break out of breakout rooms and time for the chat to become the chit-chat characteristic of college. Although this depends on student compliance with mask mandates and the status of the ongoing pandemic. I hope that this turning point early in the semester will mark a permanent move into the third dimension, a farewell to my rectangular Zoom-box self and the embrace of learning how to think outside the Zoom box once again. 

Rebecca Sparacio is a sophomore in the Dyson School. She can be reached at [email protected].The Space Between runs every other Wednesday this semester.