Is campus really moving on from the plague years? Are we emerging from that fog of burnout? Even as we remain cautious, it’s not too early to celebrate how far we’ve come together since the spring of 2020, when the prevailing mood at UT was fear.
I’ve been reading back through the first mentions of COVID-19 in the pages of the Daily Beacon. It’s a strangely haunting experience.
First, there was a coverage of a Lunar New Year celebration on campus in which the writer applied the same emotional distance to the virus in China as to the wildfires which were then raging across Australia. We thought the virus had the same odds of reaching Knoxville as those fires.
About a week later, as a freshman staff writer, I wrote the opening sentence of the Beacon’s first feature on COVID-19: “It’s a morbid word problem: If thousands of people contract a contagious virus in a Chinese city of millions, how long will it take for the virus to reach the University of Tennessee?”
The answer was about a month. I’ll always remember the mood on campus those weeks before we were sent home to quarantine. Professors were the first to get nervous, asking if we were still comfortable passing paper copies around the classroom. We found their caution amusing.
But as the virus got closer, we all began to prepare, as if for a storm coming off the Gulf. Fewer people were out and about on campus. There was an eeriness that is still hard to describe. The week they sent us home, I attended a production of Hamlet at the Carousel Theater – the chills and whispers and ghosts were freshly emblematic of our times.
Administrators said the situation was “rapidly evolving” and everything could change in minutes, so we in the audience pulled out our phones at intermission to check the data, which we assumed had changed since the uses of the world had seemed “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable.” We turned to our neighbors and shared that look of stunned resignation.
The first question was always, “do you think they’ll send us home?” and the second was “for how long?”
We were home for so long. And even when we returned, it was to a different UT. There was still that fear, only now it was eclipsed by exhaustion and boredom and frustration. Sound familiar? Sound boring?
I didn’t expect to be a senior writing about the ongoing pandemic. I didn’t expect that I would still have a pack of face masks with me. I didn’t expect to be so bored by all of it. But I also didn’t expect the exhilaration of seeing those storm clouds behind us, of seeing where we’ve been and waving goodbye to that fear together.
It’s too early to say we’re in the clear. We are not living, as some believe, in a “post-COVID” world.
But it’s not too early to be hopeful. It’s not too early to talk about rebuilding the campus experience, growing beyond the pandemic years, getting engaged and energized again. This year’s first edition of the Daily Beacon is not simply a Welcome Back edition. It is a comeback edition.
It’s time for us to have grace for ourselves, to push ourselves out of our collective funk and, yes, to celebrate. We at the Daily Beacon will be here to get down on paper how campus bloomed after this long winter.
Welcome back, Volunteers.