After an initial retreat to my parent’s house when the novel coronavirus started shutting down parts of the U.S., I decided to move back to my college town to finish my last semester at the University of Iowa on campus. However, I quickly realized that I wasn’t making the average transition from my parent’s generous snack supply and Apple TV to my quirky, minimalist Iowa City apartment. I was moving into a small apartment with two roommates. I was moving to a crowded campus filled with college students with various ideas on social distancing. I was moving to a state without a shelter-in-place order. All during a pandemic. Woo!

Facing Pandemic Problems on Campus

My hometown of Chicago, Illinois had taken distinct social distancing measures. Governor Jay Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot clearly explained how Illinois residents should act to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and that was even before the shelter-in-place order. Their stern and strict rules provided added comfort to my parent’s home.

While Iowa City had shut down non-essential businesses it had not issued a shelter-in-place order, so I returned to a town without clear guidance on how to act. Though this initially caused anxiety, I’ve come to understand some reasons why Iowa made this decision. The economic impact on the many Iowan agricultural and rural communities play an important role in the midst of COVID-19 that I, a privileged college student in an urban area, didn’t consider. However it still concerned me that, with no state-wide standard, people have the freedom to make different, potentially dangerous, decisions concerning safety precautions.

As spring break ended, a flood of college students returned from Florida, Mexico, or anywhere with a beach and lack of personal space. I was suddenly sharing the sidewalks and grocery store aisles with people who not only hadn’t been socially distancing, they had been partying in Tampa with 500 strangers. My anxiety and fear started to grow. When I went on walks or to the grocery store, I began to side-eye everyone around me. Who was social distancing? Who wasn’t? How could I tell and would it be too late?

Even the safety of my apartment was thrown into question when one of my roommates accepted a job at the university hospital. The apartment’s one bathroom and kitchen lost some of its quirky charm when we realized we would all be sharing them – potentially exposing all of us to COVID-19 in a new way.  Eventually, my roommate moved out of the apartment to stay with her parents, so that she could have more room to socially distance as necessary.  

To top it all off, the university cancelled in-person graduation, offering instead an online ceremony. Though I know this was the safe thing to do, frankly, it just seems like a bummer. I could come back when they next host an in-person graduation, but who knows where I’ll be living or if I will be able to/interested in attending. The worst part is not the lack of graduation itself, but of all the “lasts” most seniors get to experience. I won’t have my last sorority formal, or my last class, or my last karaoke night at my favorite bar.  In fact, some friends went home for spring break and likely won’t return except to move out.  So I’m missing out on a lot of “goodbyes” too.  There’s very little catharsis to be had. 

Learning to Deal

Despite everything, I felt an enormous sense of relief arriving back on campus. My roommates were still here, my adorably decorated living room was still adorable, and the university’s Pentacrest was still standing. It felt normal, and I desperately craved normalcy. Plus, my independence energized me. A survival mode I hadn’t felt in the comfort of my parents’ home switched on, so instead of misbehaving in freedom, my standard of health increased. My roommates and I fell into a routine of daily Clorox wipe-downs, long walks, classes via Zoom, and occasional movie nights to boost morale. Despite struggles, I felt healthy and relatively happy. 

Living in a state with no shelter-in-place and on a college campus in a shared apartment can be difficult. Luckily, I was able to turn to my friends and family for support and find ways to calm my nerves. I learn lessons about health, stress and communication every day. I began to understand that I can’t force every single person I encounter to live according to the exact standards in my head, but I can still trust them to do the right thing. When I stop looking for reasons to distrust people around me, I start noticing more face masks, more happy hours held 6 feet away between a porch and sidewalk, and more local businesses delivering food with personalized thank-you notes tucked inside. In these moments, I feel very proud and happy to live in Iowa City.

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