On Graduating During a Pandemic
by Eliana Grosof, Oberlin Class of 2020
On a cold Thursday evening in March 2020, I picked up Roger from the airport for the last time. “Tina told me that you don’t do pickups anymore, so I really appreciate it,” he said after climbing into my car. I shrugged. It was true. Despite the fact that giving rides to the Cleveland airport was a lucrative, steady, and flexible side-gig, I had grown tired of it and instead chose to focus on making the most of my final year of college. The first time I picked up Roger ’92 from the airport as a second-year student, I still had to pay close attention to Google Maps. Since then, I had given Roger rides every few months due to his position on the Oberlin Alumni Leadership Council, and despite my initial indifference, I had grown to like him.
Roger wears large glasses with a brown goatee that highlights his bony cheekbones and intense eyes. He possesses the passionate, slightly manic energy that I’ve come recognize as characteristic of Oberlin. Whenever I meet someone like that, inevitably they either went to Oberlin, go to Oberlin, or should’ve gone to Oberlin. We settled into our usual pattern of conversation: I politely asked about his life, and then we launched into a discussion of the current affairs at Oberlin wherein I offered my brutally honest opinions. Strangely, Roger really liked these talks — he appreciated that I never pulled any punches, and I suspect, the way in which it connected him with Oberlin’s student body without facilitation through administrators. For me, it was a rare, unasked for look at the future, an example of what happens when Obies grow up. Over time, I became the first or last person he saw before he returned to Boston, a familiar face to welcome him to Ohio. When we parted later that evening, it was heartfelt.
For much of my time at Oberlin, I didn’t appreciate intrusions from the outside world, even from alumni. I only read the news a few times a week despite my major in politics, my school’s reputation for activism, and the unfortunate condition of Trump’s presidency for nearly my entire college career. I existed in a world solely composed of opinionated 18-to-22 year-old students, middle-aged professors, and the occasional dog. During certain weeks, even chatting with a townie felt like culture shock. In short, I was completely immersed in the bubble of Oberlin College, and I liked it.
Throughout my last year I often drove ten minutes north on a rural highway to a rock climbing gym called On The Rocks. When I first left town, I would pass a small liquor store, a DrugMart, and an equestrian stable. Then I passed a red barn built next to a decaying farmhouse, a golf course, an outdoor gear store, and then, just before the entrance to I-80, the gym. My climbing group, a cohort of computer science femmes who double majored with a non-STEM, scheduled times to go to the wall together via Facebook Messenger group chat. It was a warm, wonderful group of folks who endlessly and unconditionally supported each other. Before I left Oberlin, I made sure to hand off my semester’s climbing pass to one of the group members staying in town, just in case.
When I drove south along that same road, I often encountered brown horses with blinders pulling black buggys down rolling hills for bearded men in Abe Lincoln-style black hats. Too many times, I risked my life taking pictures through my dashboard, struck by the foreignness of real life Amish people. Once when returning from a Saint Motel concert late at night, I glimpsed a buggy driving back at one-thirty in the morning. Seriously? I thought. In February?
I heard from a townie friend of mine that sometimes, Amish teenagers would rebel and sneak out into the outside world. You could tell who they were because their clothes were used and they had strange accents. My friend, Hanna, worked at Blue Rooster Bakery, a mom-and-pop shop that I patronized at least once per week during my last two years of college. I quickly discovered that their Gramma’s Porch Cake soothed my academic suffering. I raved so much about this cake, a yellow cake with chocolate chips, pecans, chocolate buttercream, and caramel, that my mother insisted on trying some when she visited me in Oberlin.
If it wasn’t too busy, I would sit at the little blue table by the front window, ostensibly “getting some reading done”. Hanna and I would kibitz, interrupted by the occasional customer. She was a loving, sarcastic, silly, no-bullshitter with a brother who’d recently died of the opioid epidemic. She hadn’t gone to college, she’d been married and divorced by age 26, and had even worked in a factory making paint chips once upon a time. Sheltered in affluent, liberal suburbs and cities, I had never met anyone like her, and yet I respected the hell out of her. Somehow in my four years at Oberlin, I had overcome the elitism that I had been implicitly taught. When I hugged her goodbye on Saturday, March 14, she reassured me that we would see each other again. I miss her.
When I moved into my college-owned studio apartment at 143 W College Street, Floor 2 West, it was very important to me that I hang Buddhist prayer flags outside my window. The prayer flags served a dual purpose for me — they marked the space as both temporary and as unequivocally mine. For a long time, far longer than my college years themselves, I have contemplated the temporariness of a four-year college experience. The idea of college sustained me through middle school and high school. Since I knew it would only be four years, I resolved to be as awake as humanly possible to the experience while it was happening. As I was preparing to leave Oberlin for the last time, a friend of mine wistfully remarked that, “We were all busy taking Oberlin for granted.” While that was probably true for most of my fellow seniors, I don’t think I actually was taking Oberlin for granted, not particularly. As my prayer flags gradually decayed, aged by snow, wind, rain, and sunshine, they reminded me of my impermanence every day — of my current struggles, of my body, of my college years.
I burned my prayer flags in a fire that I built by hand in the Tappan Square fire pit with several friends in attendance. They were from different parts of my life — climbing, computer science class, a winter term project — yet in typical Oberlin fashion, they all knew each other at the acquaintance level. Burning my flags just six hundred feet from the store that sold them to me gave me some much needed closure. Yet it still broke my heart leaving Oberlin so soon. I had spent the days previous saying goodbye to too many people too fast. I could not think of many people that I truly “needed” to see one last time, and that hurt too.
Oberlin has taught me that I like to be a good neighbor, particularly when I am not expected to be one. When I lived in my apartment, one day my neighbor’s girlfriend told me he was sick, and I made him chicken soup. My neighbor, an international student from Beijing, lived in the other studio apartment on the second floor. A few months later, he spontaneously brought me cake from Aladdin’s at midnight. (Yes, cake from a Lebanese restaurant.) We had known each other loosely through the computer science department but became friends after we ended up living next to one another. We would do little neighborly things, like borrow kitchen supplies or face masks (pre-USA coronavirus), and once we even made authentic Chinese food together. When I was in high school, I was so afraid of being friends with people simply because I frequently ran into them. Now, I realize that proximity is an essential part of a friendship and that something important gets lost without it. A friendship that can withstand a sustained lack of proximity is indeed an extraordinary friendship, but friendships that cannot survive distance still matter, sometimes intensely.
Still, co-ops shaped my daily life much more than my neighbors ever did. Oberlin co-ops, for those uninitiated, are group-managed housing and dining spaces. Students cook two vegetarian meals per day, plus treats, for co-operatives ranging in size from 35 to 120 people using professional-style kitchens. At Oberlin College, it is the main school-approved alternative to cafeteria-style dining. Co-ops provided me with crucial stability. I could rely on the fact that twice per day there would be warm, healthy food waiting for me at the same times and the same place. When I lived at Tank Hall, I would sit on the large wraparound porch in the fall sunlight, eating my lentils and rice, while the neighborhood orange tabby cat George offered his belly for petting. During my time in Pyle Inn Co-op, I could choose between eating with my sweet, constantly-stressed economics major friend and my queer ant-brain studying friend whom I’d become close to during a dance class. I never had to text them to see if they would be eating lunch at the same time as me — if they weren’t eating one meal, they’d likely be at the next. It meant that I could have a social life without expending emotional energy to secure it. But co-ops were also emotionally draining. I won’t get into the details of the power structures here, but for example, nearly every change in a co-op needed to be agreed upon with consensus from the entire co-operative. This resulted in tiring discussions at least once a week, often more, for the vast majority of my time at Oberlin. Every member of the cooperative had an idea of what was wrong with the co-op and how to fix it. As a student of human behavior, I often found co-op processes and dynamics more fascinating than frustrating, and relished in watching my current trainwreck of a co-op barrel forward.
After three-and-a-half years, I was exhausted by co-operative living, but felt I couldn’t quit. Co-ops were my social life, my source of stability, and my weekly act of generosity. I didn’t want to figure out how to be okay without a co-op for just a few months. That said, when everything did change with the pandemic, I rejoiced knowing that I didn’t have to be in a co-op anymore.
The fact of the matter was that I had mixed feelings about Oberlin. Though I had many acquaintances and friends, I lacked adequate sources of emotional support on-campus. I spent the second weekend of my last spring semester visiting my older brother in Pittsburgh; the third visiting a good friend in Chicago; and during the fourth weekend, my best friend from high school visited me for the first and only time in Oberlin. I found myself needing to leave more and more, driving forty minutes each way just to work at a nice coffeeshop outside of town. But between my trips and my three-and-a-half classes, I’d never been happier at Oberlin. I was chilled out. I made friends more easily. I went with the flow. I stopped caring so much about campus politics. It started to seem silly and ridiculous to me how much Oberlin students cared about the administration reflecting the students’ values. While I generally supported campus activism, during the end of my time at Oberlin, I found it increasingly difficult to care.
I maintain that despite Oberlin’s flaws, it was a good place for me. When I visited campus for the first time in February of 2016, even with the snow and strange-smelling buildings and the students crying on the phone on South Professor Street, I felt strangely at home. When I learned that nineteen students from Newton, MA attended Oberlin, most of whom had gone to Newton South High School, I pondered how I might have ended up here regardless of whether my family had moved to the Seattle area from Newton when I was ten.
I am proud to say that I attended class with people who are smarter, more creative, and more hardworking than I am. I received more support, encouragement, and validation from my professors than I ever imagined. Many nights at Oberlin I attended three different concerts in a single evening, all for free. I have crowded into folk music open mic nights in Tank and TIMARA faculty concerts in the Wurtzel Theater; street band concerts at the Cat in the Cream and Igor and the Red Elvises, a crazy saxophonist-headed band, at the ‘Sco. I once spent a snowy Monday night running between a dance rehearsal and a concert that featured an Latina activist singer who passed around a cardboard cutout of Bernie Sanders. I have had the pleasure of being brought to tears by music that my friends and friends of friends wrote and performed. I have explored the inside of the organ in Finney Chapel. I have eaten countless oatmeal chocolate chip cookies at the Cat while waiting for an 8p show to start at 8:20p. I have spent weekends dancing with friends and strangers in far-flung cities simply because someone I knew suggested it. I made myriad friendships, so many of them shallow and fleeting, but real and meaningful nonetheless. I have skinny-dipped in the arboretum and drank my first craft beer in Keep Cottage. I have taken a swing dancer on a date to an electronic music concert in Fairchild Chapel, and years later sang Jewish prayers alone in there, just to marvel at the way the sounds bounced off the walls. I have spent evenings struggling to write algorithms on whiteboards on the first floor of Mudd while kind acquaintances helped me with material I never thought I would be able to understand. I have pet kittens at Gingkos and dog sat for alumni. I have taken late night walks with friends to cornfields with beer in my hand. I have biked across Tappan Square late at night, my rainbow-colored wheel lights glowing in the dark as I laughingly watched drunks stumble across the park. I have entered via the back door to moody basement house shows and given standing ovations to lively viola recitals in Kulas. I have spent happy Saturday nights watching the Bachelorette alone in my room, and a glorious Wednesday evening discussing it with an actual executive producer of the Bachelor. I have done all of this and so much more, because Oberlin was intense and beautiful and charming as hell.
I can already feel myself moving on. With one week of classes left, I can finally accept that for the class of 2020, there is no gentle goodbye. There will be no Tour de Franzia, no final show at the Cat. No more live, in-person senior recitals or smoking weed on Wilder Bowl. No more brunches with friends or study sessions in Slow Train. No senior parties in off-campus houses or spontaneous fun with long-known acquaintances or swims in Chance Creek. There will be no more yoga classes at Solaluna or randomly bumping into professors along College Street. No Bachelor Live! in Cleveland or Front Bottoms concert with Corinne or quick trips to Pittsburgh. There will be no adventure in Detroit over spring break or road trip to Toronto or anywhere else. I will never have the carefree senior spring semester that I hoped for.
Before the pandemic hit, I had often wondered what would happen if the semester unexpectedly stopped in the middle. The rhythms of a college semester are so precise and predictable: The first few weeks are uncomfortable as everyone tries to find their feet. Then, as everyone settles in, there is a month or so of routine, days of sleepless nights, stress, and determination, and before you know it everyone is scrambling to prepare for finals. The idea of that unstoppable flow getting interrupted seemed like a fascinating experiment to me. But now I know what happens — it’s pure heartbreak. It is significant moments never had, hopes deferred, goodbyes hastily said. It is baby friendships never matured, once-in-a-lifetime events never experienced, projects never realized. It’s heartbreaking.
Heartbreak is magnificently beautiful. Pure heartbreak, like the kind I experienced in March, it cracks open your chest and lets in the sun. If you can be awake to it, brave to it, kind to it, you can be a shining version of yourself. Heartbreak allowed me to see what needed to be done. It showed me how to help those around me by giving away my carefully assembled pantry and gray-and-black mini-fridge to help an Obie prepare for the apocalypse. It allowed me to cry with little shame and without control. It helped me be available for those around me and to allow them to help me in turn. I looked inside and found that my sadness was filled with compassion, and I rejoiced in that.
I am writing this because I would like to misremember my college years a little bit less badly. Although it’s true that I missed out on an important rite of passage, I also experienced college for what it was while I was there. I don’t know what I’m going to remember about this time, but I hope I remember this: My college years were hard, yes, but they were mostly good. The bad existed comfortably alongside the good, and I admit that sometimes I played games of denial and busyness to ignore my disappointment. But they were good years, even if the rest of my life will hopefully be better. I was happier and more independent than I had ever been in my life. I was going to more arts events and connecting with more people on a regular basis than ever before. I was working harder at school, admitting more failure, and finding the courage to ask more questions than at any other point in my existence. I was becoming a kinder, braver, more resourceful, and more resilient person by the day. I can be grateful for that.
When I drove across the country to Seattle to live with my parents, I knew that the road trip would be easier and more fun than the quarantine I was racing towards. After all, I love road trips, regardless of the circumstances. I spent the first day supervising an acquaintance with a learner’s permit as she drove my car nine-and-a-half hours to Des Moines. I sat with her suitcase in my lap and marveled at her stamina. The second day I raced across Nebraska and Wyoming alone, trying to outrun a snowstorm while passing powder-covered mountains that took my breath away. How good it is to be on the road! The third day, after a morning spent driving through a snowstorm, I stopped at an Albertson’s in Boise and drank coffee and meditated in the parking lot. The fourth day, I traveled the Columbia River Gorge in the sunshine and rode up I-5 until I hit Mercer Island. When I reached my parents’ house, I cried uncontrollably for nine hours straight.
I am still mourning, but now, so much later, I am starting to feel okay again. It was an absolute honor to experience heartbreak for the first time. My cross-country road trip was fabulous. My prayer flag burning ceremony was meaningful. And upon reflection, it turns out that my college years were pretty good, too. So, cheers to the rest of my life! May I forever be at least as truly alive as I was in college.
Sunday May 3, 2020