SOMETIMES YOU DON’T KNOW which time might be the last time.
I was in Powell Library when I heard that remaining finals and all classes for the spring term would be offered remotely. Because other UC campuses had already announced similar plans, I wasn’t surprised. But I didn’t realize this would be my last time in the iconic library as a UCLA student.
At first, things were chaotic and weird. It seemed as if no one, least of all students, really knew what they should be doing. Off campus, canned goods and toilet paper disappeared from grocery aisles as the panic and confusion set in. Many students returned to their hometowns, emptying campus and changing the composition of Westwood. Before long, I had two new roommates, a guitar that I had bought on impulse, and four new classes to attend through Zoom.
Anonymous posts on a Facebook page called “UCLA Secrets” offered glimpses of life through the eyes of my peers. Some told of economic anxieties, others recounted forced returns to abusive homes. Academic challenges vied with concerns about public health and politics. And yet, even as so many things changed, some did not: I woke up every day for classes, read academic articles and procrastinated on assignments. Old habits blended with new routines; together, they created a “new normal.”
For every strange new aspect of life — constant sanitizing, avoiding other pedestrians — there were little bursts of life: laughing with my roommate as she sang “Happy Birthday” to her grandma on a family Zoom call while I sat next to her attending a lecture; missing the chance to meet any of my spring quarter professors in person but greeting a professor’s 15-year-old daughter during an online seminar. Remote friendship became a fact of life and reunited me with high school friends. Zoom happy hours and creative PowerPoint parties, where each person shared a presentation on a goofy topic, replaced traditional social gatherings. Living interestingly isn’t easily thwarted.
In late May, everything changed again, as protests began around the country in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and so many others across years and generations. The sense of pent-up anger was unmistakable and powerful. The social upheaval directly responded to hundreds of years of racial violence that had been normalized long before COVID-19. And it expressed the frustrations that came with rising unemployment and lack of access to healthcare during the pandemic.
Change began happening on a personal and collective level, as my peers and I simultaneously examined ourselves and the systems we participate in. People I had known for years, but who had never seemed politically active, flooded Instagram with tales of radical transformation. Selfies and nature photos were replaced with infographics and resources for education and action. Ideas that I was accustomed to engaging with in sociology classes and Twitter circles became topics of common conversation among friends and family. A long-overdue social awakening is continuously taking place, and it’s difficult and defeating, exciting and beautiful all at once. The coronavirus forced us indoors and away from one another. Our anger, hope and drive for change brought us outside in protest and together again.
There is an odd feeling that comes with being in a stage of personal transition at the same time as society. I was in a new city and a month into college when the 2016 election altered my childhood view of politics. Now as I graduate during a pandemic and civil rights movement, my perspectives are shifting once again. I’ve generally experienced change in small increments that don’t drastically alter my daily routine. Now I have immersed myself in change: impulsively dying my own hair in my bathroom, interviewing for jobs over Zoom, and examining every thought and viewpoint that passes through my mind.
Since March, I have gone from a college student eager to graduate — and patiently consider my place in the world — to a recent graduate who is ready to change it. The world is moving toward the next new normal, and I’m determined to be part of it.