Lessons I learned from staying at a lonely campus during a pandemic

By Courtney Klaus, Editor-In-Chief

Hi, it’s your friendly neighborhood newspaper editor, Courtney, here, reporting from my little on-campus apartment at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas. Yes, I’m still here during the pandemic, and when I’m not helping with the family liquor store (designated “essential” and still open for business) I basically just stay here alone trying to think of ways to entertain myself.

My obligations as a resident assistant mean I can’t pack up and leave campus, so I am one of the few people who gets to stay and experience a college campus ghost town.

It is not quite as bad as it sounds. What does a typical day look like?

Well, it’s a lot of binge watching quasi-virus-related movies from “Contagion” to “Shaun of the Dead” and doing sporadic homework assignments. Occasionally, I might work up the motivation to get some exercise. Riveting, right?

Feeling contemplative, I sat on one of the benches in Heimerman plaza this weekend just to take in the emptiness of campus. I watched the automatic lights in Bishop Gerber Science Center go out. I watched the campus cats stalk a squirrel behind the bushes. I noticed that the grass between Beata Hall and Sacred Heart was a brighter shade of green than it was the week before.

But literally watching grass grow is not enough to distract me from feeling stuck and alone.

Staying here staring at the empty buildings reminds me that I will never again sit in a Newman classroom as a student. I will not get to travel to Dallas to present my research paper. I will not get to attend my last Kansas Collegiate Media Awards with The Vantage staff, or throw our annual dinner party. I will not get to see my close friend perform in her last Newman musical. I will not get to have my study buddy over for Taco Tuesdays before night class. I will not get to walk across the stage at graduation or hug my family and friends afterwards.

It was the night of my birthday when I got the call in the editing lab that informed me of an extended spring break. It was an evening of drinks, deep-dish pizza, and a platter of shared appetizers. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it would be my last night out, and it was cut short by breaking news. The bottle of champagne my dad gave me that day as a gift to share still sits in my refrigerator unopened.

As sudden as everything felt, the disappointments were gradual.

The first Tuesday of spring break, my friend Jacob and I could spend the afternoon entertaining ourselves in his Fugate apartment by making quesadillas and watching “My Cousin Vinny.” We made plans to do the same thing next week, and for a second I thought, “Maybe this won’t be so bad.” But by next week, Jacob — along with 145 other on-campus residents — had moved out of the halls and gone home. Some of them, from good acquaintances to great friends, I will probably never see again.

What started as just an extended spring break swiftly became a permanent disruption to every student’s spring semester. When the 2020 commencement ceremony was called off, we were hardly surprised.

As melodramatic as it sounds, taking all online classes as a senior when you still live on campus feels like a strange sort of graduation purgatory.

I am still a college student, yet I also feel like I am not. In the traditional sense, my days of going to class, seeing my friends and meeting with my professors are over. Yet, I’m still here, at Newman, faced with the reality of an empty, quiet and lonely campus every day. Even though I’ve known this to be the case for a month now, it still stings.

It’s been hard to convince myself that my studies are still building to something. My traditional ways of coping with stress and frustration — my tendency to look towards the future, my extroverted pursuits and sentimental excitement for life’s milestones — none of these things can help me now. My impending move to Indiana this fall compounds the hollowness of it all. I feel a jarring lack of closure.

With blogs and think pieces galore about life in isolation during this pandemic and subsequent statewide lockdown, I am not so sure what, if anything, about my situation is noteworthy or worth sharing. Nonetheless, with little to do but type away, I thought I’d chronicle my most self-centered and despondent thoughts and attempt to derive something meaningful and positive out of it.

So here I go.

I am lucky to be safe, alive and healthy. I am lucky that I have healthcare. I am lucky that I am still working at a job where I can make money. I am lucky I have not lost any family members to this disease. I am lucky that I get to sit here on my personal laptop to write to my little heart’s content.

And I suppose, one silver lining in all of this, is that in losing all these things I looked forward to, I can recognize just how lucky I was to have had those events to look forward to at all. And for the duration that I could look forward to them, they were nice. They meant something to me. Just like, apparently, my college experience must have meant something profound to me or I wouldn’t be so bitter that it’s pretty much over.

The phrase “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened,” is probably one of the most clichéd sentiments to ever be bedazzled onto a teenage girl’s high school graduation picture frame. I think I like the way Winnie the Pooh put it better: “How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

This pandemic has exposed just how unpromised all the things we look forward to in life really are.

Our way of life relies on a vast set of assumptions about how the world will continue to run, day in and day out, without hiccup or tragedy. Society usually offers us the privilege of having a reasonable set of expectations about what the next few months of our life will look like without much deviation. And usually, devoid of personal conflict, we can get away with that.

By taking full advantage of this ability to assume, I have allowed myself to precariously rely on my perceived control of the world in order to feel content with it. I felt entitled to things like birthday parties, graduation and closure. But I’m not. No one is.

I can be upset. I can write about all the things I thought I was going to get to have, and about how disappointed I am that I can’t have them now. But while it might be cathartic, ultimately, if I’m ever going to be satisfied with how my life is going again, I need to accept that life can’t be predicted. I need to find ways to make my life in the moment matter to me. And I need to remember that if I rely on external motivation, if I constantly weigh my life’s value on future events that rely on outside factors, I’m setting myself up to be disappointed.

Hopefully by the end of this I will have fully committed myself to believing what I’ve just written. Changing such an ingrained outlook is hard, and I can’t imagine I’m alone.

So if you’re a college senior like me, who feels empty and cheated of life’s most precious transitional milestones—please, join me in spirit.

Let’s at least try and be grateful for where we’re at, grab a nice cold pint, and wait for all this to blow over.