I arrived on campus for the start of this academic year as a walking contradiction: When I first walked into my High Rise, I had both zero expectations for the upcoming school year and a laundry list of wishes, anxieties, and unresolved goals from the anticlimactic end of my sophomore year. I was hoping, given the low case numbers of COVID-19 across the Northeast for much of the previous summer, that life on campus could be as close to normal as possible, that I would still be able to move somewhat freely about campus, see friends, go to club meetings, and maybe even attend an in-person class or two. At the same time, I was well aware of the horror stories trickling out from campuses across the country, of cinder block quarantine rooms, immediate shutdowns, and nightmarishly-constructed salads (perhaps that last one isn’t quite as frightening, but it sure seemed to terrify the NYU students on my Tik Tok feed). The result of this conflicting information was my paradoxical state; I dreamed of everything, feared everything, and expected precisely nothing.
As is often the case for best- and worst-case scenarios, the true outcome for Wesleyan’s campus fell somewhere in between. There were a couple brutal quarantine weeks, and then, compared with the previous spring and summer, relative freedom. I could see my friends (at an outdoor table at Swings). I could go to club meetings (virtually, but with occasional meet-ups to remind me that the first-years I was meeting for the first time were real human beings and not digital constructs). I could attend an in-person class (once every two weeks, in a Public Affairs Center that had been spared its timely demise that summer). Compared to the most dire predictions of the doomsayers on Wes Twitter, last fall was a rousing, unabashed success.
Yet in spite of low case numbers, fortuitous weather, and the addition of the all-you-can-carry-back-to-your-apartment Usdan dining plans, I’ve still often found myself lying in my bed, dejected and disappointed, thinking about a campus gone by. I’ve never felt that I was an exact match for Wesleyan’s social environment—and let’s be honest, who is—but I’ve begun to remember an idealized version of pre-pandemic Middletown. I miss spending hours in the Science Library, accomplishing absolutely nothing. I miss being able to hang out in a friend’s room without worrying about COVID-capacities. I miss excitedly waving to an acquaintance of an acquaintance at the falafel truck on a Saturday night. I imagine this is a common experience among many Wesleyan students, but when I confront these airbrushed memories of a lost college experience, I begin to feel increasingly isolated, frustrated, and alone.
About halfway through last fall, I started to experiment with ways to overcome this pandemic-induced angst. I would go for walks, FaceTime a friend, or devour FiveThirtyEight podcasts as if Nate Silver actually knew what he was talking about. The best solution I found, however, was the one that seemed to most accurately capture the spirit of the Wesleyan I once knew: Climbing the hill to Pi Café or taking a leisurely stroll over to Red and Black, and getting coffee.
Before going any further, and in the name of journalistic integrity, I want to let it be known that I am not and have never been an employee of either the Bon Appétit Management Company, Edward Thorndike ’89, or Karen Kaffen-Polascik (though they are of course welcome to compensate me for any good press they might be shortly receiving). I am not an advertiser, and I don’t believe myself to be anything close to a social media influencer. So with that in mind, let me be clear in stating that sitting with a cup of iced coffee (almond milk, one sugar), laptop open and facing out toward those passing by has absolutely been instrumental in preserving my well-being.
I find difficulty in explaining exactly why this is the case. Perhaps it’s the feeling of immersion into a functional college society one gets from simply seeing people go about their daily routines. So much about Wesleyan has changed, but campus coffee culture has remained remarkably static. Whether in 2018 or 2021, you can still hear students complaining about assignments and exams while loitering by the tables in the Exley lobby or behind Red and Black, coffee or kombucha or Yerba Mate in hand. The excitement of college life is palpable, even in this partially-shuttered Wesleyan environment. Indeed, the energy that radiates from a confluence of young people thrust together in a shared academic and social experience seems to grow stronger based on one’s proximity to caffeine.
Deeply related to this tangible excitement in the air is the feeling of movement one senses at these campus cafés, even when remaining entirely stationary in one’s chair. Just by watching the strides of students running behind schedule, or the more leisurely pace of people just looking for a change of scenery, it’s possible to experience the kinetic energy of Wesleyan that the pandemic has stolen from us. It’s refreshing to see motion with such a clear sense of purpose, as students go in, get caffeinated, and get out. The process is clunkier now than it was in semesters past (in Pi, for example, it takes a full loop around Exley just to get back to the lobby), but that’s just part of the charm. Waiting in line, trudging through snow or freezing rain, and finally opening the lid of your piping-hot acquisition just makes the drink in your hand all the more worth it. They say nothing good has ever come easy.
My vision of an oasis in the middle of a bleak pandemic landscape, of course, is wildly subjective. Conclusively pointing to campus cafés as a universal respite from pandemic fatigue is the equivalent of handing in a paper where the only citation is “vibes.” Undoubtedly, whether it be artistic or athletic or even gastronomic in nature, everyone has likely sought or (if lucky) discovered their pandemic place of peace. In that regard, my newly-found activity may seem rather lame. To date, I haven’t emerged from this past year with dramatically improved cooking skills, nor with knowledge of seventeen new coding languages, nor with a transformative artistic breakthrough. What I have gained is something entirely more mundane: an appreciation of an everyday product that’s hardly unique to Wesleyan’s quarantined campus.
In my view, however, this appreciation just makes this small victory all the more sweeter. In a world that feels like it’s spinning faster on its axis with every passing day, the refreshing tedium of a seemingly insignificant coffee purchase has let me re-establish some level of normalcy in the chaotic situation in which we find ourselves. That’s why, in these last few months of the semester, as vaccination appointments open up and warm weather promises safe outdoor activity, I’d ask you to think about all the little tasks, movements and moments that carried you through this academic year. You never know, you might find something that surprises you.
Drew Kushnir can be reached at email@example.com