In no year, even in wartime, has daily life on an American college campus been so thoroughly policed. The measures are, quite understandably, accepted with little protestation by a student body that is aware of the acute risks peculiar to such a novel and unvaccinated pathogen; while they themselves will be largely untroubled if infected, the risk to vulnerable and immunocompromised populations is even more disproportionate than with familiar diseases, given that there is no pre-existing immunity on which they can depend. Thus, universities throughout America, particularly in the Northeast, have descended into a state of uncompromising regulation during the present pandemic.
The experience at Brandeis this year is typical of this extraordinary new sanitization regime. Upon arrival at campus, myself and other students moving in were allocated only two hours to prepare our respective singles and part with our accompanying family members. A mandatory test on the first day was to be followed by dozens more such tests, with two a week required for the remainder of the semester, every three to four days. This, in addition to a daily campus assessment, was necessary to maintain a “green” digital passport color for admission to the various aspects of campus life, such as Gosman Convocation and Sports Center. My greatest fortune, however, was to have arrived from among that exclusive collection of Northeastern states that were exempt from Massachusetts’s mandatory quarantine diktat. My roommate, who arrived from California, was subject to a period of confinement to his room for many days, during which parcels of food would be periodically dumped at his doorstep and he would resort to pacing the room to occupy his time.
A stroll into campus—greeted by an electronic sign demanding mask compliance—reveals the full extent of a project that had been exhaustively implemented for the entire duration of spring and summer. Brandeis is proud to declare that thousands of circular stickers are scattered throughout campus, reminding us to distance socially and adapt with a brisk spiritedness to the new reality, and I am prepared to declare that I have already encountered many hundreds of them on the sidewalks and pavement. Posters and pamphlets related to the coronavirus are utterly ubiquitous and colossal white tents have been erected on the lawns to accommodate the overflow from occupancy-limited dining spaces indoors.
Regarding athletics, the lack of competition within Brandeis and against other schools was perhaps inevitable, yet further restrictions on the practice of sports abound. The decision by Brandeis Tennis Club to abandon practices was likely justified given its numerous participants, yet it was a decision I, nonetheless, received with significant disappointment. The atmosphere of general activity appears depressed, which no doubt is compounded by the fact that campus is only half as populated as last year.
There is some probable agreement among students that the indoor environment is most strictly regulated. The floors of the dining halls are plastered with a complex network of arrows, intended to direct traffic in the right proper direction. The navigation of Sherman or Usdan becomes a task of great confusion, in which there is only one way to go and backtracking is undertaken at one’s own risk. There is only one way to enter and exit and all meals are received in little boxes through an imposing fortress of Plexiglass. After a meal is eaten, a sheet must be turned over to red, indicating the table is in need of immediate sterilization. It is difficult to emphasize the tediousness of this routine, meal after meal, and particularly given the sheer amount of waste that is being generated, even though most of it can be composted.
Nonetheless, with every new circumstance emerges a new opportunity. As the utensils and tableware are disposable, one can leave the dining hall at will with one’s meal to eat elsewhere so arriving at Sherman at 8:50 p.m. suddenly becomes unproblematic. Additionally, our accommodation into singles offers additional comforts of privacy and spaciousness, a fact anyone who has ever been housed in a forced triple will surely appreciate.
That these benefits have not gone unnoticed by the wider student body that attests to a more moving impression of the resilience of our nature in periods of heightened consternation. In simple terms, the adaptability of the human condition allows it to make the most of any situation—that is, to modify that classic quotation from “Jurassic Park”: normalcy finds a way. Even the youth, for whom the world has had less time to reveal its normal and cyclical patterns, are attuned with the normal patterns of their nature—particularly that fundamental youthful desire for social interaction, and to participate and indulge in the abundances of life; this spirit is such that, no matter how much it may dampen, no amount of regulation can truly extinguish.
This spirit was fiercely displayed over the past week, while the trees were emerald and the sunlight golden. Ultimate Frisbee rallied students on the lawn, while socially distanced passersby observed; friends march together down the sloping routes of campus, cheerfully boisterous, yet still masked; and when I approached the looming structure of my dorm, incidentally past midnight, the lights of rooms were universally illuminated, all the rooms animated with the silhouettes of their occupants. This image, comfortingly continuous with all the years before it, stays resistant to whatever new force arises to affect it. Even in the present reality, the young will always succumb to that innate impulse commanding them to stay up past midnight.
The new rules remain conscientiously observed to their necessary effect, but only up to their necessary effect. The spirit of the youth will find a method to express itself, constituting a force so ancient and immovable that no new regulatory regime—no matter its necessity nor acceptance by the populace—can hope to dislodge it. It will discover that, rather than the student body accommodating itself to it, it must resign to accommodate itself to the passionate nature of the youth; not even the weight of an increasingly dispirited world can break this passion completely. This eternal truth is as evident at Brandeis as anywhere, and its persistence will outlast the pandemic and relegate its ephemerality to the confines of history. As the oft-ignored stickers on the campus grounds profess, “Hope Is Not Cancelled.”