Just Senior Year of College Things: Navigating Unpredictability, New Chapters, and A Global Pandemic

Written by Ravena Pernanand

Unexpected emails and last-minute packing

When the first whispers of COVID-19 were emerging in the United States, I was packing my luggage and boarding a 4am flight at JFK airport. An impending pandemic was the last thing on my mind. Rather, I was preoccupied with the tasks that awaited me at the commencement of my semester abroad in Amsterdam: grocery shopping, introductions, and a much needed nap. Needless to say, I slept like a log when orientation activities came to a close. 

Honor, a best friend from my school at home, was also taking part in the same exchange program as me. I constantly reminded myself of how thankful I was for her presence throughout the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture. Her guidance and serene disposition always balanced my moments of frantic anxiety and paranoia, these traits were most apparent when the universe threw a wrench into our semester. The weeks leading up to the dreadful email from our home institution were surreal. In the rainy Amsterdam mornings, we dragged our bodies out of bed and trudged along the cobblestone streets to class, pointing out our favorite houseboats lining the canals. On the weekends we filled ourselves to the brim with cheap wine and stroopwafel and navigated the tram system to newly discovered destinations. I often felt like I was watching my life occur from the outside as I shed old skin and re-emerged as a happier and more resilient version of myself. Somehow, five weeks managed to feel like a lifetime.

A continual buzzing sound always existed in the background of these newly formed moments, growing in volume until we had no choice but to acknowledge it. It started with reports of the virus, dubbed “corona,” circulating around Europe. “Use precaution when traveling” our program directors would say in emails that ended in soothing reassurement that the semester would proceed as planned. The background noise seemed to have a blinding effect as well. Even when friends on exchange programs in China and Italy began packing their luggages 15 weeks early, there was a disconnect between our perceived world and theirs. “Yea, it happened in Italy, but we’re totally fine–it won’t spread  here.” But slowly, the sound filled every room, every conversation, and previously suppressed thought. 

On a Wednesday morning in March, I awoke to emails of US schools closing. Twitter memes and angry Instagram stories emerged from the recesses of the digital world. When I put my phone down, I could re-enter the alternate reality that COVID-19 had not yet managed to fully consume.

On a Thursday morning, only five of the twenty wooden chairs in my Dutch language class were occupied. It seemed that many students had returned back to the States, instructed by worried parents and fast acting educational institutions. I walked home in a confused haze. Looking back on this moment, it’s laughable that I had the audacity to be shocked by these events. In the last three weeks, exchange students all around me had been falling off the European map and into airplane seats headed home.

On a Friday evening at 11pm Central European Time, the upper lefthand corner of my pillowcase began to glow. I turned my phone from its facedown position to find an email from my school: “Important Notification for Hamilton Students in Europe,” flagged red, an endless scroll of instructions for returning home, demands bolded in black, the gravity of the situation underlined in the sender’s tone.

On a Sunday morning I awoke as Amsterdam lay in a pre-dawn slumber. Sluggishly, Honor and I cleared the remaining boxes and trash bags from our studio apartment, filled with uneaten stroopwafel and recyclable glass bottles once filled with cheap wine. In a time before N95 surgical masks were added to the list of things to grab before heading out the door, (phone, keys, wallet…what am I forgetting? Ah, facemask!), I stood outside my apartment building and filled my lungs with air. 

Self care, community, and silver linings

Upon landing home and resettling into both the familiar and unfamiliar, I’ve had time to do nothing but contemplate. In fact, it feels like the universe has forced contemplation upon me like undeserved purgatory. I’m all for self reflection, but the lines between insanity and deep thought can become blurred, a spell that can only be broken by preheating the oven and willing the premature bananas on the counter to quicken their process. 

Ironically enough, in self isolation the importance of community has never felt more powerful to me. As I struggled to mold a routine from quicksand and my anxiety reached an all time high, the zoom calls and group chats kept me afloat. My friendships were silver linings: a source of calm and comfort. Though in a time when teetering from one extreme to another can become habitual, the notion of self care began to redefine itself for me: How much time was too much screen time when the outside world is only accessible through a screen? Could I interact with my friends while still taking time for myself? Was I comfortable with being alone? Do I really need to make another loaf of banana bread this week? 

This time of reflection has allowed me to understand the things that remind me of my humanity and that make me feel connected to others. Quarantine can feel stagnant and cold, but it has also been a time of extreme change. Babies have taken their first breath, couples have tied the knot, and social movements have erupted since the world has shut down. In a constant effort to feel and exist and breathe freely again, people have managed to reach each other from all ends of the world. Empathy has managed to persist even when leadership and institutions have shown callousness and ignorance. Working at CCAN this Summer has been another silver lining, an opportunity to feel connected to this outside world, a community built on a foundation of empathy. Though the physical distance and computer screens attempt to muffle this experience, my superiors and co-workers have filled this void with communication, warmth, and morale. 

As I ready myself to return to campus in the coming weeks, these concepts float around in my head: empathy, community, care, communication. I can choose to view my senior year as an experience hindered by a global pandemic. Many people are angry at lost opportunities and muted versions of their old lives, they are entitled to this anger. But in times of adversity people manage to be the most resilient versions of themselves. They shed old skin and re-emerge stronger. 

Finding Hope in the Unglamorous Climate Fights

Written by Alice Bell

I’ve always been drawn to the weird, kinda-niche parts of fighting climate change; divestment, the ins and outs of building energy codes, and so on. They’re deeply necessary, but feel sneaky because they can be very complex and don’t always get lots of airtime – they’re less obvious than renewable energy, bicycles, or LED bulbs. 

And I’ve been looking for these hidden bits my whole life. When I was in elementary school, I was a “Recycling Ranger” for two years, staying after school with other students to collect and sort the recycling from all the classrooms in the building to ensure the school kept up the program – my parents still ask me if certain things can be recycled or not. They did give us little hats with the recycling symbol on them, but it still wasn’t glamorous – it just needed doing and it was small enough for a nine-year-old to help with. 

From Recycling to Divesting

I heard about the divestment movement as a first-year at Smith College in 2017. Divestment at the college level is a topic and a strategy full of minute contradictions, multi-school organizing meetings, bureaucratic wrangling, and incredibly obscure jargon – so, of course it interested me. To divest from something refers to the choice to remove one’s investments from fossil fuels, and can be interpreted narrowly or broadly – it can also apply to other issues, such as private prisons and gun manufacturers. 

Divest strategy meeting 2019 (Alice is on the right)

My role for two years has been as a student representative to the ACIR, the advisory body for the investing committee of the board of trustees. The gulf between the students and the trustees is comically large, and also not – they are tasked with keeping Smith endowed for decades to come, while we are trying to graduate with a livable planet. Smith has a very large endowment, and as an historically women’s college, likes to think of itself as somewhat revolutionary – educating women in the 1890s and 1900s certainly went against the grain. But investing in fossil fuels is the antithesis of “being revolutionary” – in fact, it goes directly against everything we need to be doing about climate change. 

While working on divestment, my fellow students and I had to get really smart about economics, endowment structures, and institutional investing really quickly, and it was stressful and hair-raising. Spending all those hours online reading articles and jumping through bureaucratic hoops to get the board to even consider our ask took teamwork and a lot of dedication, from generations of students — but it worked. The divestment movement at Smith was twelve years old when we won a commitment from the board in October 2019 to divest the school’s endowment of fossil fuels

COVID Summer

Jules making dinner after work

Jules, one of my best friends, and I had big plans for summer 2020. We met during an eight-month political science intensive in DC last year, and we were planning to live in DC again, together; she would continue her public defense work, and I would continue my work on climate change. We would compost, bike, read, watch bad movies, and get to know this city that I grew up in and that she was transplanted to. Make no mistake, we were blindingly privileged to be able to have such plans, in part because Smith has funding for unpaid internships. 

But then the pandemic hit and her position was canceled and other internships became very thin on the ground. And out of this came my internship with CCAN, an organization that I’d been hearing about since childhood, as a communications intern, allowing me to use my love of writing and art in service of environmental activism. 

Behind the Scenes at CCAN

Every organization has a personality and an environment behind-the-scenes. Before this summer, I had spent a lot of time doing research and working on federal environmental policy. The problems there are connected but incredibly different, and the approaches are consequently different. 

I’m the communications intern, and while I love writing (even final papers), I had never done the kind of serious social media work that CCAN has taught me. Communication is a central part of the climate fight, but so is the minutiae of social media; understanding what kinds of tweets do and don’t work; how to write an event invite that engages people; refining op-eds; preparing live tweets for protests and rallies; creating and tweaking graphics for every event. Without devoted attention paid to these kinds of issues, a crucial link is lost. 

Despite working out of my parents house, never once seeing the office, and connecting with others at CCAN primarily over Slack and in Zoom happy hours, I’ve been able to build new relationships and contribute to this immense problem in my own small way. CCAN works in DC, Maryland, and Virginia, the DMV region I love so much and have been so lucky to grow up in. But this work also reflects the need to stay small; not everything can be addressed at the federal level, and we need local and regional work to really ensure communities are being adequately supported, and unique problems are being properly addressed. 

Sitting in on weekly team meetings, I’ve been able to see the tiniest hint of the work that goes into each campaign, each ask, each article published, and event hosted. Each victory, from passing the VCEA to stopping the ACP and whatever comes next, is the product of huge behind-the-scenes work and specific knowledge gained from all those who have been in this fight longer. More even than that, working specifically on communications for the first time has taught me more about how to make those shadowy topics and distinctions, the niche and sneaky parts of climate change clearer and more accessible. 

Staying Small

It can be hard to see the importance of “smaller” battles and these hidden dimensions can feel very removed from the bigger problem; I struggle against the frustration that we even have to fight on the small scale like this, when climate change should have been dealt with as the massive, urgent problem it is. After I got the news that Smith was divesting, I went back to my desk at work, struck by the incredible tension between this victory and the bigger, more stubborn needles that hadn’t moved. 

But the small battles keep you in community. I’ve met some incredible friends working on divestment, and been able to see the impact of that victory in life on campus. I got to hang out with my friends and run in the halls while collecting the recycling, big stuff for an elementary schooler. We can’t all lead marches or speak to congressional committees, nor should we, but there are a million levels to work at and a million connections to climate in everything we do. And there are local battles going on everywhere, uncountable and ever-changing – it feels like being part of an army I may never see entirely, who’s power we can only guess at because it’s bigger than anything we’ve ever seen before. 

Mountains around Smith College