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Coronavirus closes colleges, cancels commencements – one student reflects on abrupt goodbyes

Posted 22 March 2020 at 9:55 am

(Editor’s note: Orleans Hub welcomes submissions for a new series – “Pandemic Perspectives” – where local residents share how the virus has impacted their lives. We’d like to hear from business owners, teachers, parents, pastors, nurses, doctors, first responders and others in the community. Send submissions to news@orleanshub.com.)

Photo by Tom Rivers: Vivian Rivers is shown front of Kerr-Pegula Athletic Complex before playing in a game for the Houghton Women’s Soccer team. She played on the team in 2017 and 2018.

By Vivian Rivers

In the past week, I have learned the vulnerability and impermanence of a personal agenda.

As a first semester senior at Houghton College, I filled my days with classes and homework as an international development major with minors in writing and communication. I spent time supporting the students who lived in my designated wing as Resident Assistant of a women’s dorm on campus.

On Saturdays I went to Buffalo to tutor refugee children who need help learning English. Besides being a full-time student, I was busy being a daughter, big sister, friend, girlfriend, and other roles to the many people I love.

Just over a week ago, I told a few of my friends that I doubted our small private school would send us away because of the Coronavirus. Only a couple days later, we received an email telling all students to leave campus for the rest of the semester. In a matter of hours, I had packed (shoved) my belongings together, rushed through a series of elbow-tap goodbyes, and moved back to my hometown of Albion, New York.

I have yet to fully process what is happening or how much I am missing, but I feel the gravity of this new apocalyptic world. I know for sure that I won’t be able to do development research in Sierra Leone like I planned to this summer. It looks like I won’t be able to march in Houghton’s commencement ceremony this May, either. The biggest loss is all the precious moments and memories with my friends from all over the country and globe that I said an abrupt goodbye to last Monday indefinitely.

I have friends who lost their final sports season. I have friends now scrambling to make different wedding plans. I have friends from around the world who feel torn between staying here (but where, exactly?) or forced to buy expensive plane tickets to go home. I have friends who don’t have homes or homes they don’t feel safe in. We’re all losing something in this transition.

Photo by Guthrie Collins: Vivian Rivers, second from right in back, joins other members of Gillette Hall Resident Life staff at the start of the fall semester.

The shift to digital learning will also look different for each of us. Professors are probably struggling as much, if not more than students, by transferring their teaching online. Music and STEM majors are especially baffled by the challenges of continuing their studies via social distancing. To those I’ve spoken with, it feels impossible. One of my closest friends, a physics major, told me about the lab equipment Houghton is loaning out to each physics student. “It’s not going to work,” he told me. But it will have to.

While there’s a lot of uncertainty and fear, I don’t think I have ever felt more united with humanity as a whole. There is unison to be found in the shared grief over cancelled events; anger at the realities currently imposed on us; and collective fears about the future. I think this unity is what can give us as people of Orleans County and the wider world the hope that will get us through this difficult time.

But that starts with caring deeply for our neighbors. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), we can care for each other best by being responsible and staying inside. For me, this looks like reading books I didn’t have time to read in the busyness of the semester, (trying) to learn Spanish, ordering takeout from local restaurants, doing yoga, and so on.

I recognize that I am deeply privileged to use this time in such a way, but I also recognize that going out to fulfill any kind of unnecessary personal agenda would be reckless and could endanger many people. I hope you feel the unison in all of the emotions we are experiencing together, and feel obligated – even honored – to do your part to care for all people.

(Vivian Rivers, 20, of Albion is the daughter of Tom and Marsha Rivers.)

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