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These two years at Princeton

<h6>José Pablo Fernández García / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
José Pablo Fernández García / The Daily Princetonian

It ended like it began: with a prematurely-published website update blowing up group chats and social media, all in anticipation of an official announcement intended to be released on the Wednesday of spring midterms. What began and ended in this manner isn’t the COVID-19 pandemic itself, of course. Rather, these parallel fumbled announcements — to send us home two years ago and now, to remove most precautions — so neatly bookend this pandemic chapter at Princeton.

Reality itself hasn’t been this neat, however. COVID-19 spread across the world for months, slowly but unavoidably, before it flipped Princeton’s campus upside down. Around the world, COVID-19 will not stop sickening and killing even more now that the University will try to enforce some version of pre-pandemic normalcy. 

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Truthfully, I’m not sure what compels me to write, other than this sense of a chapter closing and a question of what it was all for. To really seal the deal in the parallel between these two days, two years apart, I brought myself to the same bench in the basement of the Julis Romo Rabinowitz Building, from which I wrote one of my earliest essays on the day we were told to leave the campus. 

There are few days I remember quite so clearly as that one, and the personal parallels between that old and this present Wednesday are amusing as well. For example, when I last sat on this bench to write, I was supposed to be taking an economics midterm in McCosh 50 — ECO 100 being my first prerequisite for a since-abandoned SPIA concentration. Now, I write from this bench after finally having taken a midterm in McCosh 50, earlier in the day, for CEE 262: “Bridges,” to fulfill my last outstanding distribution requirement. 

However, while I’ll likely always remember that old Wednesday, this current one feels quite unremarkable, ready to be lost to memory as just another Wednesday if I weren’t writing about it right now. This might be what’s been so unsettling or confusing about the parallels between the two days, and also what moved me to come back to this bench and write again. 

This ending of sorts feels like such a minuscule whimper of a conclusion to what began with a practically inconceivable upheaval to our lives. And to some degree, it’s this disparity that has me wondering what the point of our two years of isolation and disruption and grief and waiting have all been for. 

The level of change we’ve experienced has stripped the word “unprecedented” of all its meaning and heft. Yet so much — maybe too much, given what’s happened — remains or has reverted to the same as before we were sent home.

Maybe it’s incorrect to expect or want or hope for great change in the aftermath of great tragedy and catastrophe. However, I can’t help but recall the coping, hopeful sense of an opportunity to reset, reconfigure, and reimagine our lives and our communities that filled that first spring. 

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I could write about this on a huge societal scale, but the never-realized changes that stand out to me the most are the ones specific to this campus. That these public health policy announcements have fallen during spring midterms only underscores the matter further since the demands and stressors of this week of a Princeton semester have rigidly snapped back to their old overwhelming, unforgiving ways.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised or disappointed that this chance for fundamental renewal has been left by the wayside. Through illness and death, students faced fairly unforgiving care as before, despite however much individual faculty and workers tried their best to help — at least, those willing to do so. 

I’d like to take a more positive view — to feel prouder of how Princeton has stepped up. But in the two years since I first wrote from this bench (that I now remember isn’t the most comfortable), as I’ve grown into an editor here, I’ve seen so many, too many, people write of how we’ve fallen shortespecially of how the University has fallen short in caring for its community members.

As I’ve written all this, my earlier question of what this all has been for has morphed into a question that looks forward to the future instead. I can’t help but wonder what we’re here for as we move on. A more cynical version of myself might dare say “nothing meaningful” when my recollection of the highest leadership on this campus over the past two years boils down to a presidential course on frying eggs just in time to kick off the miserable spring 2021 semester. 

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There’s the more hopeful version of myself, as well, and it’s this version that I work to ensure always wins out. That was true the last time I wrote from this bench, and it’s true this time too.

This more hopeful version of myself sees the two years between these two parallel Wednesdays and doesn’t let go of the early desire and possibility to build a better world, a better Princeton — no matter how idealistic that may be. This better version of myself looks to that question of what we’re here for and answers with all the moments of care and compassion that have stitched us and kept us together through these past two years while we’ve learned and created together. 

Fittingly enough, as I’ve sat on this same old bench, trying to better understand this closing chapter, I’ve also happened to be writing in the final pages of the notebook I’ve used since the Fall 2020 semester to record this chapter of my life and of Princeton. It’s a chapter full of folks persevering, waiting for change, and more than ready to create it in the next chapter. 

José Pablo Fernández García is a junior from Ohio and Head Prospect Editor at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at jpgarcia@princeton.edu 

Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at prospect@dailyprincetonian.com.

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