The Waiting Game: A College Tour, Despite COVID
It’s a crisp October morning, and my dad and I have driven four hours to visit Oberlin College and Conservatory, one of the closest liberal arts schools that will allow us to tour during COVID. Normally, my junior year would’ve been filled with such events - maybe we’d drive up to Ann Arbor on a long weekend or be forced to leave class early to make a mid-afternoon slot in Columbus, grabbing a bite to eat at a cool restaurant or visiting a museum, making the most of what the area has to offer. Ideally, college tours are supposed to help you find the path you’ll travel on for the next four years, allowing you to emerge from the college chrysalis, a fully-formed Adult.
Simply put, this year hasn’t been like that.
Fueled by coffee, I watch the world outside the passenger seat window change as we make our way to the northern border of Ohio. The leaves are changing color and they blend into a bright orange as we drive past. I go cross-eyed trying to focus on specific trees, so I’m content to let them blur - a rush of fiery colors dancing just at the edge of my vision. Every once in a while, we see horses or cows, red barns that should be on a postcard… a few billboards read “Jesus saves” while others advertise “Grandpa’s Cheesebarn” (“Say cheese!”). The time passes quickly and we’re just outside of the small college town before noon.
The weather’s getting colder, and students are taking opportunities to savor the nature surrounding the college while they still can, but many have chosen to remain inside, engrossed in their online classes or reluctant to bear the chill. Although it’s sunny, I shiver into my flannel, regretting not bringing a coat. Our tour guide Max, who hails from New Jersey and is studying music technology, maintains six feet of distance from us, performing the immense feat of walking backwards for the entire hour. It’s a careful dance, with all three of us suddenly very aware of the space we’re taking up.
We enjoy the tour - we keep moving to stave off the chilly weather as we take note of the bike riders, the campus’s sustainability, the record shop in town. On the campus green, a white tent covers a large swath of space, shading students from the sun. Max explains that it’s a temporary way to enjoy the outdoors for as long as possible. Even as students recline in its shadow, wearing jackets and jeans, there’s an acute awareness of the steadily-approaching Ohio winter, which will blanket this area in frost and trap even the toughest students in their dorms within weeks.
After thanking Max, we grab carryout from a Korean place and find a picnic table in the park to eat and watch the foot traffic. Even for a small college, there’s an odd sense of emptiness. The whole campus feels trapped in a time loop of sorts - waiting for the election, for the relief of a vaccine, for the first frost. Hoping for good news, bracing for bad weather, and taking things one day at a time, because it’s all anyone can do right now.
Admittedly, I don’t know much about what college is meant to look like. I wasn’t expecting hacky-sackers or roving a cappella kids, but I assumed that I’d have to dodge a frisbee or two. Although the most realistic picture I have of higher learning is Monsters University, it’s hard to divide fact from fiction. I suppose that it’s one of the drawbacks of touring during the pandemic. If I don’t know what a school looks like outside of COVID, how do I judge one in the middle of such a strange time? And how do I know that my judgement is infallible when I myself am so affected by the current climate of our world?
I don’t have answers right now - no one really does - but junior year is always uncertain, even at the best of times. In a way, it’s comforting that some of it is out of my hands.
As we finish our Korean food, a group of students passes our picnic table, forming a single-file line to keep their distance. One pulls down her mask to take a sip of coffee, shooting me a quick smile before replacing the fabric. Somewhere, underneath a thick layer of everything scary and new, there’s something resembling the college experience I imagined. We just need to wait for the snow to melt.