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Commentary: Coronavirus Wrecks College Dreams

Students and families rush to move out on Sunday. Dorms close Monday afternoon. The university notified students of the closures on Wednesday.
Dominic Anthony | Texas Public Radio
Students and families rush to move out on Sunday. Dorms close Monday afternoon. The university notified students of the closures on Wednesday.

In the midst of this global pandemic that has brought about school closures, college students don’t just deal with watching video lectures or Skype meetings with their professors.  They’re carrying the burdens of diminishing access to essential items, job losses, and other issues most might not realize.  In her commentary, Texas Public Radio contributor Yvette Benavides shares her insights on troubling developments affecting students already facing the challenges of being in college.

When universities in San Antonio started to announce extending Spring Break and subsequent campus closures through early-to mid-April and beyond, I considered what this would mean for the particular students I work with. My students are undergraduate and graduate students.  They range in age from about 18 to 65 and are from all walks of life. Most of them are what’s known in higher education as first generation —the first in their families to go to college. 

I have students who are military veterans and single mothers. Some work one, two, or three jobs. Some are cancer survivors or suffer from mental illness. Some require accommodations provided for by the Americans with Disabilities Act. My students are future accountants, doctors, scientists, teachers, social workers, speech pathologists.  They are introverts, extroverts, athletes, actors, writers, dreamers.  They are all as wonderfully diverse as they can be. But now, in the midst of this global pandemic, every single student, faces a horrifying equalizer — the same terrible obstacle to contend with.

The necessary closure of a campus, for many of them, means a door closing, one that they finally — somehow— pried open — at tremendous sacrifice and years of hard work. Some students are so much as homeless now. Some are back home sharing spaces with parents and siblings who might also need the only computer in the house to keep up with their own deadlines. Some now live in an abusive space they had managed to escape by living on campus. The students who are also parents have to take care of so many others.  Some students take care of a chronically ill parent. Some are the sole breadwinners in the house or contribute heavily to the household income.  Each of them has lost the structure, routine, and even sanctuary that a campus can provide.

My students have shared with me that they’ve had to file for unemployment, might have to quit school, have little access to food.  Some have shared they fear they’ll never see their grandparents again. They share over and again that their all-consuming fear of illness and death.

In her essay “Unmothered,” Ruth Margalit refers to the Hebrew word — malkosh — which means “last rain.” She writes that the word has heavy significance in places like Israel where seasons are defined—dividing a winter from a long stretch of a dry, hot summer.  It is a word that is applied in retrospect. When it finally rains, you’ll have no way of knowing if this is the last rain of the year. Eventually, when you realize it was, you can refer to it as malkosh. You can look back and realize the last time was the last time — only in hindsight.

Here is our own malkosh — our own “last time we didn’t know was the last time.”  The last time we could pull an all-nighter or write an essay, or complete a project with our peers — far away from the threat of the global pandemic. The waves of disruption and panic will continue over the next weeks and months.  One day we will realize another moment of malkosh.  When the heart-sinking fear no longer clouds every other thought, when we can grab a cup of coffee or a sandwich in the cafeteria without dread, when the campus becomes a sanctuary again — bustling and vibrant, all of us together again in those hallowed spaces. One day, we will all know together that the last time this blight cast a shadow on life as we knew it, was in fact the last time.

Yvette Benavides is a professor of English and creative writing at Our Lady of the Lake University.  She has been a professor for 30 years, 25 of those at OLLU. She is the co-author of the book San Antonio 365 published by Trinity University Press.