by Brandon Rodriguez
My world changed in early March 2020, just a few days into the spring semester of my first year at Guttman Community College. I was told school would no longer be in person and I would have to take classes at home. The transition from seeing so much of the outside world to seeing no one and feeling trapped in an apartment proved tough for me at first. I had my mother and my dog, but I couldn’t help but feel alone. I was a prisoner in a two bedroom apartment. In May my pain was amplified when I lost my half brother who always had my back. Yet my story through this pandemic isn’t defined by that early darkness, but by growth. I always knew who I wanted to be, but never previously fought for my goals. That changed with COVID.
In Spring 2020, New York City was set afire with the dual crises of COVID and White Supremacy. Yet I remained a spectator, trapped in my home wanting to protect myself and my family from the invisible virus haunting the streets of my city. I fell into a deep depression, feeling like I had lost my freedom and wanting to get back to my old life. For weeks I couldn’t eat, I just slept all day, in a dark room barely speaking or moving. I stared out the window of my South Bronx apartment at the people who were outside while I was stuck inside. It took time to understand the mixed emotions of envy, as they experienced a world I was cloistered from, and relief because unlike these “essential workers” I was safe from COVID. Already consumed by the darkness, in the middle of May I received a call that my brother had been murdered. The darkness was growing. My brother and I had not always been close, but when I needed him he was there. As I gathered with a large group of people for the first time in months to mourn his death, I looked around and realized that tragedy could strike any of these people endangering their health to honor a life lost too soon. I knew that my brother wouldn’t have wanted me to fall further into the darkness. For him, and for me, I had to move forward. With the world in flames, I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I wanted to do something.
I decided instead of putting my life on pause, I would take this time to grow. I realized that my first 19 years of life were spent moving at a fast pace with little direction as I faced the expectations placed upon me by others. Being in this state of pause, I was given time to breath and time to think. This allowed me to grow and change in ways I’ve always wanted, but hadn’t achieved in the past. In a city and country that never slows down, everything has suddenly come to halt. I grew spiritually by taking the time to realize and reflect on things that had bothered me for years. I had to ask myself, “what am I really missing?” As this question bounced around within my consciousness, it was as if my eyes had finally been opening. I found the resulting self-awareness transformative. I grew academically; instead of being the student I used to be, I put all that potential I always had within me to work undistracted. I was not rushing through assignments, doing the minimum to pass so I could go meet up with friends. That life died with the 10,000s of New Yorkers in the pandemic. By taking my time with the materials, being able to slow down, I found a passion for learning that had been lost in the shuffle and hustle of a non-stop city.
Guttman Community College has helped students continue their studies and sort through the trauma of the last few months. Although I do not see my professors or walk the halls of college, I don’t feel that far from school. I continue to keep in touch with some of my professors even though classes are over. Guttman has sent a constant stream of emails addressing things we can do if we are struggling, ways to access financial resources, people we can talk to about what we’re feeling, and professors who show a deep interest in how their students manage this crisis. Guttman is different from other universities, showing up for us, albeit virtually, since the first day we left school. It was tough putting my very first year on pause, but the college allowed me to keep my education going and supported me every step of the way. This allowed me to stay grounded because instead of my education being added to this list of things I’m struggling with, it became an escape from the crumbling structures around me and a way to ensure I’m still working towards my goals in the midst of a pandemic.
Many New Yorkers have lost their lives to COVID 19, while others lost their jobs and had their lifestyles upended. Some live in a state of constant fear, while the vast racial, class, and gender inequity that haunts our nation have become more visible than ever. Watching the news recently, my mom exclaimed: “what is this world coming to?” With both COVID and White Supremacy, my community, city, and nation are fighting important battles that should be fought. The fact that it took all these protests and violence for people in high places to finally start talking about police brutality says a great deal about our nation’s history. The people on the streets risking their lives for equity and justice are heroes. Still, from my window I watch the protests below with great anxiety. We are in a pandemic and all these people are standing side-by-side together. I worry that my community, and the freedom fighters on the streets fighting for my rights as a Hispanic male are going to suffer. Those words I’ve heard far too often since March, “I’m sorry they are no longer with us,” echo throughout my body. I am scared and feel as if the world is coming to an end, but this was something that had to happen and this is something, in the end, that will change all of us and make us a more equitable society
The lessons we can learn from these dual crises we face are profound. We have potential as individuals and as a society to take this time to reflect and think about what really has been going on with ourselves, our communities, and our nation. We are so focused on keeping up with society, we often lose ourselves, and lack the initiative to demand that society become more just. With the world closing in, I finally had the time to breathe, to sit and think about where I was and where I wanted to go. Instead of falling into the chaos, allowing myself to fail and let my goals move further away, I decided to take this time to change and adapt. No one can snap their fingers and make COVID disappear, or any of the other problems we are currently facing. However, we can control how it affects us. We all slip, but choosing to fall or keep climbing up is a choice. Before COVID, I was a college student with little direction, no sense of self, and someone who did the bare minimum. Now I am none of those things—I became stronger.
Brandon Rodriguez is a native New Yorker whose family migrated from Puerto Rico. He grew up in the South Bronx and attends Guttman Community College, which is part of City University of New York (CUNY). Brandon plans to transfer to Lehman College next year in pursuit of a Journalism degree.