by Micaela Millan
At Hunter College, a school within the City University New York (CUNY) system, March indicates that the spring semester is in full swing. With the temperatures rising and daylight savings allowing for more time in the sun, animals in hibernation wake from their slumber, and birds return from their migratory trips south. Similarly, students are adjusting to their new semester schedules after a cold and sleepy winter. For me, March 2020 in particular was supposed to be a time of renewal as a senior preparing to graduate and move on to the next chapter in my life. Little did I know that March would mark even more drastic changes to my life than I expected. As a first generation undergraduate at a state school system renowned for improving the economic mobility of New Yorkers, I, like many of my classmates, would be forced to deal with more than just the anticlimactic end of my college career. I also had to manage the difficulty of being displaced from my living situation due to the pandemic and relocated to the tight quarters of my family home. I was forced to acclimate to online learning, all while the state of my city crumbled from the duel crises of COVID-19 and police brutality.
This story begins on Wednesday, March 11, which started like any other day. I rushed out of my dorm in Kips Bay to a Citibike dock and began my morning commute to Hunter College in the Upper East Side. After my first class I walked the three familiar blocks to my internship at a biomedical research lab. It was there, after finishing my tasks for the day, where I learned from Twitter that the CUNY and SUNY systems would be transitioning to “distance learning.” By the end of the day, Governor Cuomo, with one simple Tweet, had declared the end of my undergraduate experience as I knew it.
Two hours later I found myself with two close friends. As we toured around our school, reminiscing about the past four years and soaking in the last moments of our college experience, we sank into our feelings. First there was the shock of everything changing so drastically in less than an hour. When that wore off, the uneasy feeling of anxiety and fear of the unknown set in. What does this mean for graduation? Will they close our dorms? Will I have to I move out? How will school translate to an online setting? How will we finish our senior theses if labs close? At this point, there was still no official statement from CUNY.
The prospect of not having a graduation ceremony was painful. At CUNY, where many of us are first-generation college students, this was especially true. This event has been built up from the moment our parents stepped foot in this country. As an immigrant and the first in my family to graduate from university in the United States, graduation was supposed to be a chance to finally stand in glory and be recognized not only for my sacrifices and hard work, but also for those of my parents, without whom I would not have had the opportunity to accomplish such a feat.
Within about a week of Cuomo’s announcement, classes had resumed via the distance-learning instruction, yet my tenure in the CUNY dorms was over. Hunter gave dorm residents only three days’ notice that the dorms would be closing on March 27. This quick turn-around time would lead to many issues. Many students did not have the resources to move out in just three days. There was little time to coordinate or arrange moving out plans, from the transportation of possessions to finding a place to live. Further, most CUNY students had jobs and the move would need to take place in the middle of a work week! Hunter College dorms are home to hundreds, if not thousands of students, all packed in small apartments. Having less than three days for this amount of people (plus others who are helping residents) to move out of a crowded college dorm also resulted in swarms of people in close proximity in the midst of a pandemic brought about by airborne virus. My brother, who is a student at SUNY at Albany, faced a similar situation and also had to move out of his dorm, returning, with me, to our increasingly crowded family home in Queens. None of this sat well with me or my family. New York plans for combating this disease exposed the economic and political priorities of policymakers as working-class students suffered.
I was fortunate enough to be able to move in with my family, but the living situation presented new challenges. I now lived with my grandparents, parents, uncle, and my younger brother and sister. With a full house of eight people, social distancing was difficult, but crucial. My parents remained vulnerable to the virus as essential workers, while my grandparents’ advanced age and uncle’s immunocompromised status put them at high risk if they contracted the disease. My mother’s job as a dialysis nurse presented to us the grim reality of COVID-19’s effect not only on patients, but on healthcare workers as well.
My mom is the heart of our home, but because of her job she had to self-quarantine upon arriving home from work resulting in the dynamics of our home being shifted. At the height of the pandemic, my mom was working up to 14 hours a day with few days off, all while layered in PPE which made it difficult to breathe and move. This was paired with the emotional toll of being surrounded by patients dying at unprecedented rates, being the only source of human contact and support for isolated patients (visitors were restricted), and poor leadership from management which resulted in N95 mask shortages. I remember she had a scheduled vacation during this period, but she was forced to go to work because her unit was so understaffed. When we did see our mother after yet another long shift, we could not hug or even touch her due to social distancing guidelines. Soon, the stress of the hospital followed my mom back home and took residence in our house. Signs of poor mental health began to surface among the rest of the family. My typically active grandparents grew despondent as their ability to exercise and venture outdoors was limited. My father struggled to keep his small business afloat during lockdown, unable to receive government assistance, all while managing his own grief of the deaths of many colleagues and friends who were afflicted with COVID-19. All of this led to an atmosphere of fear, stress and frustration in our home.
My own struggle with mental health had also been exacerbated by CUNY’s closing. As a majority of CUNY students commute to school from home, our college campuses often acted as a safe haven from the harsh realities of being a student from a low-income and working-class background. Campuses provide access to technology, a sense of community, and support resources for many of us. I found it more difficult to manage and process my anxiety without the frequent in-person check-ins with fellow student club members and friends, my Macaulay Honors advisors, and my Chemistry and Spanish professors who have guided me throughout the past four years.
In addition to the sudden logistical changes faced by university students, I, and many other CUNY students, had to contend with the mental challenges of being a part of a working-class family living in the epicenter of the pandemic. Even with orders to “Stay Home,” CUNY students often couldn’t quarantine. My parents, as well as many of my peers, were forced to confront wide-spread death after being classified as “essential.” Along with fearing contraction by my family members and not having access to the resources designated to allow working-class students to thrive at CUNY, the pandemic haunted me and my household. The price of socioeconomic inequity had never been clearer in my mind.
After living in the dorms for four years, attempting to shift my study habits and class schedule to one where I am home was a challenge. The shift felt like I was going backwards. I went from studying in a library to my childhood desk and from small, intimate discussion classes to disconnected zoom meetings. While I enjoy living with my big family, this new learning environment, combined with the stress of our proximity to the pandemic (during this time, NYC was the epicenter) made it difficult to focus, especially when I was supposed to be in the middle of midterms.
Luckily, my professors were all very accommodating during this unprecedented and chaotic situation. Instruction, however, had mixed success. As a senior, I was excited to take my smaller, upper level classes, which greatly differed from huge lectures in the past. The shift to online learning had dampened the vibrant interaction that made these classes great. I also found that many professors were not technologically equipped to move their lectures online, perhaps the instructional training was not enough, or more is required. As is probably true of many undergraduate experiences in the Spring, some of my classmates’ professors were less forgiving and failed to understand students’ struggles, such as family death and mental health issues.
The challenge of living in tight quarters with my family during the pandemic were made more difficult by the necessary protests for Black equality, where New York was also a major epicenter. The CUNY population is largely made up of students of color from all ethnicities and backgrounds. Amidst great student diversity, there are still biases and prejudices non-Black people of color (POC) hold against the Black community. As a person who has participated in organizing work rooted in the greater social movement for justice and equality for marginalized people, I recognize that there is great work to be done in many communities of which I am a part: CUNY, Queens, STEM, Filipino-Americans, and Asian-Americans. When the Black Lives Matter (BLM) struggle became reinvigorated after the horrific death of George Floyd, my first step in participating in this movement started at the dinner table.
Since the elders of my household grew up in the Philippines, they did not understand the Black experience in the United States and its significance in the ongoing movement for Black equality and liberation. Over time, I attempted to explain the relation of Black Lives Matter (BLM) to the liberation of all people of color. Even when met with resistance, I discussed with my grandparents, parents, and uncle their own long-held prejudices against Black people, colorism (in the Philippines, Asia and here), and the model minority myth. We spent time analyzing how the work of Black activists during the Civil Rights Movement achieved policies such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that allow people of color and immigrants such as my family to live and work in the United States without race-based discrimination. These difficult conversations opened up new ways of sharing the activist part of my life with my family as my mother and younger sister joined me at a BLM protest.
It has now been four months since that fateful day in March, when my life and the lives of thousands of other CUNY students drastically changed. Even though the Spring semester ended in May, there is still much work to be done for the survival of this nation. New York City, once the epicenter of the Coronavirus in the United States, has successfully entered Phase Four of its reopening plan, though any semblance of normalcy has yet to return. While New York has managed to “flatten the curve,” the rest of the country continues to struggle as their respective case counts break new records almost daily, serving as a cautionary tale of potential recurrent NYC outbreaks down the line.
As we continue the fight against the relatively new threat of COVID-19, we also continue the enduring fight against systemic racism and its long-established threat to Black people. As we have seen in the past four months, Black lives are jeopardized not only in the hands of law enforcement, but also in those of medical professionals, with Black people being hospitalized at a rate five times that of white people with COVID-19. Although I had originally planned to start my medical school application process after graduation, these past four months gave me the chance to remove myself from my academic bubble on campus and properly reflect on my experiences and values. My new focus is pursuing a career in public health. With this disease endangering Black and brown communities the most, I am moved to take action and use my own privilege as a CUNY graduate and non-Black POC to work towards rectifying the injustices experienced by marginalized groups under our current healthcare system. As the spread of coronavirus ushers in a “new normal,” I hope to be part of the generation that normalizes social justice, compassion, and equity.
Micaela Millan is a recent graduate of CUNY Hunter College as a Macaulay Honors scholar, with a major in Biochemistry and a minor in Spanish. She is interested in public health and social justice work, as well as data science. Her hobbies include reading, knitting, cycling, and running.
Thanks for this lucid and moving contribution.