For my birthday this year, I went back to college — I’m serious. As a summer baby, I always had the luxury of being free to spend my annual day of praise however I wanted, free of the constraints that having to attend school might impose. However, this year, with my friends safe in the cleanliness of their homes and my family working, I had the day to myself. As a newly-anointed sophomore recently plucked from the day-to-day thrills of college life like so many of my peers, I felt there could be no greater present to myself than a small taste of what I was missing.
For this reason, I bought myself lunch and spent the day walking around the wide expanses of West Chester, my mind reminiscing as I went. I ate in the shadows of Allegheny Hall where I used to call home and sipped my Cathy’s Coffee while making my way around the empty oval of the Academic Quad. At the time, I thought nothing of the empty sidewalks, paid no heed to the panels that boarded up the food trucks on Church Street and didn’t even flinch at the sight of Swope’s endless parking lots devoid of cars. To me, this was how a college should look over the summer — dormant.
That was three months ago. Now, as I find myself knee-deep and sinking fast in online coursework, the borough of West Chester provides a much different sentiment. For me, West Chester University marks a halfway point between my home and the school district I work in part-time. Almost every weekday, I am entranced in the strange, silent agony of passing through the shell of my former home. All the while, my eyes scan the once vibrant horizons for some sign of life, like a sailor surveying a shallow cove of wrecked ships.
As I make my way up High Street, my mind is filled with a different type of agony — resentment. I slowly cruise past the long row of fraternities whose lawns are filled with the men and women I regretfully call my classmates. No masks, no distance, no regard for the thousands of students sacrificing their freedom for a chance at normalcy. While they, the self-appointed few, spoil that chance for the fleeting pleasures of debauchery.
My final stop, mostly against my will, is that of the intersection of High and Gay streets. Once the epicenter of a great community of working people, this pavement feels more like a warzone. The barricades on either side of Gay Street are reminiscent of trench walls (or perhaps a modern retelling of “Les Mis”), while the singular street light blinks an eternal red warning, cautioning you against the diminished trickle of locals making their way through the town’s suddenly-hollow grid of walkways. As I journey north up Pottstown Pike, I usually let out a sigh of relief. One more trip in the books, one more survival over desecrated land, and I’m one step closer to the day when I can drive back into that city and not have to leave from the other end.
It isn’t breaking news that living off campus is no fast-lane lifestyle. Most of us waited 20 years to move on from our childhood homes, only to have that notion of freedom taken away from us. We feel like we’re missing out on what is supposed to be the best years of our lives, and we are. However, there’s one thing that keeps me going through these long months — hope.
Seeing campus as often as I do does not make me happy, and going back for one-off events like band practice is a shell of what I’m used to, but at the end of it all, I can’t be mad. In the back of my mind every time I make that haunting journey through West Chester University, I know that one day it will all come back, maybe sooner rather than later. I know that the students who break quarantine just want to see their friends again. I struggle to blame them because I do, too. And I know that the city isn’t dead, but dormant. It’s braving the cold winters of COVID-19 to come back one day and feel the sun on its face yet again. I implore anyone reading this to keep what I’ve said in mind next time they feel as if “distanced learning” and “alternative modalities” are pushing them past their breaking point. It will get better.
Matthew Shimkonis is a second-year history major, journalism minor. MS925373@wcupa.edu