Amid the noise, there are glimmers of hope

Two Columbia University Undergraduates on COVID-19

By: David Chen and Joon Baek

As universities around the world undergo unprecedented changes during the COVID-19 crisis, the student population has experienced significant disruption to their academic life, extracurricular experiences, and career pursuits.  Undergraduates across the country are now facing a market wary of welcoming them.  Countless internships and job offers have already been put on hold.  Further, sociopolitical institutions of a bygone era seem unequipped to deal with today’s challenges.  By anyone’s bet, the future seems uncertain at best and bleak at worst.

In an online forum on April 17 organized by Columbia’s Undergraduate Committee on Global Thought (UCGT), students called in from across the country to discuss how the pandemic has affected their lives and their futures.  The event, “From the Local to the Global: Perspectives on the Pandemic,” presented a unique platform for undergraduates to discuss their experiences together while being physically distant from each other due to the University’s suspension of in person classes in early March.  A review of the discussion suggests that undergraduates share similar anxieties and concerns over what the future has in store for them.  “I think often about how much I wish it weren’t like this,” one student said.  “This is not the life I imagined… I would give a lot to be finishing my senior year.”  Another commented, “[This has] greatly increased the uncertainty I have for the summer and fall.  My legal status in America might be in jeopardy.”  

But amid the chatter of despair and hopelessness, of racial harassment and yes, of loneliness, there are reasons for optimism.  Aside from expressions of apprehension, students also shared stories of resiliency and purpose.  A graduating senior spoke about how she felt compelled to return to New York City after she saw reports of hospitals across Manhattan and other boroughs inundated with a surge of coronavirus patients.  “I had a bit of a fight with my parents because I felt like, as an EMT, I was morally obligated; I felt a moral compulsion to [return].”  She is now working three days a week at a morgue, all while living in a friend’s apartment downtown and taking her online classes.

Another student contemplated the positive environmental impacts this virus has unintentionally caused.  “In India, people are able to see the Himalayas for the first time in 30 years… In Korea and China there has been fine yellow dust every year but now [the pollution] is much less severe.”  For this student, the pandemic has forced her to reflect on who we are as a species.  “We are nothing compared to mother nature,” she says.  “We must live with what’s around us… we must live symbiotically.”  Others like her have begun thinking about how technological and scientific advances might be harnessed to do good.  Looking just within our university community, there are undergraduates hard at work, designing and constructing 3D printed ventilators to be deployed on the front lines.  Teams of engineers in the engineering school are working on food delivery technologies to tackle supply chain issues.  And undergraduate students broadly are reaching out into their local communities, making a difference by lending a helping hand to those in need.

Needless to say, it is not our hope to suggest that the pandemic has generated a uniformly positive outcome for the world.  We acknowledge, painfully and soberly, the toll this virus has taken for too many of our friends and families.  But if there is a silver lining to be drawn from all this suffering, which we contend there is, it is that undergraduate students are stepping up and leaning in. Students of all stripes are answering the call to action.  We are asking the tough questions, rediscovering what’s most important in life, and finding renewed purpose in our work.

To state the obvious, this is a hard time.  But if you get the chance to tune out the ever-present noise of public health warnings and recessionary fears, we implore you to hear the stories of those around you.  We did, and we found more glimmers of hope than we could have imagined. 

David Chen and Joon Baek are undergraduate students at Columbia University. They are co-fellows of the Undergraduate Committee on Global Thought (UCGT), an open forum that connects undergraduate students to the rich resources on global issues available at Columbia University.