It was about one year ago that the coronavirus pandemic brought day-to-day life on campus to a halt and most UCLA students, staff and faculty began a primarily at-home existence.
While isolation at home was the biggest challenge for some, others grappled with how to find enough physical and mental space to handle a full-time job while caring for and homeschooling children. Some empty nesters welcomed back college-aged children. People around the world faced anxieties about their own health, the health of loved ones and business shutdowns. Social engagements were abandoned and Zoom happy hours, Netflix, cooking, knitting, writing and board games filled people’s time. Many participated in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations against police brutality and murder, while others read or watched them on the news.
Below a few Bruins share some of their thoughts and feelings about how the pandemic has affected them.
Natalie Masuoka, associate professor of Asian American studies and political science
The moment that I knew this was serious was the moment that my daughter’s daycare on campus said we have to pick up the kids. Safer-in-place policies suddenly went into effect and we were directed to pick up our kids because schools were closing. That was the true moment that has provided the framework for my responses for the pandemic — how this is impacting our families and our deep personal connections?
As a specialist on communities of color — African American, Latino, Asian American — we are seeing the racial disparities. Certain people have been disproportionately affected. As a mother, we realize gender plays a role in who has been disproportionately affected. Many of our students have been disproportionately impacted because their homes did not offer a suitable environment for learning.
A year later people are anxious to return back to normal, but it will be more complex than being able to not wear a mask. The more that I’m sitting in conversations, the more that we talk to different faculty, staff and students — everyone has different concerns, and different things to take into account. The variation is astonishingly diverse, so thinking about the return to normalcy is definitely going to be a challenge. In the same way that going to the safer at home was in many ways a complex process, the call to go back to normal, to get the economy back to normal, is really a simplistic view. We have a lot of difficult considerations to take into account in the return back.
Tria Blu Wakpa, assistant professor of world arts and culture/dance
Spring was an exceedingly challenging time because it wasn’t only the COVID-19 context, but it was the murder of George Floyd. A lot of the students in my classes were out there in the streets protesting for social justice. In week nine or 10, one of the students turned on the camera and said, “The National Guard is right outside my window. I can’t do this, I can’t turn in my final paper.” There have been a lot of challenges for students. The university has encouraged us to consider the immense challenges that people are going through: loss of income, death, financial instability, George Floyd, the election, inauguration. Accessing stable wi-fi is a challenge, and navigating multiple things and levels of inequity, professors have to be aware of that and very understanding of that.
A year later, I am teaching “Dance 44, World Dance Histories,” a general ed course, where I have mostly undergraduate lower division students, a cohort of dance students, and students from all across campus majoring in the sciences. To me it feels like those underlying challenges are still there, it also feels like students are more comfortable in online learning, and I’m more comfortable in online learning. The remote environment has challenged students to make dances on screens, learn how to edit, think about close ups of different parts of the body. In “Dance 45, Introduction to Dance Studies,” students used to make these dances in groups in person, but now maybe someone does a solo, splits the screen, now there are people dancing in two or more places, students are really considering the screen dance component and utilizing Instagram in very different ways for them to work. Now, for the first time, many students have videos of the dances that they showed in class, which they can circulate and watch for years to come. We’ve also been able to bring presenters to the university without having to pay for expenses, and reducing our carbon footprint.
I share with my students, sometimes it can be useful when you’re making a list of everything that’s going wrong, to also make a list of everything going right.
Jacob Schmidt, professor of bioengineering and director of the Boelter Hall Makerspace
A year ago, when everything shut down, there was a big sense of urgency to make face shields and prototype other medical equipment. There was a lot of purpose associated with that. Despite campus being closed I was still busy working at UCLA on various PPE projects; I was pretty tired going home. It was not until the demand for our materials went away that it hit me.
Now I’m on campus, interacting with students only over Zoom. No one is in the office, and there hasn’t been anyone here for 12 months. I look out at campus and it is empty, almost post-apocalyptic. At home, we have all tried to be good soldiers, wearing masks, going grocery shopping only once a week and buying 50-pound bags of flour and making it last as long as possible.
I don’t know if at the one-year retrospective we should be giving each other high-fives because we’ve made it through the year, or if this is year N of many. I want it to be high-fives, summertime is coming, and we’ll be back to normal. But that’s how we felt six months ago after passing a big peak in cases — that life will come back to normal, and it did not. We still don’t know if the vaccines will work against all strains, or even if getting COVID prevents you from getting COVID again. Fatigue has hit.
Through all of this the makerspace has basically been closed, but I’m really looking forward to opening in the fall!
Pamela Hieronymi, professor of philosophy
At first, I didn’t fully appreciate all that was happening, but after a few weeks, I remember walking down the street and realizing there was no normal to go back to. At first I thought this would be a perturbation of life, something temporary, like a bad snow storm. And then I realized, no, things are never going to go back to normal. It seemed to me that a chunk of what was difficult was grieving lots of losses, and not knowing which ones they were, knowing things weren’t going to go back, but not knowing which things. Mundane examples, like which of my favorite local bars or coffee shops were going to be around? All the way to who will survive this? Which people will we lose? Is my mother going to survive this? Will education be forever cheapened by the possibility of using technology as a substitute for teaching? Not to say technology is bad, but there is the temptation to scale, and I don’t think it scales very well. Friends moved out of the area, everything was thrown in the air, and I was not sure what was going to come back down.
Now it seems like we may be seeing light at end of the tunnel. The worst-case scenarios could flare back up. We’ve lost a ton, but we can start to project a little bit what is going to stay standing, and what is going to come back. In-person education is going to remain an important part of our lives. The street I live next to has lost a bunch of businesses, but a bunch have survived. My mother is now vaccinated. When I was expressing the exhaustion during week eight of this quarter, a student put in the chat “My brain is a baked potato.” I said, “I hear you.” I thought it was a very nice way of expressing the feeling. The students have been amazing, they have a sense of solidarity, that we’re in this, and we’re making the best of this.”
Renee Romero, science librarian
I had taken Friday, March 13, off to be a bridesmaid at my friend’s wedding that weekend, and I was getting updates from coworkers like, “We think this is serious. We think we are not coming back.” Others at the wedding were saying that this might be the last wedding we attend in 2020. I wasn’t continually checking my email, so I did end up going to work on that Monday. I remember suddenly getting a message like, “Hey, if you’re at work, get your stuff and go home.” We thought it might be two weeks, but I realized anything might happen. Then it was surreal, because it was happening, and it was happening now. I went to spend time with my family outside the L.A. area. I kept my apartment in L.A. for three months, but then let it go. If there is one word to sum up everything, it was that there was “uncertainty.”
A year later, I’m just thankful. I’m glad that I’m in a work environment that allows flexibility. Amidst all the uncertainty and not knowing what the world is going to look like, I had a good environment to go through this. We were able to say we would put workers first, put everyone in a safe situation, keep people as informed as possible. We are very blessed and lucky. There is still uncertainty, but there has been a feeling of stability underneath. Not everyone can say that during this past year.
Brian Wood, assistant professor of anthropology
This struck me early on as one of the disease scenarios that people had been describing, as a life-changing, society-changing and culture-changing moment, that none of us were really prepared for. I’ve just been fearful and worried and have been wondering when it will all be over, and how we are coming out the other side, as a society. My particular situation was made even worse by my wife’s cancer diagnosis. It’s been the worst year of our lives, dealing with threats internally, and externally, on both sides of the equation, on a molecular and on a societal level. These existential threats have brought my family closer, and we’ve gotten to know others going through hardships.
On a personal level, in the early stages of all this, we were in a crisis traumatic situation. The whole society was breaking down, and there was no leadership, and I feel like all those things now are all headed in the right direction. I’ve stopped having nightmares. I feel like the kids have settled in. We’ve taught ourselves how to be teachers, organized our family in a different way. It’s almost like when as an anthropologist, I’ve done fieldwork for many months, landed in a foreign country, and after six to seven months you start to settle in.
The United States has transformed into another culture and another place, and we’ve been able to acclimate. I see very good signs, of a social rebirth, of appreciating things that we took for granted, reevaluated in the new world. I’m excited to think about how society would be remade and reborn given extreme situations, living through periods of rapid change.
I have shifted my academic work to include research focused on pandemic preparedness, and I am currently advising the National Science Foundation on how to foster more interdisciplinary work in this area. So this time has impacted my thinking, life, planning and career. In general, it’s a mixed feeling. The things that brought about the pandemic are not going to go away. All of the underlying processes — land conversion, low-cost and rapid transportation, the global flow of people, contacts between humans and nonhuman species that create spillover. None of that is going away.
Nurit Katz, chief sustainability officer
I remember being very shocked. Having been on our vibrant campus for more than a decade, it was hard to imagine anything that would make the university stand still and it was weird to imagine the campus going quiet. During the initial pandemic response, I served as operations section chief for the Emergency Operations Center and we worked together to determine how to operate the campus, what kind of signage was needed, distancing for essential workers, essential meals for staff on campus, how to track who was where on campus. Now, one year later, we’ve been successful in many of the efforts and we have a new challenge — people coming back in the fall. The COVID-19 Response and Recovery Task Force is now leading those efforts and it will take a lot of months of work to bring people back for in person learning and working.
Emotionally, I’m grateful to be here. I ended up getting COVID-19 and it was scary after spending so much time focused on its impacts and on trying not to contract it. I am full of gratitude that I survived, grief for people we have lost through this, and empathy for the many who have suffered through this — there are all sorts of mixed emotions.
One thing I’ve found comforting throughout has been our urban wildlife — seeing signs of spring, birds beginning to nest feels hopeful. I have found being out in nature to be an important outlet during the pandemic and when I was sick in bed, hearing the birds was comforting, knowing those signs of life were continuing.
As far as telecommuting policies and practices, through this unplanned experiment we’ve seen that people who aren’t required to be on site to do their work can be really productive and do a lot better in the remote environment. A lot of employees will likely continue some level of remote work and that can have an impact on health and well-being and also on sustainability. Many employees used to commute many hours a day, and the remote work can reduce emissions in addition to giving them more time to be with their families.