Coronavirus And The Class Of 2020: A Senior Spring Semester Like No Other

Memorial Glade and the Campanile at the University of California-Berkeley. Photo by Tia Chen-Wong

The last video I have on my phone of the University of California-Berkeley campus is from February 28 at 3:33 p.m. I’m sitting in the middle of Memorial Glade — a popular grassy hangout spot near the university’s iconic Campanile clock tower. The camera pans to a sea of students sprawling on the lawn, chatting with their friends and throwing footballs back and forth. The shot ends on one of my closest friends lying next to me, waving happily and squinting into the sun. It’s 71-degrees, a perfect Friday to wrap up a week of unusually warm weather. None of us know how soon it’s all going to change.

Of course, news of coronavirus reached our ears long before that. I remember hearing about the first cases in China over winter break, and the first case in the U.S. was confirmed on January 20, the day before our spring semester classes started. It was a popular conversation topic, and we reminded each other to wash our hands and load up on vitamin C. Then on March 2 we received an email from the university administration about a confirmed case in Alameda County, and on March 3 a Berkeley resident tested positive for COVID-19.

Suddenly it all felt much more real. That same day I went to Walgreens after class and asked a store clerk if there was any hand sanitizer in stock; they laughed at me and said, “Try tomorrow morning, sweetheart.” I left, passing a long queue of students juggling soap bottles and gummy vitamin jars on my way out. When I got home, I unearthed a bag of leftover travel-sized Purell packets and hoarded them on my desk. The next day I returned to Walgreens and bought Lysol disinfectant wipes and all-purpose spray. I started eating oranges at the end of every meal.

Tia Chen-Wong at Memorial Glade. Photo by Tia Chen-Wong


Still, life went on for the most part. Classes, work, and midterm exams all continued, and the campus was just as busy as ever. Then on March 9, we received an email from the Chancellor Carol Christ announcing that the majority of classes would be moved online starting March 10 until the end of spring break, and events with over 150 attendees would be canceled. My initial reaction was joyful relief. Now that classes were suspended for the next three weeks, I could go home early. By the following evening, all of my job supervisors had given me permission to work remotely, and I was back home with my family in Southern California by March 11.

Then on March 13, another email from Chancellor Christ announced that instruction would remain online through the end of the semester. In a millisecond, the happiness I had felt about a slightly longer spring break was replaced with an overwhelming sadness. I had gone to my last class at Cal without even knowing it! The next time I step foot on campus, I most likely won’t be a student anymore. All of my friends are stuck in Berkeley or back home somewhere across the country or the world, and none of us got the chance to say goodbye to one another. With the shelter-in-place order in the Bay Area — and now the entire state of California — graduation is up in the air. We don’t know when we’ll see each other in person again.


Obviously, there is no one to blame for this mess, and I believe virtual instruction and social distancing are necessary measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. I also want to acknowledge that everyone is affected by this situation differently, and I am lucky enough to have food and housing security and a healthy immune system. I do not claim to represent the entire Class of 2020, but I do think we all lost a shared and crucial part of the college experience: the end. We’ve watched all of the graduating seniors before us have their moment, and this year it was our turn. Our plans of spending the last months together celebrating Cal Day, hitting the Berkeley bars, studying for our last finals, and walking at Memorial Stadium fell apart so quickly we didn’t have time to process it. Perhaps even more terrifying is the world we’re graduating into. It’s scary enough becoming an adult during a healthy economy, but right now everyone’s future looks uncertain.

But if my time at Cal has taught me anything, it is that life is never predictable. Every year has presented a new form of chaos, whether it be protests, earthquakes, wildfires, power outages, or a global pandemic. The class of 2020 is connected by a shared college experience, one unlike any other. And although we may not get to walk this spring, the past three-and-a-half years have been a crazy, unforgettable journey, and we’ve been together every step of the way.


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