I think every sophomore has had this conversation with a junior or senior about a million times: “So, if you had to give it a number, what percentage of the real ‘Bowdoin experience’ are we at right now?” When faced with this question myself, I threw out 70 percent as a ballpark estimate.
She started laughing and shaking her head. “Way below that. Not even close!”
A couple days later, we received an email from President Rose with an all-too-familiar subject line: “COVID-19 Update.” I think I audibly groaned. By now, everyone knows what that means. And sure enough, three new positives popped up, increasing the total yet again.
But for me, the most important sentence of the email is buried in the middle. President Rose wrote that “it is not surprising that we have had positive cases as we started the semester, and we should expect to see more cases during the semester.” He is right that we couldn’t expect an entirely COVID-free semester. But if he isn’t surprised by this obviously terrible outcome, it begs the question: could Bowdoin have done better?
I think the answer is clearly yes, for one reason—we did better with a more preventative approach last fall.
I arrived at Bowdoin for the first time in fall 2020, and before I had my first Thorne meal or met my floormates, I had taken two COVID tests and begun unpacking fully masked and isolated.
With these restrictions, we completely prevented community spread of COVID-19. Last year’s mask mandate didn’t exempt dining and residence halls—the places where COVID would be most likely to spread. “Quarientation” was horribly named but perfectly planned, and within a week, campus was COVID-free. While my high school friends were often exposed to the virus at their respective colleges—and many contracted it—I was privileged to live in a (semi-)bubble all semester.
Before moving forward, I want to say that I recognize and appreciate the hard work of Mike Ranen and everyone COVID-planning (and Plan B-ing) in the administration. It’s easy to critique them with hindsight and much harder to plan without knowing the consequences. I’d rather reflect on the past couple years than attack the administration for making tough choices, but the saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” says it all.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not advocating to return to last fall’s harsh restrictions, and I cannot stress this enough; nobody wants Zoom classes or for anyone to have a 20% Bowdoin experience from their bedroom. Instead, my point is that if we had made small sacrifices during the first few days of school, we may have prevented the recent outbreak and Yellow status, even with the Delta variant.
Rather than a “normal” that lasted only a few short days, we could have had a short period of restrictions followed by a genuine, lasting “normal” with less risk of COVID-19 for everyone. A Bowdoin experience at … maybe 90%? That’s a win-win.
So where are we now? COVID-19 is still spreading on campus, and the administration increased restrictions in response. Nobody knows when this will end. Nobody even knows if this will end. There’s tension between our hopes for a “90%” year and the reality that we aren’t there yet.
For us sophomores, fall 2021 is beginning to feel like fall 2020 all over again. The realization that we haven’t made much progress in a year—aside from vaccines, in-person classes and grabbing your own food at dining—isn’t a fun one.
It’s the little things that give me the strongest déjà vu: chasing after a runaway napkin outside Thorne, waiting in line for tacos at the Friday night food trucks, attending a club meeting as the social event of the week. These are generally good memories, but they shouldn’t be the highlights of anyone’s Bowdoin experience.
It shows immense privilege to demand the “real Bowdoin experience,” as if staying in on a Friday night is a catastrophe. The “half-Bowdoin” that we occupy today would be a dream for so many, and we’re incredibly lucky to have it. But with a different COVID plan, we could have had both a COVID-free campus and a Bowdoin experience that doesn’t make me still feel like a displaced high school senior.
We’ve all internalized the administration’s vaguely optimistic outlook, but I have absolutely no clue whether we can actually turn things around. Moving forward, let’s accept masks and restrictions in the very short-term so we can return to “normal” in the medium-term. I desperately want to prove that senior right, to prove that the “100% Bowdoin experience” shatters life in Yellow.
Fellow sophomores and first-years, we’re going to get that magical Bowdoin experience we were hoping for, and we’re getting it soon. Or maybe not. Don’t ask me. I don’t know.
Jacob Trachtenberg is a member of the Class of 2024.