Returning to the “old normal” will be a big adjustment, now that the fully in-person semester seems to be a certain reality. (Hustler Staff/Riddhi Singhania)

Through the Laptop Screen: The Old-Normal is Not-So-Normal

Now that the online environment has been so hard-drilled into our lives, the “old normal” might not feel as familiar anymore.

(Photo courtesy Riddhi Singhania)

Last week, I contacted the VUIT for an internet issue. They scheduled a time to meet with me. At the time of the meeting, I sat in my dorm with my email open, waiting for VUIT to send me a Zoom link. Suddenly, I heard a knock on my door:

A technician from the VUIT was standing outside my room!

I could not have been more surprised. Nowadays, a “meeting” usually means “Zoom meeting” by default, so seeing him outside of my room was totally unexpected. This normal occurrence was actually extremely abnormal for me, and it served as a little reminder that returning to the “old normal” might be a big adjustment, especially with mostly in-person classes next semester. 

COVID-19 has taken over our life so much that imagining life without it is now difficult or dream-like. This lifestyle has now been hardwired into my brain such that I might have forgotten my phone in my room many times, but never have I gone out without my hand sanitizer. The little transition towards more in-person programming, thus, has its own obstacles. While students dread Zoom classes, in-person attendance of hybrid classes has decreased during the semester. In-person events, like the Common’s Spring Celebration, have also seen less student attendance than the planned capacity.

It seems that this happened because the pandemic has inherently decreased interaction. No one is to blame for the decrease in-person participation. It is quite natural, and in fact, understandable. One can just meet a handful of people in a particular time slot, and even booking for a time slot and RSVPing on two different websites adds to the hassle and complexity of attending such events.

Interacting while social distancing is not ideal. When I was talking to a friend, I did not realize that I was speaking so loud so as to make the handful of others standing around us uncomfortable. At the dining hall, my Indian accent forces the dining staff to ask me twice for what I was asking, as they cannot see my lips moving through the mask. Less in-person capacity means less activities for an event. Excessive structure in such events leads to a lack of freedom of being able to walk around and just mingle with people. 

While walking to my classes, I sometimes vaguely recognize people with their masks. I usually just walk past them because I don’t want to wave at the wrong person, but I also don’t want to experience that awkward moment where they may not recognize me. 

Two weeks ago, I was coming back from my dance practice, and I saw an in-person event outside of my dorm—I was excited. There were a substantial number of students, chatting with each other and talking in small groups. I happily entered the crowd, but I was immediately struck by the fact that even though I saw one or two people I knew, I did not know how to approach them in this big group. I felt alone as others already had so many friends to talk to. When there are less people at such events, I have spent over an hour talking about random experiences and sharing jokes.

But seeing how many people have big social circles is very intimidating for me as a student who just switched to in-person learning this semester. In an online environment, everyone gets a chance to speak; I don’t even have to speak loudly to get myself heard. Now, doing the same thing without the technical support we all have gotten used to seems overwhelming. After that experience with the big crowd, I decided to go back into my dorm and call my sister in India for a bit of comfort.

I understand that a lot of people are experiencing this kind of awkwardness as we start to return to the “old normal.” Nevertheless, for me, it is also made more difficult because of the fact that I am an international student. I’m not used to the kind of food people eat or the activities Americans like at social events, and I cannot expect Bollywood songs at each event.  These cultural gaps also influence the process of making friends, which itself has been difficult for me.

When I am on my laptop, it feels as if I can control everything on my 13-inch screen. That is how I started college and saw Vanderbilt throughout the fall. However, the in-person experience is far bigger than what I previously experienced. Time seems to fly by walking to my classes, and seeing everyone engaged in talks and work makes the environment feel so competitive, so much faster and out of control. There is so much more to explore and so many places to go to that it is sometimes scary for me to think of my social life changing because of the pressure of in-person expectations. Because of the fact that COVID-19 still exists, it is very easy for me to decline offers for going out when I have a lot of homework piled up.

Nonetheless, I know that soon my first year at Vanderbilt will end, and everything is not (and should not be) “through the laptop screen.” Now that I’ve experienced it, I believe it is my responsibility to ensure that the in-person awkwardness does not affect the incoming class. I will be starting as a VUceptor next semester and am excited to guide the Class of 2025 into their college experience. This is a little ironic considering that I myself have not experienced many things that contribute to the basis of Vanderbilt’s proud residential experience. We first-year students have seen Vanderbilt only through the pandemic lens and breathed its air only through masks. 

Not having move-in day (let alone the fact that I arrived on campus for the first time the evening before my spring classes started), not experiencing Anchor Dash and not attending the Commons Ball feels like a void in my college experience. The Class of 2024 will never be able to personally feel this beloved side of Vanderbilt. 

We have not yet seen many aspects of Vanderbilt. On the other hand, many of the things we see now might be gone whenever we finally get back to the “old normal”. This includes switching to eating on plates instead of from the bulky packaging, not seeing the tents around campus as often, seeing “crowds” of students at house events and having to run to an in-person class after finally grabbing a Rand Bowl. Whether we like these changes or not, at the end, we will have two kinds of college experiences to cherish. We can pick the positives from both and give a whole new perspective to learning in a pandemic.

Whether you are excited or nervous about seeing a little more of the “old normal” next fall, it will definitely present new opportunities of growth that we have missed for over a year. Till we finally start living the pre-pandemic life again, maybe let’s learn to laugh at the awkwardness this transition presents (of course, people do see you smile behind your mask). Having successfully made through such a historic year, we all deserve being cheerful while welcoming the “old normal”.