I remember with nauseating clarity when my high school boyfriend paused an episode of Black Mirror, turned to me, and said, “I think we should break up or go on a break for the summer.” What I said in response has been erased in my memory by the brutal shock of the blow and the paradoxical feeling that I should have seen it coming. I felt the same way when my best friend at Midd told me she had decided to transfer. It was the last minutes of a Thursday or the first minutes of a Friday too close to finals for anyone’s comfort, and one of the first days Middlebury felt like home to me. The air just beyond Axinn’s doors was surprisingly warm, and as I processed the pleasantness of this, my friend filled a momentary lapse in our conversation with the news of her decision. My other friends, who hadn’t known she’d been considering transferring, must have expressed their shock. But I was too preoccupied by the strain of attempting to keep my face neutral and my voice even to process their reactions. Those efforts were likely wasted; my face is useless at disguising my feelings. Her transfer was a possibility I’d known about since October, but when she told us her decision I realized I never believed she wouldn’t stay. That night, once we left Axinn and reached the entrance to our dorm, I could tell she wanted me to hang back with our other friend so we could talk, but I claimed exhaustion, feeling righteously annoyed by the inconsiderate hour she chose to break her news. Back in my dorm, I listened to music in the single use bathroom (my roommate had long since fallen asleep), sent a long volley of texts to my mom, and eventually tried to get some sleep myself. The last two weeks of my semester were consumed by trying to spend as much time with her as possible and my anticipatory grief over a Middlebury without her. When a relationship or a situationship (as we Middlebury students are so familiar with) ends, it can be devastating, but there is certain comfort to be found in breakup rituals. I find it easy to talk about breakups, to come up with pejorative nicknames for my exes (what can I say, I’m a writer) and to receive the ready sympathy of my friends. There are inadequate rituals and language to describe the loss of a friend. When I returned home, I was also processing the end of a situationship which I talked about at length to friends from home. I talked less about my friend’s infinitely more devastating transfer. If I did, it often felt awkward, like my friends avoided the topic, not due to a lack of empathy but because they didn’t know what to say. I’ve been fortunate to have many deep relationships with friends that bring me great solace and joy; however, my relationship with her was unlike any friendship before, just by virtue of her being a college friend. Before leaving for college, one of my cousins told me that because you leave your family behind at college your friends become your family and essential support system. My friend lived two floors above my room. I knocked on her door to borrow peanut butter, solicit opinions on dresses, cry and everything in between. She was my family and her absence from campus is still a loss that stings keenly. I mourn the future we could have had together. She’s still a close friend of mine, but we live on opposite coasts, and she likely won’t be in my life in the same capacity, neither in college nor after it, than if she had stayed at Middlebury. Campus feels lonelier without her and I expect it to remain that way for some time. I’ve been reassured that I will eventually find other friends who fill the void she left, but I’ll never find another her, just like she will never find another me. Our culture is one that tends to valorize romantic relationships sometimes (unfortunately in my case) at the expense of friendships. This holds especially true for me, as both a college student and a woman. The unparalleled and continued grief over my friend’s transfer taught me at this point in my life I value and need friendships far more than romance — a lesson I think most people learn far before 14th grade, but one I’m grateful to have learned. In All About Love, bell hooks writes we are taught love will foremost come from our romantic relationships, but she argues it is our friendships which ground us and teach us how to love. At this stage in my life, and quite possibly for the rest of my life, I have found my deepest and most fulfilling relationships to be with my friends; however, in conversation, conflicts and breakups can feel secondary to the consuming, less devastating, “juicier” boy drama. In some senses, it’s reductive to compare friendships to romantic relationships, diminishing the value of both by creating such a binary; however, I seek not to diminish the value of romance but to elevate the importance and weight with which we discuss friendships. I don’t talk about my friend’s transfer much, mostly to avoid getting too emotional, and because it's an ache that has yet to dissipate, boring in its perseverance. It’s an ache that swells at odd moments (by the McCullough printer where I printed her return labels because she could never figure out Papercut, the back entrance of Hep, etc.) or just when I’m especially lonely. A couple of nights ago, I was talking with a guy and I started to cry. Some girls enveloped and comforted me assuming I was just another girl crying over a boy, a ritual of sisterhood. The assumption wasn’t completely incorrect, a guy I’d once hooked up with had prompted some tears, but it was another guy’s question that had precipitated my tears: if I missed my friend.
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In less than three weeks, Middlebury students will finally move into their rooms for the spring semester. Unlike other colleges — such as the University of Pennsylvania and Trinity College — that staggered student arrivals over the period of a week, Middlebury plans to divide student arrivals between just two days: Feb. 21 and Feb. 22. Consolidating arrivals into two days enables the college to keep students on a single testing schedule and manage the transitions more smoothly than a more staggered schedule would allow, according to Dean of Students Derek Doucet. The move-in day procedures will remain the same as the fall semester, despite vastly different conditions. In August 2020, Vermont’s daily new Covid-19 cases averaged in the single digits; in January, those numbers multiplied by tenfold to the 130s. Nationally, the Covid-19 positivity rate almost doubled, spiking from 5.7 percent in August to 11 percent in January. “Despite new variants, the most effective measures remain unchanged: face coverings, physical distancing and hand hygiene,” Doucet said. “Combined with the pre-arrival quarantine requirement, the importance of which cannot be overstated, universal arrival testing and immediate isolation of all positive cases, these measures remain effective.” This semester’s move-in day, he added, should also provide fewer opportunities for students and parents to break social distancing, as most students are moved into their spring housing and the process will be quicker. Last semester’s move-in problems did not end when students entered room quarantine. Testing delays and challenges with meal deliveries intensified an already fraught process. Unlike in the fall when Middlbury kept dining halls open while simultaneously delivering meals to students in room quarantine, the college anticipates the two-day schedule will allow them to simplify meal logistics. Many students enrolled last semester were frustrated by testing delays that kept them confined to their rooms far longer than the expected 24-hour period. Although the college has continued its partnership with the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., Director of Health Services Mark Peluso anticipates a lower risk of delays now that the lab has a semester of experience under its belt.
In a semester fraught with unforeseen challenges, students and professors will have to contend with one more obstacle: cuts to the library budget. A 25% cut was initially announced in early July and further reductions were made in the fall. Waiting to finalize cuts until the first quarter of the fiscal year is highly unusual, but things are “a little more fluid than usual” this year, according to Collection Development Librarian Douglas Black. The cuts to the library are part of the 33% cut that all Academic Affairs departments have experienced, according to Dean of Faculty Sujata Moorti. Though it was a “painful process,” Moorti said the measure was put into place to maintain wage continuity. Unlike some peer NESCAC schools and other similar colleges, Middlebury has not laid off staff members. “The college made what I feel was a very humane decision to protect staff,” Library Dean Mike Roy told The Campus. The library eliminated all professional development, travel and food, but the bulk of the cuts come from the collections budget, which makes up the majority of the library’s annual allocation. The collections budget faced a 34% reduction, which has resulted in the library canceling subscriptions to 58 databases and collections. “I’ve had to make some very hard choices,” Roy said. “It sort of runs contrary to our ethos which is to say ‘yes’ and be as helpful as we can, so it’s been hard to make this change.” Black said the Collections team had numerous factors in mind when deciding which collections and databases to cut. They tried to “spread the pain” so no department was disproportionately hit, kept resources that were unique or central to a discipline and analyzed usage data to determine which resources served the broadest sector of the community. Anticipating the effect of the cuts, the library also increased the budget of the Interlibrary Loan program (ILL). This increase had to be offset with a slightly deeper cut to other library resources. The ILL allows students or professors to request and receive books, articles or journals from other colleges that Middlebury library does not have in its collection. Professors and students are already beginning to feel the impact of these cuts. When Laurie Essig, director and professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist studies, designed her syllabus in August, she added two e-books that were in the library’s collection. By September, they were gone. “It seems to me a library would be essential to what a college does,” Essig said “We are an institution of higher learning. Where are our values?” Library staff have been offering increased delivery and scanning services for Middlebury-owned items and have been communicating with faculty regarding how to plan courses with the resources that are currently available. Professor of History Louisa Burnham said she was shocked when she glanced at the list of canceled journals. Of particular note for Burnham, a scholar of Medieval history, were the cancellation of “The American Historical Review,” the premier history journal in the country, and “Speculum,” one of the most important journals of Medieval studies in the world. “These are just [the journals] that stood out to me personally,” Burnham said. “I’m sure each of my colleagues will have visceral reactions to the loss of journals in their own subfields.” “Each and every one of us will be hurt by this because it’s that much less knowledge we have access to,” Essig said. The cuts will also make thesis work and other research projects much more difficult. Students will still have access to most of the same journals through the ILL. However, students and faculty will have less immediate access to resources. Articles take 24 to 48 hours to be delivered and loans will take about a week to come through the mail. Chris Herdman, a physics professor, expects the delay to hamper research. “Sometimes you’ll look at 10 articles that aren’t relevant to find one that is very important,” Herdman said. “That is greatly facilitated by having online access through a journal subscription where you don’t need to wait, and can look at an article in real time and see if it’s relevant or not.” The true cost of the budget cuts will likely not be felt for some time, as many of the subscriptions the college purchased are annual and will expire in December. “What you will see over the course of the semester and the year will be more things becoming not available so the full impact won’t be really felt until the spring,” Roy said.
As states across the country issued stay-at-home orders last spring, essential workers carried on working and took on personal risks to keep the country functioning. Among their ranks were several Middlebury students who faced daily concerns about personal and familial health, battled exhaustion, balanced school work and struggled with their mental health. These are the experiences of a few MiddKids who worked, and continue to work, on the frontlines. Concern for family For student essential workers, deciding to work was not without pause: many worried that they would become sick at work and infect their families when they returned home. Meg Haberle ’22, worked at a private ambulance service in Worcester, Mass. She would immediately place all her items in a plastic storage unit, shower and wash her uniform upon returning home before interacting with the rest of her family. Alex Myers ’23, who worked as a cashier at a craft store over the summer, lived in isolation at her extended family’s home in Chatham, Mass. When cousins came to stay, she quarantined herself to avoid any chance of infection. Emily Klar ’21 began working as an EMT in Bethel, Vermont immediately after being evacuated from Middlebury in March. Her mother, a registered nurse at a local hospital, worried for her and her daughter’s safety given that their jobs could potentially put them in contact with Covid-19 patients. She nearly quit her own job and urged her daughter to stop working as well. “I’m deciding to continue working on the frontlines [because] I think I am relatively healthy, and I want to give back to my community now that they need me the most,” Klar recalled telling her mother. This semester, Klar is living in Weybridge, Vermont. She is enrolled as a remote learner and continues to work as an EMT. Battling frontline fatigue While the pace of life has slackened for many during the pandemic, frontline workers have felt opposite effects. The private ambulance company where Haberle worked frequently contracts with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). When FEMA asked the company for volunteers to deploy to New York City during the height of the pandemic there, Haberle stepped up. “I felt like I had a calling to go to New York City,” she said. “I have the skills, the means, the opportunity. I couldn't reconcile not going.” She worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week with only one day off during the three weeks she was there. Dressed from head to toe in PPE, her plastic hospital gown became a sauna in the sweltering July heat as she moved people and bodies in and out of her truck. Haberle recalled returning to the hotel each night and crawling into bed, utterly spent, only to start all over again in the morning. Haberle missed the end of the school year — including finals — to volunteer. In rare moments of peace, she would watch recorded lectures and scribble down biochemistry notes on the truck’s dashboard. She recalls staking out parks to wander through when she called her mom, who tried, — and failed — to hide her concern for her daughter. However, the details that most stood out to her were not the crippling exhaustion nor the fear of contracting the virus, but the food. Haberle quickly grew tired of the eggs and cheese provided to the crews each morning. She relished the opportunities to order from the local restaurants, and raved about the delicious dumpling and Mexican food joints scattered throughout Jamaica, Queens, where she was stationed. Hazardous working conditions Myers felt unsafe and uncomfortable working as a cashier at a craft store under conditions that placed her at risk for contracting Covid-19. Her boss did not believe in the effectiveness of masks nor the seriousness of the pandemic. He refused to wear a mask or require patrons to wear masks and follow social distancing requirements mandated by state law. Myers felt that her employer placed her health and safety at risk, all while paying her minimum wage. Although she could not convince her boss to implement safety protocols, he did acquiesce to her demand for hazard pay. Meanwhile, Myers tried to enforce state health requirements within the store, repeatedly reminding patrons to wear their masks or telling them to wait outside when the store became crowded. Though she never felt that anyone actively endangered her life, she described several “close calls” where gentle reminders of state guidelines ended in “screaming matches” with patrons. Myers did her best to remain patient and “kill them with kindness,” but the frequent confrontations wore her down. “The hardest part of the job was making sure people were aware that we are in a pandemic,” Myers said. A toll on mental health Throughout the spring and summer, first responders reported high rates of PTSD and burnout. But Emily Luber ’22, who worked as an EMT in Middlebury and Fairhaven and at a pop-up Covid-19 testing clinic, found that, in some ways, working during the pandemic helped her mental health. “I don’t do well when I’m at home, and I also don’t do well when I’m not busy and when I’m not being social,” Luber said. "If I had just been at home at Massachusetts this summer, I probably would have lost my mind.” Similarly, Klar saw work as an escape from a house where she had only her family and her schoolwork for company. Working, she said, provided her with the opportunity to “feel like I was doing something.” For Klar, one of the hardest parts of the pandemic was seeing the decline in other people’s mental health. Klar, who has worked as an EMT since June 2019 and started working as soon as she was sent home, noticed an increase in attempted suicide calls. Public praise only goes so far Throughout the early months of the pandemic, politicians and the media repeatedly praised frontline workers for the essential role they were playing in keeping the country functioning. Some of these workers, however, found the praise hollow and frustrating in the face of their daily reality. Will Anderson ’20.5 planned to spend the summer working at an internship he hoped would turn into a job after he graduates in February. When the company canceled all their internships, Anderson returned home to a job at the Whole Foods he has worked at since high school in Hingham, Mass. Anderson described “waking up everyday to a cognitive dissonance.” While the news praised essential workers like him, he faced verbal attacks from customers refusing to follow the Covid-19 safety protocols. “The attacks felt more real than messages of ‘Thank you essential workers,’” he said. Haberle also grew frustrated at the hollow public praise for EMTs and essential workers. While politicians and the public lauded their efforts, they gained nothing materially substantial or helpful to combat how chronically underpaid and overworked they were and continue to be, according to her. “The appreciation frustrates me,” Haberle said. “Thanks for the bagels. I just want a raise.” Finding a pandemic work-school balance Klar continues to work at three different ambulance services in Vermont as she studies remotely. After working 60 to 100 hours a week during the summer, she has now cut back to 36 hours, which still amounts to nearly a full time job. Klar said she prefers working to school. Her job helps lessen and put into perspective her anxieties about classes. While the demands of her classwork can feel all-consuming, no one is dying in her biology class. Haberle feels glad to be back on campus but worries about students not following social distancing and other health guidelines. Her work has given her an image of what the virus looks like up close. “I don’t know if everyone quite realizes what it's like and what happens when it picks back up again,” she said. For Anderson, returning to Middlebury has brought him “a feeling of closure.” He relishes in the opportunities to see old friends and enjoy his last semester on campus. Instead of worrying about contracting Covid-19 at work and bringing it home to his family, he now frets that “the bees will get diabetes, and the squirrels will get high cholesterol.”