My Week in ESTEEM: Quarantine Diaries, Pt. 5

Author: Risa Takenaka

If someone were to ask me what I miss most about being back at school, the first thing that comes to mind is probably… the snack basket on the third floor of Innovation Park. 

While I do in fact miss that, what I miss the most is the abundance of opportunity to learn from my peers, often from candid conversations outside of the classroom. 

For example: I miss the casual “Hey, what’s up” exchanges in IP that turn into a 30 minute conversation about current events. I miss hanging out at the kitchen table after dinner with my housemates, accidentally falling into a rabbit hole of deep discussion and losing track of time. I miss randomly getting caught in the middle of a passionate debate on the short walk from IP to Debart. 

In the past 6 weeks of quarantine, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect, and I came to the conclusion that I get much of my energy from being around others. Being a true extrovert since day one, that itself was not a surprising discovery. But more specifically, I realized that a major source of my excitement and energy comes from being challenged with thought provoking questions and through intellectually stimulating conversations. 

I’ve felt pretty deprived of this energy in the past few weeks, but this awareness inspired me to attempt to recreate these conversations virtually. I decided to host some discussion groups over the weekend about none other but what seems to be the only topic of discussion these days, COVID-19. I was particularly interested in hearing my classmates’ thoughts on the effects of the global pandemic from the lenses of inequality and power, and I found some articles that explored about this topic in relation to education and the tech divide, racial disparities in health care, as well as the recent uptick in racially motivated crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. 

I sent the articles along to those who expressed interest, whipped up a few discussion questions, and gave it a go. I’d been wanting to organize something like this for a while, and I never thought I’d say this, but thank you quarantine for giving me the time to sit down and actually do it. I’m thankful to have classmates who are down to discuss, debate, and share their knowledge with me even if it’s not in our usual face-to-face exchange. Here’s a recap of some of the highlights from our conversations. 

Friday’s discussion participants were Tsion, Meli, Nam and I, and we wasted no time jumping into the articles. Our conversation shifted to talking about the additional hurdles that non-citizens looking for employment in the States may face as a result of COVID. It was especially meaningful to speak about this topic with people who, either directly, or through their parents, have experienced the struggles of navigating international employment firsthand. 

Saturday Discussion
Saturday discussion, ft. Nick Wilt's bedhead

On Saturday, I had the chance to discuss with Nick, Allison, Caitlyn, Livingstone, Sam, Farai, and Anthony. It was really beneficial to have a group of people with a range of political leanings and ideological outlooks in the same room, and honestly I learned a lot from hearing perspectives that I’m usually not exposed to. While it is difficult to dispute the fact that COVID-19 has exacerbated many systemic inequalities in our society -- in our healthcare system, the tech divide affecting virtual education, or in the lack of benefits for gig workers -- there was plenty of room for debate in how we as a society should or shouldn’t respond to these circumstances. Our conversation ended on a note of gratefulness, and I think we all felt quite lucky to have classmates that value each other's opinions. Finding a way to disagree without divide is a difficult task these days, but it was encouraging to know that space existed within the walls of our Zoom call.

Sunday Discussion
I swear we're happier than we look.

Sunday, we had some non-ESTEEMers join us, including my childhood friends Lisa and Sakura, and my close friend from elementary school, Dominique. Lisa is in consulting, while Sakura and Dominique both work in medicine, so the mix of academic and professional backgrounds made for some fruitful conversation. I was also really excited about my worlds colliding, and the fact that my grad school friends were able to meet some of my pre-grad school friends. 

Lisa talked a bit about her experience of being in New York, one of the epicenters of the pandemic, saying she felt a sense of solidarity within her neighborhood of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, with people coming together to support and educate around the use of masks. Meanwhile, Grace told us about what’s going on in the Midwest, and more specifically, what it was like to vote in Wisconsin under these circumstances. Conor explained that in Ireland, grocery stores were trying to keep public morale high by making announcements to remind shoppers to thank essential workers. We shifted focus a bit and talked quite extensively about how in both Europe and the United States, people have been traveling to their vacation homes to escape the pandemic and the unforeseen circumstances that these actions have had on local dwellers. 

While nothing can fully replace face-to-face conversation, it was really nice to connect virtually. Lilly says it best: “It was great to be able to process some of the thoughts I’ve been having while watching the news or reading articles in solution. Having the opportunity to be with others who are also passionate about bringing light to the social inequalities emerging as a result of COVID-19 allowed me to feel like I was a part of a community during this time of social distancing.”