Columnist Carrie N. Baker: Smith College students resilient and resourceful against COVID-19

  • The Grecourt Gates of Smith College on Elm Street in Northampton. KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 3/20/2020 3:35:38 PM

On the last day of classes before Smith College dispersed, my students and I sat in a circle on the floor of the classroom (at an appropriate distance!) and shared several boxes of donuts (using a spatula to deliver them at arms-length onto fresh napkins after we all sanitized our hands!).

We checked in to make sure that everyone had a place to go. We shared our concerns and distress, and then our coping strategies. One student reported that she and a friend with whom she would stay were collecting arts and crafts supplies. Another reported that she planned to learn how to bake sourdough bread.

We all shared our favorite Netflix series — comedies, nature programs, baking shows — in anticipation of plenty of time at home for binge watching. We brainstormed about how to keep the class going on Zoom and the importance of maintaining a synchronous online community that could provide support and connection during the coming months of isolation.

We then talked about how what was happening related to the themes of the class. I teach in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith where we learn about social inequalities and histories of resistance in the U.S. and around the world.

We discussed how the COVID-19 virus would likely fall most heavily on the most vulnerable, especially those without health insurance or savings. We talked about how women’s undervalued paid and unpaid caregiving and service labor is taken for granted and puts them at particular risk of contracting COVID-19. We talked about the history of mutual aid networks among marginalized communities, such as during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s.

I will remember these conversations for the rest of my life. Why? Because I was so impressed by my students’ resilience, resourcefulness and thoughtfulness in the face of this pandemic and the uncertainty that it presents.

Our students are facing tremendous challenges. My colleague Alex Keller told me about her student who didn’t want to go home to Puerto Rico because she knows that there isn’t enough dependable electrical capacity there after Hurricane Maria to stay connected and learn.

Keller worries about students she knows are going to homes that might not be safe. She nevertheless celebrates her students’ resilience. “Seeing people acting from care, not fear, has been inspiring,” says Keller.

Outside the classroom, the students organized. Seniors were particularly devastated by the loss of the many cherished Smith traditions, such as Ivy Day and Illumination Night, the Diploma Circle and Planting of the Ivy. But the students rallied by organizing an impromptu senior dinner and a pop-up graduation, complete with caps, gowns and Nancy Pelosi, played by a student who ripped up a copy of the president’s email sending everyone home, to eruption of laughter and cheers.

Students found creative ways to adapt. One of my students, Bridget MacNeill (who grew up in Northampton and attended our public schools) gave a video tour of the bulb show, eloquently and enthusiastically sharing the beauty of the flowers at the Lymon Plant House for those who couldn’t attend after they had to close down the show because of the virus.

Mutual aid networks blossomed on campus and off. Smith alumnae created a vast network to offer students support— housing, travel funds, and rides, groceries, metro cards, and meals. One alumna offered help with resumes and cover letters. Another offered to help students with logistics, including sitting on the phone waiting for answers from airlines! And students helped each other, including opening their homes to other students who were not able to go home because of an immunocompromised family member.

I love teaching at Smith, and will sorely miss my students in the coming weeks and months. But I am confident that we will find new ways to connect and learn, and that we will rise to the challenges that face us and our communities. “We will need to find ways to support our students remotely, as well as teach them,” says Keller.

At a time when mainstream media and many adults complain about young people as oversensitive snowflakes, Smith students’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic proves them wrong. My students are not snowflakes. They didn’t melt under fire. They became the fire, to light the way for themselves and others to navigate this terrible epidemic. I’m so thankful for my students, because they give me hope for the future.

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