Guest column: Senior year, relationships cut short at Wake Forest University

Published 11:30 pm Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The night before we left for spring break, I sat with my friend Sydney at a wooden table under a blooming cherry blossom tree. It was a crisp 7 p.m. The spotlights on the chapel provided the light for our dinner on the corner of the quad.

It had been a long day. An 8:30 a.m. meeting, English class, lunch with friends, a run and packing. I’d planned on taking a nap after that, but my friend Camilla came to my apartment and we talked instead.

Then Sydney texted me about dinner and I hesitated. I had a two hour acapella practice later and was considering going to the main college bar in town after that. But this spring is, or maybe I should say was, my last semester at Wake Forest University. I told myself, “it’s your senior spring.” That had been my way of peer pressuring myself into taking advantage of it.

So I ended up outside the pizza place on campus. The cherry blossoms floated down as we ate copious amounts of food. Four slices of pizza, one order of boneless wings with barbeque sauce and a pitcher of beer between us. The air got cooler the longer we sat. Friends passed by and said, “Hey! How are you?” One stopped to let us pet her dog. Another to chat about his research. One more stuck around to help us finish our pitcher after he ran inside to get another glass.

I didn’t realize it then, but that was might’ve been my last normal day on campus as a student.

In the week separating then and now, we’ve all seen the news. COVID-19 has marched into our plans whether we like it or not. Wake Forest doesn’t even offer online classes, but classes are online for the time being. I don’t expect them to come back in-person this semester. You can’t stay in your room on campus without a really good reason. Although it hasn’t happened yet, my friends and I are bracing ourselves for an email cancelling our commencement ceremony.

Lately I’ve been interviewing seniors about their experiences of the past week to write a story for Wake’s student paper, The Old Gold & Black. For me, the past few days have been overwhelming. It’s hard to describe how the infrastructure of your entire world of the past four years crumbled around you, right when you were at the top, with easier classes and a mentality to appreciate it, to pull you out of bed and onto the quad.

Someone I interviewed said it best. She isn’t saddest about losing time with her best friends. She’s going to miss the people she wasn’t close to.

I agree. Thankfully, I know that I’ll see my friends again. But my world has shriveled from one colored by an undergraduate population of around 5,000 to groups of less than 10 people. I’ll miss Wake Forest as a place where I belonged to a community larger than my friend group.

When will I see my classmate with the service dog? She had stopped to chat and took her dog’s vest off so that we could pet it and talk to it in our high-pitched dog voices. When will I see the friend I met when we studied abroad together? He leaned against the fence under the cherry blossom trees and told us about his chemistry research.

Most seniors get to yuk it up in the spring and then pause. “Goodbye.” “Congratulations.” For my class, I’m not sure.

I’m still working on the emotional math of everything. I’m privileged to have been at college in the first place. Coronavirus will cause some people financial stress due to closed businesses, mental turmoil while in solitude and the death of their relatives. I’m a lucky one.

But I probably won’t get to say goodbye to the people I only saw in class or on the quad. I hope they know I loved them and still do.

I went to campus earlier this week to get my stuff. Sydney and I sat in the grass on the quad, but no one stopped by to say hello. There weren’t many people there.

As I left campus, I brought with me the lessons I’ve learned and the friendships I’ve gained. I take with me the memories as banal as those recounted here and as cinematic as climbing the chapel steeple and watching my friend play the fight song on the bells after a team won a really big game.

Wake Forest’s motto is Pro Humanitate, “for humanity.” My university shut its doors to save lives. That decision aligns with its very core, however painful it may be for us seniors. What a final lesson – one of sacrifice for the greater good – that my class, along with everyone else, is learning now.

Natalie Alms is a senior at Wake Forest University and a Salisbury Post contributor. She was a news intern at the Post last summer.