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BWW Blog: How the Pandemic Popped the Princeton Bubble

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BWW Blog: How the Pandemic Popped the Princeton Bubble
Me in front of my dorm building on the day I left campus

First, before I dive into this article, I want to introduce myself! My name is Kate Semmens, and I am a rising Junior at Princeton University studying History with certificates (Princeton's fancy word for minors) in Theater, Music Theater, and American Studies. I am originally from Brooklyn, NY, which is where I am now writing from.

It was on Wednesday, March 11th that Princeton announced to students that the rest of the 2020 Spring semester would be virtual. By the time that Wednesday rolled around, not only were Princeton students knee-deep in midterms and excitedly preparing for Spring Break, but the reality of coronavirus was quickly settling in. It wasn't much of a surprise when the announcement broke on that Wednesday evening. It was as if the whole campus knew deep down that the semester was over, but didn't want to say it out loud.

Three days before, on Sunday evening, a random and unexpected posting had been made on the official Princeton website that accidentally exposed the university's intentions to have a "temporary move" for all classes to virtual instruction. Students quickly discovered the post, screenshotted, and sent it in every group text and email chain on campus.

I remember that evening so clearly. I was sitting in my room after a long weekend of performances of "A Little Night Music" in the Theater department and was trying to plan out my busy midterms week. I was stressed about fitting in rehearsals for the upcoming production of "Urinetown" that I was co-directing and also trying to leave some time to write two complicated politics papers on the Bill of Rights and public morality. In addition, the next day, I was planning on taking NJ transit into Manhattan for a costume fitting for a TV show that I had booked as a background actor. The day was already emotional, exhausting, and stressful.

Then, suddenly, one of my roommates came running into the common room of our quad and showed me a screenshot of the Princeton announcement. At first, I didn't believe it was true. I opened my phone to members of the Triangle Club (a musical comedy group that I am a part of) blasting the Group Me with messages. Everyone was trying to make some sense of the news. It was chaos. Minutes later, the announcement was taken down from Princeton's website, and students were left trying to figure out whether or not this was some mean joke or if it was the truth.

That night I sat on my bed crying with my best friend on FaceTime. The memes, which soon took over the Triangle Group Me, helped bring a little humor to the situation but did not help calm the streams of sadness and confusion that flooded my brain. The next day the same announcement that we had all seen the night before was officially posted and verified.

We scrambled to find the hope in it all. Theater groups pushed performances of shows to the later part of the Spring, still trying to retain some belief that things would be back to normal by late April. However, as other schools made announcements that students wouldn't be back until

Fall 2020, we all knew it was unlikely. Just two days later, Princeton followed suit, and all hopes of a foreseeably "normal" future were squashed.

I am a planner. I like having things to look forward to and knowing what my near future will look like. So, for me and many others, the hardest part was that the perfectly planned future I had in my head was all erased away in one moment. Finishing another weekend of "A Little Night Music," directing the outdoor production of "Urinetown," walking through a flower blooming campus, writing my final History papers on Firestone Library's C floor, performing in a friend's original musical reading, and attending the famous Princeton reunions in May, were all no longer. The "perfect" college life that I had constructed for myself, filled with a balance of academics, theater, and social life, was gone.

Now, sitting in my childhood bedroom filled with playbills and old posters, I miss the Princeton bubble (as it is referred to by many Princeton students.) It isn't necessarily a bad bubble. It's a bubble that allows students to grow, learn, and prepare for the real world within a safe and comfortable community. When news of COVID spread, there seemed to be this assumption that the virus wouldn't reach our little idyllic Princeton world. It seemed impossible that a virus could disrupt the well-oiled machine of student creativity, community, and determination that is present at Princeton. But it did. In just a week, students' lives went from a healthy, comfortable routine to packing up their dorm rooms, canceling their athletic events and performances, and leaving campus.

In these last three months of "virtual Princeton" the creativity, community, and determination has continued, but in very different ways. My friend's original musical was performed on Zoom for 80 interested students, faculty, and community members. The Triangle Spring Show, which is usually only available to Princeton undergraduates, premiered on YouTube for the entire world to see. It has become a quarantine tradition that every Friday afternoon the head of the Theater Department has a Zoom discussion with a different playwright, theatermaker, or artist and invites not only Princeton students, but alumni, parents, and friends to join. And at virtual Princeton reunions, which happened this last weekend, attendees decked out in orange and black joined together from all over the world. So perhaps there is an upside to this jolting interruption: instead of being so narrowly focused on what is happening inside the bubble, Princeton students are now embracing this opportunity to connect, build community and share their creativity on a larger scale. We can all reflect and realize how lucky we are to have that safe bubble of a community, but we can also recognize that COVID might have done us a favor when that bubble was forced to pop.

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From This Author Student Blogger: Kate Semmens