When Ian Ragen PZ ’22 moved back to Claremont with two friends for the fall semester, he tried not to have too many expectations. Like most people who returned to the area in August, he had hoped to recreate something similar to a typical college experience.
“It’s still not like, ‘I just walked back from class every day and I walked into five of my friends on the mounds and we’ll talk for 20 minutes,’ you know? Those sorts of interactions are totally gone. So it’s definitely not the same amount of socializing, but at least it’s something, I guess,” he said.
Ragen felt excited about the opportunity to return to Claremont this semester, but he wanted to ensure that whatever he did this fall, he did it safely.
Everyone he interacts with has at least one member of their household get tested on a weekly basis — a protocol that isn’t too dissimilar from what some schools who have allowed students to return to campus put in place. Granted, this protocol has brought mixed results: TSL recently reported that multiple 5C students tested positive for COVID-19 near Claremont.
Self-described “pods” — in which people from multiple households socialize normally and without masks — are the prevailing mode of socialization among students who have returned to the Claremont area. Ragen’s includes eight people, or two households other than his own.
“A lot of people are in two or three household pods because of romantic relationships or just because you’ll drive each other up the wall not seeing other people. As long as, again, you’re still staying vigilant outside of that,” Ragen said.
Claire Galla SC ’22 is in a pod with two other houses, for a total of 11 people. She described her pod as very conscious of COVID-19. “We get tested very regularly; every week a lot of us do,” she said.
But Galla is also realistic about her safety protocols. She acknowledged the importance of limiting contact but remained clear-eyed about the ways in which pods aren’t as safe as stricter social distancing measures.
“I would say that we’re not taking optimal precautions. I won’t act like we are,” she said. “We’re staying on top of getting tested, but in terms of tracing our line of contact and exposure, we’re not doing very much. We’re making sure that when there’s a new person, they get tested. We’ve had some guests come visit, and before, they get tested; we’re not just free for all.”
Galla also acknowledged that COVID-19 has been a topic of conversation among students in Claremont following the spread of the virus after Halloween weekend.
“Nobody wants to come in and cause a huge outbreak in this community that we chose to come to. I think that we’re putting the community at risk. And as much as we can do to alleviate that risk, we should,” she said.
But she also admitted small parties have been happening.
“It’s definitely not like, ‘Let’s have a big party and anybody can come.’ I don’t think that’s anyone’s intention, which is good. But again, people are seeing people; people are being inside houses and dancing,” she said.
According to Ragen’s housemate, Sylvie Wilson PZ ’21, the COVID-19 spread after Halloween weekend exposed the looseness of some pods.
“There was all this talk that was like, ‘If somebody had it, you can’t really know who everyone is seeing,’ but then, at the same time, doesn’t that negate the whole purpose of a pod? So people feel vulnerable, but I think that also speaks to their discomfort or lack of trust of their own groups,” she said.
Galla added: “You can think [your pod] exists, but it doesn’t really.”
It’s a difficult predicament for students who went to Claremont hoping to regain a sense of community to find ways to do so responsibly. Galla pointed out that despite being able to see people, the sense of pre-pandemic normalcy hasn’t really materialized.
“I think I was expecting slightly more of a community feel than we really have here, because students are kind of scattered and you see people, but not much,” she said. “I think learning all of that and having that knowledge, maybe I would have spent less time in Claremont and been somewhere else for a month of it? I don’t know.”
Ragen said he only sees friends he doesn’t live with about once a week.
“I think I’m trying to reframe my idea of being socially satisfied because I think it’s impossible to achieve that during corona times. Because for me, that’s being super social, seeing a bunch of people all the time, and that’s just not feasible. And again, just because I’m seeing people, like, once a week, it’s hard to feel completely fulfilled. But I’m glad that we’re making the most out of the opportunity,” he said.
Galla agreed that expectations of fulfillment need to be lowered but has found putting that into practice to be turbulent.
“I think there’s this aspect of individual survival mode. I think people need to prioritize themselves, but they also want that emotional fulfillment from being around people,” she said. “It is still really difficult to break down all of those walls that are put up because of the pandemic and because we have to kind of tiptoe around a ‘normal’ … Ultimately, I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else right now. But ups and downs were always going to come with it.”
Wilson has also found that pre-semester optimism led to feeling let down.
“You know when you’re in love and you get broken up with and then you feel crushed? It’s like Pitzer [College] broke up with us and we’re around it all the time and we just can’t have it,” she said.
Recently, she’s been taking walks to the lawn of the Honnold Mudd Library.
“Shit goes wrong in Claremont all the time, and the library’s always there. And what do you do when the library’s not there for you anymore? Just cry,” she said.
No matter how close the college experience feels for those in Claremont, this semester seems to exist in an uncanny valley.
“Claremont as a place where the 5Cs are has kind of disappeared, and it’s just Claremont: the old person city,” Wilson said.
One thing that neither Galla’s nor Wilson and Ragen’s houses have experienced is disagreements about their COVID-19 protocols, which they attributed in part to having those conversations before moving in. Early in the semester, Ragen observed other households butting heads over social practices.
“Generally, when it came to strife, partying was the common denominator,” he said.
Wilson urged those who had not previously been a part of the Claremont community, such as first-years, to reconsider moving there. She cautioned that they might not be ready for the responsibilities associated with living as a part of the community.
“I think in terms of safety, we all came here to socialize. I’m projecting based on how I was as a freshman, but I don’t think we came here to socialize in the same type of way that a freshman in college would want to come socialize,” she said. “I know my friends; I know my grade. I’m not looking to meet a bunch of new people right now.”