Nervous laughter, anxious shifting in seats, and a dynamic current of trepidation flowed through the air of the classroom on our first day of class. From an outsider’s view, there was an undeniable eeriness to it—the seating intricately aligned so each student sat in every other seat while donning surgical and cloth masks that consumed their entire face. Thirty-five pairs of eyes staring forward, their expressions imperceptible under the masks.
But the buzz in the classroom was tangible. You could feel the relief flooding the room. After a year and a half of online Zoom classes, we all took a huge breath of gratitude when reality hit us, and we realized we were finally in person.
While most people in my cohort had been out of school for some time, I fell into that unfortunate demographic: a COVID-19 college student. I graduated this past May; the entire journey to getting my degree once classes went online in junior year was a grueling marathon I dragged myself through, convincing myself I was almost there. As a pre-med student, I fully understood and supported the need to move courses online, but it presented challenges I had never encountered before. The joy of school was sucked from the online format, as it became a race to click “exit meeting” as soon as classes were over, and we became restless and burnt out from staring at computer screens in the same room every day.
So, sitting in that bright white classroom, my laptop and notebook poised to take notes, surrounded by some of the most genuine, passionate, and empathetic people I had yet to meet, was truly a sacred moment. The chatter and laughter echoing around the classroom was a breath of fresh air. Everybody wanted to be there, everybody wanted to talk. That was the element I had missed the most—the small talk of asking the person sitting next to you how their day was, the witty side comment not meant to be heard that sends the entire classroom roaring in laughter in unison, classmates snapping and shaking their heads in agreement and validation when a perceptive point has been made. It was all lost in the format of online school, and upon experiencing it again after being deprived of it for many semesters, I realized those little moments were what fostered community and interconnectedness.
After talking to some of my friends about other graduate programs, it dawned on me how unique the framework of our program is. We take all of our classes together, eat lunch, grab coffee and study together. There is no competitive strain in the air. We laugh, share stories, and learn from each other’s unique expertise and lived experiences. Yes, we are united by our passions for improving health, but they represent something bigger. Facing healthcare infrastructure that disadvantages historically vulnerable populations, we are bonded by the courage to see the catastrophe, and we envision ways to change it.
We are only five weeks into the program, and have had a wide range of emotions and a huge amount of information to absorb. Given the fast-paced nature of the degree and being in the field of research and healthcare, reflection gets lost in the hustle and bustle. But as we move forward, delve deeper into our studies, it’s a sentimental pleasure to sit back, look around, revel in the comfort of the community we’ve formed amongst ourselves and imagine where this upcoming year will take us.