A masked student walks across campus in 2021.
Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite
A Princetoniana Museum online exhibit preserves alumni writings from the COVID pandemic

Where were you last year?
You sure as hell weren’t here
You weren’t waiting where you said
You sent someone in your place instead…
It’s getting to me, making me gloomy
Where were you last night?
— The Traveling Wilburys, 1990

Hard on the heels of Alumni Day 2020, the plague descended on Princeton; a month later, the place was like a ghost town, or for the more fanciful folks out there, maybe Disney World just before the gates open. Except they didn’t open, the students just signed up for Zoom accounts. We don’t normally do (what amounts in a 275-year saga to) instant analysis here in the History Corner; when it happens, it’s to draw comparison to analogous events of the past. There are mercifully few historical moments comparable to the COVID pandemic. 

The tactile portion of a typical university tends to be centered in its students and classrooms, and indeed the peculiar adventures of the faculty and student body while trying to recreate McCosh 50, Frick Laboratory, and Firestone online during the lockdown are intriguing complexities you can peruse by browsing The Daily Princetonian, which did a yeoman’s job of trying to document the adventures and frustrations of the revamped learning process. In fact, manyextracurriculars responded astonishingly. For an obvious example, the fabulous performance of Princeton athletes in their first year back from lockdown is a story that will be marveled at in years to come — even while the students behaved far more responsibly to physical regulations than the majority of adults.

Of course, if you glance at the top of your virtual page, you will note that you are in the supposed stomping grounds of the alumni body, so while all the juicy tittle-tattle from campus is always present, we indeed cover a wider swath of the Princeton community. But in such a cataclysm, even assembling a representative set of facts to reflect the times across that wider community is vastly beyond 11 issues per year, not to mention the caution that it’s far too early for conclusions, with still 100,000 new COVID cases and 400 new deaths per day in the U.S. as of this melancholy writing.

This practical challenge is more complex at Princeton than most other colleges because of our continuing broad and fervid alumni involvement. Indeed, dismissing the alums as less tactile than the students is a mild oversimplification given the continuing prospering of Alumni Day, football games, a seemingly unending number of alumni boards, committees and advisory groups, and — heaven help us — Reunions. On average, the entire undergrad alumni body recycles through Reunions every six years; there is nothing like it in U.S. higher education. Everything else aside, the words “cancelled reunion” strike a nerve here faster than the neighborhood dentist you didn’t go see again until you had your first booster.

Much to its credit, the Committee on Princetoniana perceived this alum disquiet early on and, while waiting for their own COVID shots, decided to do something to capture the pandemic experience for posterity. Given the structural disruptions in virtually every corporate Princeton function in 2020, this took the wildly unscientific form of calling up friends and asking them and their friends and their friends to send along a response to two simple questions:

  • How has the pandemic impacted your life? 
  • How has the pandemic impacted your connection to Princeton?

The responses during the first year of the pandemic, essentially unretouched, were mounted as an exhibit at Frist when Reunions finally did recur this May, in colorful orange and black; but with 52 thought-provoking responses on display, I can’t imagine anybody having read them all. They are now going online permanently in the Princetoniana Museum, which you should be browsing periodically anyway as your handy Tiger Wayback Machine. Reflections of a Pandemicfor all its humble origin, covers a remarkable range of experience: classes from 1958 to 2014, graduate alums, even parents of current students who were peremptorily returned to sender, with just about every career group and experience imaginable, from disconsolate health-care professionals to newly multi-generational locked-down households to an alum attacked as she walked down the street … because she was Asian-American.  

Among the many other things you’ll find in the exhibit, here are some ideas to look for sprinkled among the tales of super-spreader events, the hideous 2020 election, and the women’s basketball team’s truncated 26-1 season:

  • Daily events at home. Discovering the virtues of the outdoors. An eerie empty San Francisco. Learning a new instrument. Inventing a new instrument. Extremely happy dogs. Slamming the door shut on COVID in Abu Dhabi. Never before knew I had hummingbirds. Locked in with loved ones vs. locked in alone. The world of Amazon and Zoom. Crises in food insecurity and emergency services. What actually matters? Counting your blessings.
  • Daily events on the job. Losing a job is not necessarily a tragedy. Working from home is different. COVID racing through prison populations. Burnout throughout the health-care system. The unusual calm. Virtual transfer of physical skills, e.g. surgery, next to impossible. 
  • Long-distance relationships. Deaths of the elderly, alone. Telepsychiatry astonishingly effective. Increased contact with and appreciation of some groups of friends and supporters. Crippling absence of safe travel options despite the best of virtual contacts. 
  • Connecting with campus. Modest successes with ad hoc virtual alum activities, concerts, alum mini-classes, board meetings. Seeing your class anew. Important enough to respond in verse! What is lifelong learning, anyway? Added time available to participate with Princeton. Frustration of interviewing an applicant on Zoom. 
  • Reunions. Virtual P-rade? Virtual class dinners? “Somewhat.” What to do with 500 T-shirts. Going back to an empty campus anyway. Un-planning a 25th. “Princetonians endure.”
  • Teaching and learning. The huge problems of first-generation and disadvantaged students. Heartache on behalf of the Princeton undergrads, virtual classes notwithstanding. Pressing need to repair deficiencies in basic education, then harden the system for emergencies. Teaching not to hate. The disaster of primary research in a lockdown.
  • Macrosociology. The U.S. health-care system is irretrievably broken. Crisis of leadership globally. The alarming and unknown long-term impact on the young. The need to create space for grief. What is time all about, anyway?
  • “There is no substitute for a good, warm hug.”

As noted earlier, it’s not the right time to attempt creating a meaningful historical narrative from the above. But there’s a hugely important point to be made and dwelt upon in the meantime: History may indeed be written by the victors, but it is additionally written by those who simply take the time and energy to write it. Consider the thanks we owe these 52 folks who reported from the trenches, and if perhaps one or two have caused you to think, send them a note and tell them so. It may not be a substitute for a good, warm hug, but it can encourage all of us to keep working for the day when we can fill that hug-averse vacuum, perhaps even better than before.