By Chris Meng ’23
This fall 2021 semester, Pomona College students finally returned to campus. Besides the initial COVID-19 anxiety, the first couple of weeks were a largely joyous occasion, filled with excitement for in-person experiences and joy over seeing friends again. However, this semester was my most difficult semester yet, and it wasn’t because my class schedule was the most difficult it had been so far. It was simply because life happened.
My wàigōng, my mother’s father, passed away on Friday, September 10, just a couple of weeks into the semester. I didn’t find out until the next day, but his was the first death of someone close to me that I’ve experienced since I’ve been old enough to process the finality of death. I was never particularly close to my wàigōng in the traditional sense due to distance and language barriers. He lived in China with the rest of my grandparents, but we would go visit him every few years when we had the opportunity. I can still picture him with his smile, hear the ring of his laugh, and feel the touch of his hands, but now he has moved on to another world. While writing this paragraph, I still feel a profound sense of loss. My wàigōng raised my mother, who raised me in turn. One part of that generational bridge is now gone but not forgotten.
The two main stressors of my life at this time converged when I found out about my wàigōng’s passing as I was laying in an Airbnb bed with my partner. Since the beginning of the summer, I had been supporting my partner through housing instability, which was also extremely taxing. I now hit a low point; I vividly remember the sudden feeling of devastation and my tears that followed after this news. Yet, I decided to passively attend a mandatory Zoom training for my job. After the initial wave of grief, one of my immediate reactions to this news was that it would only be harder for me later if I fell behind with school now. What does that say about me? I’m not sure. What does that say about the flexibility within college? Well, I would discover the answer over the next few weeks.
To be perfectly honest, my professors couldn’t offer me much academic support outside of deadline extensions. While I am grateful that I can expect this level of flexibility from most professors at Pomona, the inability to offer me any substantive relief from my workload felt cold and harsh in the face of a family death and my partner’s houselessness. I knew that I would just have to play catch up later if I took an extension, but if I fell too far behind, I don’t know if I ever would have found the motivation to catch up this semester.
So, I ended up continuing with school as I normally would when nothing in my life felt normal. Outside of being a student, I have so many aspects of myself that were all too easy to put aside under the relentless pressure of school. As a junior, I know that there is so much more to life than my classes, but when I was faced with personal challenges this semester, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t know what I needed. I didn’t even know if I could continue with the semester.
However, the age-old adage that time heals all wounds fortunately applied to my situation, too. My friends and professors helped me process everything going on, at least for the short-term, so that I could keep going with school and, most importantly, feel good about my life at the time. My roommate kindly brought me a boba drink from the Claremont Village and other little treats. Countless friends took the time and energy to listen to me and offer their support. My advisor met with me the same day that I told her that something bad had happened; she helped me think through my options and provided a listening ear. My other professors reached out to me to learn about what was going on, see what they could do to support me, and offer their advice. Ultimately, it was my math professor’s advice that validated what I was thinking and allowed me to move forward: it’s okay to grieve more fully later when you have more time and do what you have to do now.
I am very thankful for the immense love and support that I received from my Claremont community during this time. They provided me a space to process and heal from my wàigōng’s death. I ended up taking off a couple days of class to go home for the full week of Thanksgiving break to spend some restorative time at home with family (and eat some delicious food — yum!). As cheesy as it sounds, I honestly don’t know if I would be here, finishing the fall semester, without my caring friends and professors. I was extremely fortunate to have a community that supported what was best for me as a student and human. Those parts of us outside of our student identities influence our school experiences and deserve just as much attention. I knew all of this before, but this semester I have truly learned that life happens outside of Pomona too.