By: Ariel Wernick  | 

Embracing Our New Reality Through the Lens of Inclusion

Back during campus life, doing anything was a journey. Whether it was walking to class, going to davening, entering the library or washing your hands in the bathroom, you experienced interactions of all different types. They said school wasn’t canceled; rather it would become virtual, but in virtual school all I do is open my computer and suddenly class has already started, then class ends and the screen turns off. Can this really still be considered school? From the short experience we have had so far, it seems the university can recreate classes online, but in order for it to make up for what we are missing without campus life, we might need to put in a little extra effort ourselves. 

On the last day of classes at the Wilf Campus, I spoke at an event in the Sky Caf organized by Yachad called “Perspectives on Inclusion” where I was asked to share my perspective on inclusion as a sibling of a person with special needs. A main focus of my discussion was about my brother’s experience being mainstreamed in a typical classroom. Sitting among friends, old, current and newfound, I spoke about the goals of my brother’s schooling. I explained that for him there was never an expectation to get an A or to be able to understand all the information that was being taught. He sat in a typical classroom to be able to feel like part of a group, to be able to join in the conversation and to learn how to interact with peers using proper social etiquette. I described that by growing up alongside my brother I was heavily influenced by his perspective of what school was and it gave me a great appreciation of what it means to be part of a class in school.

Immediately after that event, I returned to my room and for 24 hours and sat in self-quarantine waiting to hear about test results that would determine if I would be put into quarantine due to “direct-contact” with the novel coronavirus. At midnight the next day, upon learning my friends had tested negative, the hallway on the floor of my dorm filled with the few residents who had not yet gone home and we celebrated what appeared to be relief from uncertainty. School had already been canceled through the weekend so I decided to take advantage of vacation and  boarded a plane home to LA for the weekend. 

I intended to be home for a short visit, but then it was announced that YU would be canceling all in-person classes until Pesach, (it has since been announced that in-person classes are canceled for the semester). Suddenly it seemed like every school was switching to online schooling for the next bit of time and I started to get worried because I realized I only brought home two pairs of pants and three shirts. A day or a week off from school is nice, but having to switch to online classes for the unknown future was not something I enjoyed thinking about.

Online classes might be the only option right now, but let us not mistake it for being a substitute for what it means to be in school. The conversations shared during meals with friends are often some of the most insightful and enjoyable moments of my day. A seder in the beit midrash is not a true seder without side conversations with chavrutot and the other guys sitting nearby. Long hours in the library are more successful when other people are around, pushing me to continue working while also being available to shmooze when I might need a quick break. These interactions are what gave my days spirit, encouraged me in my work and often are what contributed most in bringing meaning to my days on campus

It is important to not only keep our relationships with close friends strong, but to also think about those who might not be our best friend but could still benefit from someone reaching out to them. Imagine a person who may not have the strongest friend group, before he was able to sit in a classroom and join in the pre-class conversations; he could feel he was amongst a group. A person was able to sit at an empty seat at lunch and easily make his way into a social situation. Think of those who you would wave to as you pass in the hallway but would not typically text to hang out with; you no longer have that interaction. A person could work out in a gym with others around him, or sit in a library or a beit midrash and learn alone but he still had the comfort that other people were around. 

As we continue to indefinitely sit behind our screens, scattered across the world, we should do our best to keep in touch with our friends over the phone, keep group chats active, and share our daily experiences with others. As we do this I think we should try to think a little bit about the topic of inclusion. Think of those who it might be harder to reach out to and try to keep up those relationships as well. Maybe there are ways to organize groups outside of classes to discuss material but keep invitations public and inviting, or possibly you can have a virtual lunch table and eat lunch with friends. It could be cool to find ways of saying hello to university staff both for our sake and for theirs. Things definitely aren’t the same in this virtual world of distance, but hopefully with open eyes and a little creativity we can all make the best of the situation together.

Photo Caption: Furst Hall on the Wilf campus.
Photo Credit: The Commentator