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For Northwestern students, Evanston just doesn’t feel like home this fall

It’s just weird.

The mask-shaped banner on Weber Arch was another reminder of the global circumstances when I returned to Evanston.
Isabelle Sarraf - The Daily Northwestern

As students migrate back to Evanston for the start of fall classes amidst the coronavirus pandemic, Northwestern’s beloved campus just doesn’t feel the same. Inside NU’s Jack Izzo — a sophomore at the Medill School of Journalism from San Diego, California — shares his experience of trying to find normalcy on a college campus during the pandemic.

Have you ever heard of a liminal space? The word liminal comes from the Latin root limen, and means something like “threshold.” A liminal space, therefore, is one defined by some sort of threshold or transition. It’s that awkward in-between area where you’ve left something behind but haven’t fully engaged in something else.

Elevators are good examples of liminal spaces because you don’t stay in them for a long time but instead use them to get from one place to another. A parking lot is a liminal space, but the true nature of its liminality only becomes apparent when it’s empty. For me, liminal spaces create a sense of unease. Let’s admit it, an empty parking lot at night can be a little creepy, in the right circumstances.

And that is what Northwestern’s campus — and even the entire city of Evanston — feels like to me right now. I feel strange, as if I don’t belong. The buildings I casually walked past last year look foreign and uninviting and the sidewalks filled with laughing groups of students now lie empty, save for the occasional masked face. Everything seems to say, “You are not welcome here.”

And yet, I am welcome here. This liminal space is not permanent, and I know that. Northwestern will eventually reopen and the buildings I pass on my frequent lakefill walks will joyfully let me in. The masks will eventually come off and the streets and sidewalks will slowly repopulate themselves with cheerful passersby. The cold bleachers of Ryan Field will eventually greet me with open arms, and cry, “Welcome back, we missed you!”

So until then, I will patiently wait, as we all have. I will continue meeting up with friends at a 6-foot distance, wearing masks everywhere and applying copious amounts of hand sanitizer. I will continue to get tested on a weekly basis at Northwestern’s makeshift coronavirus testing center it has created in Old Kellogg. I will continue going to classes via Zoom, goofing around with my roommates and complaining as the temperature slowly drops below what my Californian body is used to.

But most importantly, I will continue taking walks on the lakefill, which really deserves more credit than it gets. If there is one place in the world right now that looks normal, it’s the lakefill. Just a quick trip will tell me that people are still here, living their lives. Sometimes it feels as if nothing happened in the first place. And perhaps that’s what we all need — a safe space, where we can trick ourselves just for a second into forgetting about everything bothering us.

The lakefill always has people on it, even if it’s a blustery Friday evening
Jack Izzo

So what is it like being back in Evanston? It’s a liminal space — it feels foreign and a little unnerving. But paradoxically, it also feels like home.