Metro, Newton

Zhang: An International Student’s Newton Pandemic Story

As 2022 heads toward its epilogue, my second tenure as the associate metro editor of The Heights is also coming to an end. Most of my Heights tenure overlapped with the COVID-19 pandemic, so I find it fitting to recount how the two things impacted me together. It is typically unbecoming for a college student to feel nostalgic—I know—so thank you kindly for bearing with me.

Before the pandemic hit, I was a freshman living a cozy life on Boston College’s Newton Campus. Webster Woods was the talk of the town, and NewTV still sometimes failed to cover committee meetings, which prompted Heights editors, contributors, and yours truly to attend the meetings in person. 

Winter was coming, and after every meeting, the returning journey felt a bit colder.

COVID-19 was still a distant concept. Massachusetts reported its first case on Feb. 1, 2020, and the state’s Department of Public Health still considered the state to be of low risk. When I posted the story about that first reported case, I requested a graphic depicting colorful masks. My editor at the time struck that idea down and used a stock picture instead.

I was quickly vindicated. A mask mandate came soon after that incident. But my snarky feeling was fleeting—it didn’t take me long to see that disputing over some graphic was unbelievably petty compared with the adversities faced by Newtonians.

Schools went online, businesses and individuals struggled, the Boston Marathon was canceled, and the wild and unruly (relatively speaking) BC students fell under Newtonian suspicion, including from at least two city councilors for allegedly harboring and propagating the virus.

I was not there to witness many of these events—the pandemic eventually made me decide to study remotely in China. I read Newton news before my 3 a.m. classes, but everything felt like a fever dream. Dreams, ironically, became the realest Newton experience I got. In them, I would sit in the vast Newton City Hall and stare at a blank Google Doc on my laptop—until the construction outside my window pulled a frantic me back to reality.

Newton eventually began to heal. Schools returned to in-person learning as I returned to BC in my junior year. A few months later, the mask mandates were gone too. Meanwhile, money from federal aid such as the American Rescue Plan Act eased the strain on the city’s budget. The ripples of the pandemic are still evident, but Newtonians are opening a new chapter. 

Looking back now, much of that three-year saga felt surreal—I do believe that every Newtonian has their own COVID-19 pandemic story to tell, be they dramatic, bittersweet, tragic, or mundane like mine. 

But this is how an international student gets entangled with a city that graciously hosted him: It gave me a new perspective on these unprecedented times with its tales of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

November 20, 2022