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Ebert Fellows in Quarantine: Paying For Experience

Editor’s note: The 2019-2020 Roger Ebert Fellows at the University of Illinois College of Media, working with advisor/mentor Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, are finishing up their fellowship with a most unusual spring quarter. After a school year including Ebert Fellowship workshops in writing, criticism, podcasting and on-camera work in Champaign, Urbana and Chicago, they’re waiting out the pandemic in different ways and different parts of the world. 

The other night I watched “Shrek” with my younger brother on the same couch that I’ve been using as an online classroom.

If you told me I’d be spending my last few months as a college student in my mother’s house in Albuquerque, New Mexico and learning remotely, I wouldn’t have believed you. Before the coronavirus spread, my campus life at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign consisted of attending in-person classes; working as a resident advisor at Presby Hall; working as a barista at Espresso Royale; cooking; exercising at our campus gym; spending time with friends, studying or working on projects at coffee shops; babysitting; and attending rehearsals for the  Illini Student Musicals production of A Chorus Line.

I’m cooking fairly regularly in my quarantine-at-home life. Everything else has taken a dramatic change. Daily life with my mother and my younger brother consists of attending my online classes via Zoom; homework, essays and projects at the dining room table; playing “Animal Crossing” on my Nintendo Switch; practicing my high intensity interval training at home; jogging outside; watching “Game of Thrones” with my younger brother; and keeping up with family and friends through FaceTime.

The freedom I had to cultivate a schedule of my own is what I liked most about my campus life. The freedom of living independently. Taking care of my responsibilities. Enjoying my leisure activities on my own terms and my own time. I miss it all.

There are so many parts of my campus life I loved, and I didn’t realize I’d had my last experiences doing those things as a college student. I didn’t know my Advanced Filmmaking class right before spring break would be the last physical class I’d attend as an undergraduate. I didn’t realize the last time I ate at my favorite restaurant (The Poke Lab on South Sixth Street in Champaign), or visited my friends’ apartment, would be the last time I’d ever do those things.

There are so many people I didn’t have a chance to hug, or to even say goodbye.

My grandfather always says it: “Advice is free, but you pay for experience.” This means a lot to me now. My own quarantine journey is positive and negative both. While I’m enjoying the time spent with my family, there’s a part of me that feels angry and frustrated. My final semester of college is taking place during a time where it can sometimes feel as if the world is ending.

While no college student’s experience is a linear journey, a college student’s experience during a COVID-19 pandemic is certainly not that. You pay for experience. Small things, such as FaceTiming a friend, going for a walk, watching “Shrek” on the couch at home once again—these bring me joy, right now, in my quarantine-at-home life.

Bio: Coltrane Zerai-Che is a senior at the University of Illinois and will receive her Bachelor of Science in Media and Cinema Studies this May. On campus, she is a Resident Advisor, a group fitness instructor, and the Scholarship Chair for the Alpha Nu Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. During her junior year, she studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina with the Political Science department. During the summer of 2019. completed a summer internship in film in television development at MACRO in Los Angeles, California. Her interests include media representation of marginalized groups in film and television and she aspires to push narratives from the perspectives of people of color through film and television production and screenwriting. Currently, Zerai-Che is finishing her final semester while living at home with her family in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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