Coronavirus, Penn Pandemic Diary

Penn Pandemic Diary Entry #4: A Dispatch from San Juan

March 31, 2020
By Brett Robert | Penn Pandemic Diary

Brett Robert is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania, and a Perry World House Graduate Associate. He researches the history of disaster in the Caribbean and Latin America in the 20th century.

Is San Juan my home now?

I flew here March 4, 2020 to visit my partner for 10 days. She is a lawyer working on housing stability issues related to recovery from Hurricane María and the January 2020 earthquakes. We had planned to take the ferry to Culebra for a few days, one of Puerto Rico’s smaller islands east of the main island roughly halfway to Saint Thomas. The trip was in some ways a celebration of our birthdays which we had once again spent apart. A couple days in Culebra, a small island municipality known for its marine reserves and incredible snorkeling, would make up for some of the lost time that comes with a long-distance relationship.

When we returned to San Juan on March 10, however, we returned to a world in flux.

I began receiving emails from various officials at the University of Pennsylvania with rapidly changing messages. As a third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of History I am currently in the middle of two things: my final semester as a teaching assistant and preparation for comprehensive exams. Yet, like just about everyone in the world, I spent the second week of March reevaluating everything in my personal and professional life.

As I spoke with my academic advisor, the department chair, and the professor whose course I am assisting in this semester I faced one large decision first: should I return to Philadelphia on Friday March 13, or stay here in San Juan with my partner? Once Penn announced that all courses would move to online instruction I felt confident that the best thing for me was to stay in San Juan. Not only would it allow me to stay here and support my partner, and hopefully her family as well; but it seemed the safest decision for myself and others. Why should I get on a plane during a pandemic and risk exposure to myself and through me, others?

Fortunately, I received support from my department. I was assured that although no one could tell me whether I should stay or should I go, the University and Department of History would support me and make available electronic resources to allow me to continue my work from here. My relief was palpable, and when I saw the footage of crowded on airports on March 13 as frantic travelers sought to arrive in the U.S. from Europe before a ban was in place, my gratitude doubled.

As I think back on my life before academia—when I worked in various industries and occupations including retail, construction, special education, and museum education—I feel very grateful for the opportunities presented by the academy. Within academia, and history specifically, although we face challenges posed by this pandemic, many of us are fortunate to be able to work from home. Although those of us new to online teaching must rapidly adjust to new tools to educate our students, this is, relatively speaking a “gold-plated” problem in comparison to the dilemmas faced by many individuals and families finding themselves suddenly without work and an uncertain future.

Here in Puerto Rico, Governor Wanda Vasquez ordered a “toque de queda,” or curfew, before any U.S. state. Although my partner and I have the luxury of working from home, most here do not. All non-essential businesses have been closed since March 16th, and those in essential industries face the frightening prospect of working every day in the midst of a pandemic. Here the hardships of either working or not working are compounded by the legacies of Hurricane María and the recent earthquakes. There are people who have been living in tents in refugee camps in the southern part of the island since January and no one has forgotten the post-hurricane hardships.

Over the course of several research-related trips to Puerto Rico since 2018, I have fallen in love with this archipelago, and in particular this city. I had always planned to move to San Juan at some point, both to be with my partner and to base myself out of here while conducting my dissertation research. “Someday I’ll live here,” however, is very different from “I think I live here now.” I still have an address in Philadelphia, but as far as I can tell I will be here until this is over.

I have spent the last two weeks collaborating with professors and my fellow teaching assistants at Penn, trying to learn how to use Zoom to conduct classes online, and offering feedback on syllabus revisions. I even had to overnight a key to a locker I have on campus, so a colleague could retrieve exams I had left behind, securely, to grade. My fellow graduate students created a “virtual lounge” for us to chat with each other, and we made a spreadsheet so that we could request specific e-books to be made available through Penn’s libraries.

Professionally, I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to continue working, despite my preference for classrooms and hard copies over video conferences and e-books. Although I feel thankful to be healthy and working, fear and longing sometimes interrupt my days. All of the unknowns float to mind as worst-case scenarios from time to time, and the allure of following the spiraling fears all the way down the rabbit hole is hard to resist.

Sometimes I get stuck down that rabbit hole. I miss my friends and family in California, where I lived before starting at Penn, and the things I left behind in Philadelphia. It’s easy to start feeling like I could get through this so much better if I had my guitars, the gym, basketball or baseball games on the television, or any of a number of other things left behind in a time or place currently out of reach.

In those moments of fear or longing, gratitude is one of the few touchstones that can both bring me back to the present and remind me how incredibly lucky I am. I have food, shelter, and the company of the woman I love…we even have toilet paper, which I think makes us rich now? So, here I am, and yes, I guess I do live in San Juan now, and for that I am grateful.

The views expressed in the Penn Pandemic Diary are solely the author’s and not those of Penn or Perry World House.