‘The Grateful Semester’: Winston Tang’s Photos Reflect What He Lost and Learned

May 14, 2020 By Winston Tang, yt4en@virginia.edu Winston Tang, yt4en@virginia.edu

As part of UVA Today’s continuing coverage of the Class of 2020, we asked graduating student Winston Tang to document the abrupt shift in life on Grounds from a student’s perspective. Here is Tang’s story, in his own words and photos.

My name is Winston Tang and I am a fourth-year student with a major in government and a minor in architecture. On March 11, I was in Moab, Utah, hiking and climbing with dozens of friends and peers from the UVA Outdoors Club.

Over those few days, we were mostly in mountains, desert and forests. My last college spring break had been nothing but a dreamy adventure that was filled with laughter, breathtaking landscapes and pure admiration for nature.

Then, we got the email from President Ryan. “We will be moving our classes online… Students … are strongly encouraged to return home or to remain home,” the email read.

When I returned to the campsite, people were visibly shocked and concerned. The usual laughter was gone and the campsite was so quiet that I could only hear the sound of the river flowing. I then walked to the nearby river, sat for an hour and pondered on what to do. As I stared at the water splashing in the raging river, flashbacks of different moments at UVA coincided with a sense of numbness toward the future. At that moment, as much as I refused to believe, I knew that was probably it – my undergraduate career.

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Winston Tang and another person running down a hill
On the last day of spring break, Tang went to the White Sands National Park in New Mexico before returning to UVA.

Just a week later, I found myself back at a much emptier UVA. Out of concern for my grandparents’ safety, I decided to stay in Charlottesville. Self-quarantine began. And so did the beginning of the end of my time in college. 

Winston Tang sits at a table with a desk light over head working on his computer with an open book on the desk

Abruptly transitioning from in-person classes to online classes after spring break was the first wake-up call of the new reality. At first, as professors scrambled to adjust to the new teaching platform, my classmates and I joked about how we are now attending the “Zoom University” and hoped it was only temporary. However, one email after another from UVA gradually shattered our dream of returning to Grounds.

Looking straight down into a cup of coffee

It is hard to stay motivated during quarantine. Every day as I watch the sun go up and down, I feel like I am letting time slip through my fingers without actually living much. Ultimately, I come up with multiple ways to adjust to the new normal. One of them is sitting next to the window and enjoying a cup of tea while sunlight falls on my shoulder.

Looking out of a window to a man below playing soccer

Soon after quarantine began, I realized that I take too many things for granted: hanging out with friends in person, breathing in fresh air and simply being outside. After the governor passed a stay-at-home order, gyms were closed and people began to find their own ways to exercise. Once in a while, residents in my apartment complex would go to the tiny little courtyard and enjoy whatever forms of exercises they may like, such as soccer.

Winston Tang sits on a couch with his face looking at the floor and holding his head

Although I try to fill my days with things like schoolwork, creative cooking, exercising, phone calls and emails as much as possible, the thought of “what if COVID-19 never happened” always pops in my mind out of nowhere. For a period of time, I no longer had a routine and lost track of days. Day and night felt the same and there was no difference between workday and weekend. I hoped I could wake up one morning and find out that everything was just a bad dream.

Winston Tangs phone as he video chats with a family member back home

FaceTiming with family is always a delight! Here, my Grandma is demonstrating how to make a simplified version of Cantonese Clay Pot with a bowl. Seeing Grandma smile and energetically correcting my inefficient cooking approaches makes me less worried about her. And after multiple “online cooking classes” with my grandparents, I have significantly improved my cooking skills.

Shopping cart with food in it as it is going down an aisle that is half empty

Having gotten used to eating at Newcomb [Hall], Roots [Natural Kitchen] and the food truck next to Minor Hall, I now have little choice but to cook my own food during this pandemic, and grocery shopping has become more frequent and essential.

When I visited the grocery store for the first time after spring break, I was shocked to see an empty shelf – something I have never seen in my life before, other than in movies and historical pictures. Luckily, stores in Charlottesville are far less dire than some in other parts of the country, where more than a few shelves are completely left empty and people have to wait in line for food.

Nonetheless, inside the grocery stores in Charlottesville, a sense of anxiety and weariness pervades as people try to keep up with social distancing and wearing masks. It is hard to stay six feet apart in a store and every time I accidentally walk too close to someone, I feel sorry, nervous and embarrassed. Ultimately, I have developed a grocery shopping strategy: write down what I want to buy, go straight to the point and get what I need, pay and get out of the store as soon as possible. Other than looking like I am chased by a tiger while caught on fire, this strategy has worked out quite OK.

Sign on a door that reads: Our store is temporarily closed
A sign at Starbucks on the Corner notes its temporary closing; normally the line to order fills the lobby.

The Corner has become a lot quieter since spring break ended. Many stores and restaurants like Starbucks and Got Dumplings are closed. Some, such as Bodo’s and Roots, are still open for business, although dine-in is no longer an option.

Winston Tang running to the Rotunda

Since living alone, roughly twice a week (actually once, who am I kidding?), I wake up early in the morning and take a long run in Charlottesville. I always start and end with the Rotunda.

Just in an hour’s time, I can run through every place that defines my college experience: from the Rotunda, where I got that little coin with the face of Jefferson on it first in week of school; to all the libraries, where I spent countless days and nights; from all the academic buildings alongside McCormick Road, where so many of my classes took place; and Shannon dorm, where I transitioned from a high school grad into a college student; all the way to the Architecture School, where I spent my first two years and dreamed to be an architect.

Morning runs have gradually become my favorite thing to do, for I can not only enjoy fresh air, but more importantly, reflect on my endeavor in college and shake off any anxiety I have.

Cell phone with an image of two people sitting that has text over it that reads: Its Marx's birthday
The Snapchat app on Tang’s phone often pops up with photos from years past, like this one from his first-year dorm.

An avid Snapshot user, I have posted many Snapchat stories over the years. Every so often, the social app shows me stories I posted on the exact same day in the past. For example, on April 9, Snapchat Memories displayed videos I took one year ago, when I joined tens of thousands of UVA students in rushing to the Corner and celebrating the men’s basketball’s championship in the NCAA Tournament. And on May 5, it showed me moments from three years ago – when I was joking around with my first-year roommate Sean and hallmate Ari, both of whom went on to become very good friends of mine. A music enthusiast, Sean is now going to law school in the fall. As for Ari, he is set to graduate next year after taking a leave of absence to work for a nationally famous congressional campaign in 2019.

Dark room with a computer on with a womans face on the computer screen
Tang videoconferences with an alumni mentor in a session set up by the UVA Career Center. The center has continued to support students virtually throughout the pandemic.

Anything that is remotely related to jobs and the job market is extra stressful. But in the spirit of “do what you gotta do,” I still keep sending out résumés, talking to people at the Career Center, and participating in a handful of virtual info sessions and networking Zoom meetings. In this picture, an UVA alumna who graduated during the 2008 economic recession shares her experience in navigating through the crisis on a personal level. Main takeaways? A, be flexible; B, be digital; C, be resourceful; and D, be positive.

5 different windows with various social media all stacked on top of each other

Keeping in touch with families and friends is a blessing at times like this. Calling and FaceTiming, along with using a bunch of social media apps such as Snapchat, Facebook Messenger and even Instagram Messenger, have become an even bigger part of my life.

It is good to know that I am not alone in this situation, and that while I need to talk to others, I am needed as well. That said, sometimes I realize my life could very well just be a [virtual reality] thing. Being confined in a small apartment and staying connected with the outside world almost exclusively through the internet, I now live a life in which half of my reality is in the three-dimensional spaces of a bedroom and a living room, while the other half is on a couple of two-dimensional screens.

Zoom Video call attendees

Having met most of my graduation requirements, I started my last semester at UVA with a light course load and planned to relax and spend more time with friends. For the first time in college, I learned to slow down and have fun without worrying too much about schoolwork. However, this plan was, of course, cut short when the pandemic began.

Nothing can totally make up for not being on Grounds for the last few months in college, but virtual hangout sessions with some drinks and laughter definitely bring joy to an uncertain life.

Winston Tang shaving in a mirror with water running down the mirror

The last time I got a haircut was in early February. Although I do wish I could have learned cutting hair when given a chance in 10th grade, I am glad that I still have full control over facial hair. And I certainly look forward to breaking my personal record for time elapsed between haircuts (I might have broken it already) and seeing what I look like when this is all over

Notebook laying on a laptops keyboard while a zoom meeting is on the screen with 3 attendees

Just as classes have gone online, extracurricular activities are now conducted virtually and digitally. One of my main commitments this semester is The Cavalier Daily, where I am on the photo and graphic design staff. Most of my work there was done independently on a laptop before the pandemic anyway, so there hasn’t been too much difference in terms of my involvement there.

My other commitment is being a project manager at a consulting group that provides pro-bono services to local Charlottesville organizations. Normally, we would have weekly in-person group meetings and client meetings. Since the pandemic started, we have become solely dependent on Zoom, Google Office Suite as well as old-fashioned emails and phone calls. To our own surprise, we have gone above and beyond; not only do we produce what our client asks for in advance, we also widen the scope of our work and deliver a 13-page report. Here is our last meeting. I asked everyone to pose for a picture to mark our successful semester. After trying a few silly poses, we break out in laughter. This was my last college club meeting ever.

Woman taking a picture of a graduate leaned up against a white column

Here, my friend Tim poses for a graduation picture as his girlfriend Mary adjusts angles. I first met Tim when I was a first-year student in the Architecture School. Over the years, we became really good friends. And although I switched out of the A-School during my third year, I still hung out with him quite often before the pandemic. A North Carolinian, Tim always feels personally attacked when I mistakenly (and later, jokingly) say he’s from South Carolina. So as Mary is taking pictures for him to celebrate his hard-fought architecture career at UVA, it’s really a struggle for me to decide whether to ask him when he’s going back to South Carolina in order to break his composure. Ultimately, I leave them be and save the joke for another day.

Winston Tang stands socially distanced with two other people on the Lawn all dressed in their graduation hat and gowns

Here, Ila Berman, dean of the Architecture School, wears Talár academic robes to take a picture with me and Tim. Now a student in the College of Art & Sciences, I initially just expected to just go through the virtual graduation ceremony without seeing my dean in person. So when Tim invited Dean Berman to take a picture with us and she actually dressed in full and met us right outside of her residence in one of the Lawn pavilions, it was a total surprise and joyful occasion for me.

I love how this picture circles things back for me – I started as an architecture student and now finish off like one. Although I am not sure if Dean Berman is aware of the fact that I am indeed no longer in the A-School, this is a memorable and nice picture. Social distancing actually gives this picture more of an architectural vibe, which is one of the very few positive aspects for me that come out of the whole COVID-19 situation.

Grey Table with a box and some clothes on it

After submitting my last undergraduate academic work, I started packing and preparing to leave a place that I have called home in the past four years. Most of the furniture and many of the room decors are from first year. For example, I got the UVA pennant on the second day of school. It still looks fairly new and fresh now, just like all the memories I made here on Grounds.

Beta bridge says Congrats 2020

This is not the ending I wanted. Not even close.

But I did get something precious, in an unexpected way.

In the past, I always compared myself with others and envied things that I do not have in my life. “Why don’t I have that? And why can’t I be like that person?” I kept asking. I was so entitled and so disappointed in myself for everything that I didn’t get to achieve. But for what it’s worth, these past two months taught me to not take things for granted and always be grateful. And this is possibly the best graduation gift I can ever get.

I am grateful. Truly.

Grateful for having a supportive family, because they are always understanding and loving.

Grateful for the education I received, because not everyone has the opportunity to do so.

Grateful for being young and healthy, because I have a whole life ahead of me.

Grateful for all the friends I have made, because they helped shape who I am.

Grateful for all the pain, obstacles, and seemingly desperate and dark days in the past, because they let me grow and become tenacious.

And above all else, grateful for the brave medical workers, grocery store staffers and countless other essential workers in the world who put their lives on the front line to hold up the sky, because without their sacrifices, life would have been unimaginable for so many people like myself. 

In just a few days, college will be officially over for me. But my life is just getting started.

When life gives you lemons, you gotta make lemonade. I don’t know what the future holds and certainly have no idea of how this pandemic is going to end. But I do believe in two things — live every minute to its fullest and the darkest hour is just before the dawn.

Farewell, UVA.