Luke Arnold should have been knocking on doors last month, drumming up support for democratic House candidate Mariah Phillips, before heading to barbecues with friends at Middle Tennessee State University. Instead, the political science major is quarantining in the tiny village of Florida, New York, in his new boyfriend’s family home.
“You learn about someone a lot faster when you live together. It’s definitely sped up the relationship,” Arnold said. “Back at MTSU we had less time together because we were both really busy. I was out campaigning, and he’s in the aerospace program, so he was always flying.”
Arnold traveled in early March over spring break to see his boyfriend Michael Wajda, an MTSU aerospace major. They’d met at Boro Pride in September, and their relationship was still new. The visit was meant to be brief, but soon after arriving at Wajda’s parent’s home, COVID-19 cases began spiking in New York City, just 68 miles away.
“We realized it wasn’t the best idea for me to get on a plane and go back to Tennessee,” Arnold said. “It was a little weird because we’d only been dating six months when this happened, and we’ve only known each other for a short time.”
Arnold has been in lockdown with Wajda, his parents, and his 14-year-old brother, for more than three months now. He said that while his life has slowed down, the relationship has accelerated. Arnold continues to campaign for Phillips by phone, but the majority of his days are woven together by simple rituals with Wajda, like walking the dog, cooking together, working out and meditating.
“I’ve found we both need a lot of time to process our feelings during this crisis,” Arnold said. “The silence and being with yourself has been good. In a weird way COVID has helped me become a more-well rounded person because I’m taking more time for myself.”
Arnold describes his quarantine family as “super affirming,” but he’s still missing his dad back in Morristown, Tennessee.
“My dad is the best ally and best dad ever, so being away from him is rough,” Arnold said. “We talk a lot more than when I was on campus. We call each other every other day. It’s rough because he could lose his job—he’s already had to take a 25 percent pay cut.”
Arnold said it’s also difficult being so far from friends and having to miss out on all that comes with being a college student. He transferred to MTSU from a community college, so he’s only had one full semester of traditional college, with the spring semester cut short. He worries he won’t get to have the college experience he had hoped for.
“There’s so much grief because no one was expecting this, and we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Arnold said. “I miss hanging out with friends and doing college things. But I also realize how privileged I am. I am extraordinarily lucky to be where I am and to spend this time with my significant other.”
Being located so close to New York City, one America’s hardest hit regions, Arnold has a unique perspective on the pandemic. It’s been frustrating for him to talk to friends back in Tennessee who aren’t taking it as seriously.
“Some people back home, it’s almost like there’s this pressure to not wear masks,” he said. “They see the numbers, but it seems so distant. There’s this general idea that it only matters if you experience it yourself.”
The pandemic quarantine has cemented Arnold’s resolve to pursue politics as a career, either working on campaigns, lobbying or maybe even running for office.
“Now is the time when we need strong leadership. We have to help good people get elected to make real change,” he said. “It’s important for people to hear we are going through this together and we will get through it together. We have to be understanding of each other during these insane times. We will find our next new normal.”