A 22-year-old Los Banos resident, I’m a writer for The Westside Express. I’m also a college student, who attended the Los Banos Campus and graduated from Merced College last month with Superintendent’s Honors.

I earned my transfer Associate of Arts degree in Studio Arts, and I plan to transfer to either CSU Stanislaus or Fresno State to study graphic design.

Getting to this point was not an ordinary journey. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many of us to isolate and change our daily routine in unexpected ways–wearing a mask, social distancing, disinfecting, using Zoom and overall avoiding social interaction.  

During this time, I attended college entirely online, but it brought me many opportunities, like becoming a tutor for Merced College and later a writer for the local newspaper. 

I began attending the Los Banos Campus of Merced College in August 2019 for the fall semester. Being the first of my siblings to attend college, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was eager to further my studies and pursue higher education. 

Professor Tim McNally’s history class was the setting for the first classroom at Merced College I ever walked into. Throughout the semester, Tim encouraged me to use my voice in classroom presentations and debates. He was the catalyst who helped me become comfortable and involved in this new environment. 

To come full circle, after I graduated from college last month, Tim asked me in an email if I was interested in writing for The Westside Express. Since he knew me as a student and tutor, he had recommended me for the job.

I agreed to the offer that day. Tim had given me the outlet to use my voice at the start of college, and now, as I moved on, he was opening doors for me to use my voice on a greater scale. 

But I need to return to my time in college. By the middle of my second semester during spring 2020, confirmed COVID-19 cases were reported in the United States. Every student received anemail: “Merced College, with support of our Academic Senate,” it read, “will be transitioning all face-to-face instruction to remote methods for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester.” (As it turned out, remote instruction lasted a lot longer than that.)

My friends, my boyfriend, and I made the gloomy last day of in-person classes enjoyable by taking Polaroid pictures and going to Burger King after class, unaware that we wouldn’t see each other again for more than a year, exceeding the rumors that COVID-19 would stop spreading in the summer. I still have the blue-tinted Polaroid pictures hung up in my room, dated 03.17.20. 

During the height of the pandemic, I primarily focused on academics and self-isolation. As an introverted and self-sufficient student, I thrived in online classes, but it was not easy to adjust to the new routine.  

Making three to four videos each week for my communication and psychology classes the following semester, although new and interesting, had me more frustrated than ever before.  

This was also the first time I was unable to easily connect with my professors. Logging onto their Zoom office hours was like meeting them for the first time, even though I had been watching their lectures for weeks. 

What I had missed most while staying home was listening and having conversations with my fellow students. I missed hearing people relieve stress with humor and catching glimpses of their personhood, absent when interacting through a screen


The online experience, however, was not entirely negative as I became more grateful for others during the pandemic, cherishing the “normal” seemingly insignificant moments I had pre-pandemic. A great benefit for me was that I didn’t have to drive to the Merced campus from Los Banos for any classes.

After more than a year of online learning, when campuses began to reopen, I was given the opportunity to become an English tutor on the Los Banos Campus. I began tutoring in August 2021 and continued until May of this year.  

Unlike pre-pandemic conditions, students came in for tutoring infrequently because there were few face-to-face classes at the time. Interaction began to pick up during my second semester of tutoring, when more in-person classes were being offered. I had several regular tutees!

After becoming a tutor, I immediately regained interest in joining clubs so I could be more involved and connected with my school after a long period of isolation. I decided to join the Social Science Club, advised by my previous sociology professor, Scott Coahran–the only active club on campus at the time. 

I attended every meeting and seminar and went to almost every event. By the next semester in spring 2022, I became the president of the club.  

Once the spring semester was over, I started writing for The Westside Express so I can keep learning during the summer. I knew that this was a unique opportunity where I could strengthen the skills that helped me as a tutor, build experience, and provide a service for the community I grew up in. 

As an aspiring graphic designer, I am not only intrigued by art, but I’m also fascinated by words, language and communication. Graphic designers, like journalists, must find a way to creatively and effectively convey a message with the public’s interest in mind.

By writing for Westside Express, I am not only promoting awareness within my community, but I am also polishing the essential skills I need as a graphic designer. 

As we all continue to re-emerge from our homes and recover from the pandemic, I am thrilled to help readers who want to be well-informed on local news and events.

For me, the period of isolation had its downfalls, but now I am eager to connect with my community to a degree I have never dreamed of. 

Malina Duran

Malina Duran’s email is malina.duran1999@gmail.com.