Not many people can say that they completed their first year of college or university during a global pandemic, but I can. In some ways, that makes my thoughts and opinions even more unique, and in others, obsolete. The whole thing about a global pandemic is that it's global.
With the national spread of vaccine availability, there seems to be daily updates on what we can and can't do again as a population. States make one announcement, schools make another, and parents throw their hands in the air. Everything seems uncertain and unclear. One thing that isn't unclear is that somehow, through all of this struggle and growth we have experienced, the world slowly and surely is returning back to some sense of normality.
It was hard to recognize friends and classmates, because masks made us strangers. Now, without masks, will I even recognize myself?
I never imagined that my first time walking on school campus would be with a face covering, so no one could see my smile. I never imagined that there would be social distancing stickers on the floors and sidewalks, so that no one could see my anxiety sweat stains, but that's exactly how it was. I also never imagined that my roommate would become my very best friend and the mystery meat in the dining hall would actually start to grow on me, but they certainly did. I also never thought a pandemic that changed everything about how we lived together and apart could teach me more about myself than 18 years of living, but it did just that.
College has plenty of requirements from GPAs to extracurriculars, but one thing they don't list on college applications is courage. Courage is a requirement for not just surviving college, but thriving in it, especially in the middle of a pandemic. You must be brave, even in a pandemic's virtual world you must stand out and speak out. Your bravery and your courage are your sword and shield. They protect you almost as well as your school mandated masks.
My bravery and my courage were my great barriers and my greatest assets. However, I feared and agonized that my greatest strengths, my greatest weapons that had been built and forged during this pandemic would vanish as soon as it was over. When our greatest villain and battle fought, a disease, an unimaginable blockade from life was finally vanquished, would my weapons and barriers be finished as well, left to rest, left useless?
No, they wouldn't. They are not weapons or barriers, but skills and characteristics that I've learned and honed. They have strengthened during this pandemic and its end will not be the end of theirs only the fighting beginning I deserve. I may not yet recognize myself in the mirror again, but that is only because I have changed and grown, just as we all have. While my mask was my protection this year, it was my courage that will continue to be my protection and my strength for the year and the changes that follow.
Communication and outreach were a daily challenge and struggle. Now without the need for virtual connection, will there still be the desire and commitment to connect?
I never considered myself to be one of the future college students that would call their friends and family daily, and I was right. I'm not. I was the college student that thought of them daily and called every other day… my restraint was impeccably strong.
Between quarantining for the first time and the sixth time, lots of things can happen. Such as going to college and leaving home. I missed everyone, everyday, all the time. I also, however, loved every minute of this brand new experience in all of its constant changing. Through college, I learned change inadvertently was the only real constant, except, of course, in math where the definitions don't quite line up with my new life lesson.
I was consistently checking up with my friends and calling home for any wisp of family drama. I craved just those few minutes of phone calls or accidental Facetimes. Thankfully, the rest of the world seemed to be right along the same page. Zoom is a prominent resident on my computer as my most visited page, and iMessage is always the first app opened on my iPhone, after the CDC updates page, of course. Communication and human contact were dreadfully missed during the pandemic, so updates and brunch lunches moved to online platforms with an even higher consistency than before.
My weekly Facetimes with my best friend tucked at home and my every other day phone calls for family drama were regular staples in my life, and it started to seem that the few times without them I grew off balance and a little lost and a little lonely. Checkups and friendly heart emojis become daily habits with distance lengths of towns and six feet markers a regular in my life. With the markers and social distancing stickers peeled off or worn to dust, will my checkups and phone calls stay stuck or will they peel away too?
They won't. If I don't let them, if I keep working and keep trying. These habits and checkups and little heart emojis will stay stuck in my life. Human connection and love are things that need consistency and support, if we could figure it out in a pandemic of locked doors and virtual boxes, we can certainly figure it out afterwards as well. Facetime and iMessage can still be our close friends. I certainly hope Zoom meetings will stick around, too, if my most reached for outfit of 2020 and 2021 (the fancy blouse and sweatpants combo) has anything to say about it!
Living in a pandemic had almost started to feel normal. Now, will these new changes grow to feel normal to me as well, will I fit in this new reinvented normal?
I never thought my life was normal. I went to a pretty different high school with my choir pins and rainbow flags. I worked into the night at a restaurant that was more popular than making your own bread in 2020. I was hardworking and didn't have TikTok. My life was normal though — my own version of normal.
This question may be the hardest to consider, because it's the one that repeats the most inside my mind. That swirls and aganoizes and worries me the most. Was this pandemic version of normal my best version of life? Will I grow and learn as much as I did before in this new changing normal? What even is normal?
Honestly, I don't know. I can be certain of love and self, but I can't be certain of change and whatever the heck normal means. Just like the rest of the nation, I'm filled with uncertainty, but also a little bit of hope. Maybe the lessons we learned and cherished during the pandemic will be those we carry with us instead of tossing aside just like our disposable masks. No one can be sure of what will happen next, that's one thing that has always been true, but now maybe we can be sure that we will strive to care a little more about ourselves and each other going forward into tomorrow and the unknown.
As humans, we are pretty resilient and pretty tough. If we can make a world filled with hand sanitizer dispensers and quarantine time slots seem normal, then we can make what comes after normal, too. Normal isn't something definable. It's just something we fall into, something we learn to understand and live within. Normal can be whatever we make of it. This question doesn't have an easy answer — it has a resilient and a challenging one. While that's a tough thought to consider, it's the one I needed to write down, and the one I needed to know.
If there is anything I learned from this difficult and long time during the pandemic, it's that the human race is resilient. We take struggle and hardship and grief and sorrow and grow from it. We lean on each other and learn to even lean on ourselves. When a million questions are twisting and swirling in your head, the answers might be hard to find, but they also might be the ones you grow to find or the ones you wait to find. Each answer is different and each answer can change, but just like the rest of life, change is one thing we can depend on and one thing we can grow right alongside.