Opinion: Now what?
College students struggle to acknowledge turning points amid the pandemic
Editor's Note: This article appeared in The Eagle's October 2020 virtual print edition.
The experience of these past months as a college student can be easily represented by the colloquial five states of grief and loss. We started with denial — there’s no way we’re home next semester right? Quickly, we shifted to intense anger directed at multiple sources, culminating in a rage that had no clear path to resolution. Then bargaining started with on-campus plans, finding and renting apartments, only for that to fail and push us all into the stage of depression that had been simmering the whole time.
The question we’re all left with is, when will we reach acceptance? How do we get there?
There’s a lot to mourn in the midst of the pandemic that changed our lives. For us, it’s the big moments. College is often described as the most transformative period in a person’s life, the period where they truly transition from child to adult. This transformation is marked by many milestones: celebrating the end of freshman year, finding your place on campus, studying abroad, turning 21 and finally, graduating. As individual as these milestones are, there’s a community factor to all of them that make the moments special. We do all of these things with our friends and our family.
Some of these ‘big moments’ we’re missing are especially unique to AU. Studying abroad is an integral part of the educational experience at AU, with some majors virtually requiring it in order to complete the degree. We’ve spent our first years here listening to upperclassmen recount their amazing semester in France, Australia or India, waiting for the moment that the same experience would become a reality for us.
At a school where we’re taught to think globally, regardless of our major, studying abroad helps contextualize our education with other parts of the world. Studying abroad can expand career opportunities, and it introduces us to new people and places in a way that we might not otherwise have gotten. At AU, where so many students decide to attend based on the vast and exciting opportunities to spend time abroad, the coronavirus pandemic has delayed and possibly ruined so many plans for an abroad experience. We’ve been told for so long that studying abroad will change us, it’ll shape our worldview and help everything fall into place. For a lot of upperclassmen, that chance will likely not be available anymore.
This semester looks different in many small ways that are masked by the big ones. Yes, classes are online, but also 21st birthdays are being celebrated over FaceTime. Campus is mostly closed, but also the traditions we’ve made throughout our time in D.C. are being missed. A hero to so many students, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, died and students were spread across the nation rather than gathered together in large numbers at the Supreme Court or Capitol Hill.
This time in quarantine has been so focused on the loss of milestone ceremonies, but the small things that make college life what it is aren’t going unnoticed. For most, college is the first time people are away from home, living without the safety net of parents. Living with friends in your first apartment is where you figure out who you are. It’s how we come into our own as adults. Continuing a heated debate with a classmate as you walk to your next class, reading about an inspiring professor and finally going to visit them in their office hours, these are all things that are out of reach for us now. It’s impossible to fit college life and all its embellishments onto the screen of your computer.
The University could try some things to make up for this time: special summer study abroad sessions, or some concerted effort to send the students who had their time cut short back to the countries they were just getting to know. A make-up graduation ceremony months after you’ve started your life as a real adult seems confusing and just as dissatisfying as never having one in the first place. There’s really nothing that can make up for these moments. As the uncertainty of this life during a pandemic persists, so will the drastic comparisons to what we thought this time would be.
Riya Kohli is a junior in the School of Public Affairs and a columnist for The Eagle.