As COVID restrictions recede, a UCLA senior begins to comprehend what she has lost. By Sydney Lester.
At the beginning of March 2020, I was finishing up a phone interview for a university program that sends college students to other countries to teach English.
“Have you heard of coronavirus? Is this something that might make you hesitate to travel?”
Not at all, I said confidently. Crises were for faraway places. The business of morning newscasters and doomsday preppers.
By the end of that month, I was not so confident—at least not about travel. Lockdown had commenced, and there loomed some dread of catching COVID. But I remained naively optimistic. An extended Spring break? Can’t complain about that.
The realization that the pandemic would not just impact but define this era of most people’s lives did not truly hit me until I was back home in the suburbs of Los Angeles, sitting in my childhood bedroom the night before Fall quarter was set to begin—online. A part of me had clung to the hope that newscasters had exaggerated the severity of the crisis for fear of COVID actually taking a turn for the worst. Since long before the pandemic, they’d been telling us that civil war was nigh, California was overdue for the big one, and to look out for nukes from North Korea—but so far, so good.
But COVID, as it turned out, was more tangible—and imminent. Now was time to abandon expectations and adjust to a new normal. A normal that includes death counts, chronic loneliness, and a lot of takeout.
Almost three years later, I am a rising senior in college. I never did participate in that program I had interviewed for, and I have attended exactly one fully in-person class since March of 2020. Several professors for hybrid-style classes that I’ve taken recently stopped offering in-person lectures because so few students would show up. I’ll admit I have woken up, joined a Zoom class to get participation credit, turned my camera off, and immediately fallen back asleep—more than once. Later I would listen to the recording.
The majority of the memories I have from the second half of my freshman year, the entirety of my sophomore year, and much of my junior year are pixelated and nondescript, largely consisting of me staring at screens until my vision went blurry, losing my mind a little because two years deep into this people still forget to mute themselves, and checking the news for updates on COVID, climate change, the ever-volatile state of American politics, and/or the end of the world.
Looking back at my college experiences, I feel a sense of loss that I did not experience at the time. It was impossible to follow The New York Times daily COVID tracker without feeling fortunate. An awareness of my good fortune was also reinforced by my employment during the pandemic at a teen residential treatment facility, a temporary home to adolescents whose fragile senses of security were often shattered by the increase of stress and isolation. Here, it became clear to me that even without exposure to the virus, the impacts of COVID had the potential to be life-threatening, and that the indirect loss of life to the pandemic is likely beyond quantification. One of the most frightening symptoms of the pandemic is our growing numbness to the still-rising number of lives COVID has taken prematurely.
During those gray years, my academics actually improved (thanks, I suppose, to all my newfound free time). I was never furloughed from my job. And nobody close to me died. Nevertheless, a part of me is saddened, and I often wonder what might have been had the world not been reduced to my hometown and a cast of two-dimensional characters during what was supposed to be my triumphant coming-of-age arc.
I worry the experience altered the way I connect with others, and that it must have been apparent during my recent debut in the professional world that masks and computer screens have become a social safety net for me. At times, in-person interaction feels incredibly vulnerable, and I almost miss being able to disappear by turning my camera off.
I fear my sense of optimism has been tempered by the feeling that I should be preparing for worst-case scenarios, that life will always be marked with instability. I never lived in a fantasy world. From high school English class, I knew all about the chronic disillusionment that plagues America (thank you, Death of a Salesman). But this feels different. The society-wide wave of exhaustion and pessimism has left me, in some ways, divorced, 45-years old, and working a dead-end job at the age of 21.
Still, being a college student during COVID was not a tragedy. Nor was it a hardship that will define my life. It was a tough time to transition into adulthood—both scary and boring—but it also presented unexpected opportunities for connection and growth. The impact is also lessening with the passage of time. My most recent quarter at UCLA reminded me that the new normal was preceded by an old one.
COVID will undoubtably leave a lasting impression, for better or for worse. Yet, if anything was accomplished during the pandemic, my peers and I have proven our capacity to adapt and persevere through uncertain and frightening circumstances. And while hard earned, these traits will serve us well.