After spending months during the height of COVID-19 hibernating within the walls of my childhood bedroom, scrolling through social media, baking banana muffins and decoding vague and confusing “reopening” plans from University administration, it had finally been revealed that we would, in fact, be returning to campus in the fall. A wave of hope, fear, eagerness and panic overwhelmed me. Would returning be safe or realistic? Would it even be enjoyable? Daydreams of strolling through the streets of Madrid, Spain while studying abroad were far gone for this semester, but I couldn't help but think about the warmth of being back on campus, studying and reconnecting with the people I needed most.
Late August, my family and I set out from New York to Saint Louis, MO to move into my dorm room for my sophomore year. Arriving on campus felt foreign and seemingly unrecognizable; lines for mandatory COVID-19 testing ran for hours, six feet markers glued everyone to their places and masks guarded the friendly hello and occasional smile. Whispers of “How long do you think we will actually be on campus for?” and the awkward glances of friends you have realized you fell out of touch with over the months of isolation had me mourn the sophomore year I had dreamed about. Unlike the bright eyed, eager freshmen, I knew the way the tension and fear of this upcoming term hung in the air was far more intense than the hot, sticky humidity of late summer.
The weeks after move-in, life on campus began to flow back into a new routine. With the start of classes predominantly on Zoom, the fuel of academic purpose returned to me as I jumped to keep up with daily new lectures, PowerPoints, online office hours and assignment deadlines. Life as a student became a race to see just how well one can succeed with coursework, even when that spark for learning went from a bold, bright flame of curiosity to the cold glow of a dim computer screen. Well-meaning professors inundated with emails and a new learning format tried their best to keep up with demands of anxious students. The strong frustration of virtual learning followed me in nearly every assignment. As a nursing major, the art of blending the science of medicine with the empathy of care excites, challenges and engages me in a career I cannot wait to start. However, it was difficult to ignore the obstacles and resentment I felt while struggling to engage with classes online, as my curiosity and engagement just didn't feel quite the same. I longed for the walks to class down West Pine, the personal anecdotes of nursing veteran professors during lecture and even the nervousness in the air during an exam.
Reconnecting with friends has been a true bright spot in my fall semester. Throughout this past month, the joys of socially-distant coffee dates, picnics and get-togethers reminds me that although life looks different right now, the people who make it truly worthwhile will always be there. As someone who has always thrived off of one on one time with others, the unique opportunity of small gatherings strengthens my sense of self and fulfills my value of human connection. No matter the time, individual or situation, there is truly nothing more validating and heartfelt than hearing the words “Me Too.” Learning that in the world inside everyone’s head, we are all experiencing those same feelings of anxiety, excitement, grief, independence and hope about what life would look like back on campus. I was never alone in my fears, and turns out I never will be. The human experience will forever be a shared one, despite how fixed our perspectives and overwhelming our emotions can feel.
Overall, navigating college in a pandemic is a frightening, confusing experience, but the biggest misunderstanding is that anybody has ever been tackling this alone. COVID-19, a societal revolution of race, climate crisis and the fears of the future has shook the globe. However, being back at Saint Louis University reminds me just why I chose to be here in the first place. The camaraderie of the School Of Nursing, the eagerness of seasoned professors to care for their students like their own children and the commitment to faith reminds me that I am where I belong as a student and as an individual. The nostalgia of my wonderful freshman year knocks me off my feet when passing by the places I sparked friendships, ended friendships, crammed for my first round of final exams and felt my highest highs and lowest lows. The memories of falling in love for the first time, discovering a career I’m passionate about and all those life-changing “firsts” have shaped me with strength, resilience and grace. I only hope the current freshman can experience those same feelings as well, but for now I’m committed to making this year transformative and connective in its own right, pandemic or not.