Who we were then and who we are now

Jessica McLaren, Staff Writer

I can vividly remember sitting in my dorm on campus with my best friend and then-roommate in March of 2020, halfway through the second semester of our freshman year of college. It was the week before spring break, and we desperately needed a break. We sat on our twin-XL beds, studying silently in each other’s company as we usually did on weeknights. But this night was different, as the tension surrounding COVID-19 seemed to grow with every confirmed case. I did my best to reassure her anxieties regarding the rising cases in other countries. At the time, I was confident the virus wouldn’t reach the United States. At the time, I was an optimistic college freshman. I had a healthy social life, good grades and a strong academic and professional skill set. At the time, I thought I was smart and resilient. I had no idea that my entire world was about to be flipped upside down. 

That Friday, my best friend and I met up after class and exchanged hugs and said our goodbyes for the week, and a week later, I received an email from UTSA explaining that spring break would be extended and the remainder of the semester would be held online to prevent the spread of COVID-19. I knew what this email meant: moving back home. I was not happy about this. Growing up, my parents and I struggled to find a happy medium between autonomy and discipline. After moving out of my parents’ house and beginning my studies at UTSA, I discovered that I thrive on independence. Shortly after this email was sent out, my dorm issued partial refunds and announced expedited move-out dates. My dorm was empty by the end of April. In less than a month, my new life as I knew it had been disassembled and thrown away. I was given a taste of freedom, only for it to be revoked before I was even able to establish an identity for myself.

Classes have since returned to campus, and life seems to have returned to “normal,” whatever that means now. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to be back. Still, that first week was accompanied by an eerie feeling that left me feeling uneasy, unprepared and pretty vulnerable. Sitting in a lecture hall surrounded by my peers—now a junior—left me feeling out of place and uncomfortable. I am not the same person I was before this pandemic: I have since moved into an apartment, changed my major and career path, went through a tough breakup, adopted a kitten, had two new jobs and experienced several other life and personality changes—or rather, adjustments. I am now much more anxious and worry about my health more than the average 20-year-old probably needs to. I have a much smaller social battery and get overwhelmed when I over-schedule myself. I struggle with focus and auditory processing in class and other academic or professional situations. I have difficulty arriving at scheduled commitments on time and prepared no matter how much I plan. I’ve found that I have an extraordinary ability to watch the day fly by without actually getting anything done.

The changes in my thinking and behavioral patterns that have developed over the past 18 months are most certainly repercussions of living, learning and working through a pandemic as a young adult. As I entered adulthood, my physical health, wellbeing and overall sense of security were being perpetually threatened. Furthermore, the laughable efforts of the federal and state governments to control the spread of the virus have culminated in an appalling spread of misinformation across the United States: an issue quickly becoming a pandemic of its own.

I spent the first five months of the pandemic living with my parents, unable to work or see friends or family. I felt isolated but not lonely, as I found comfort in writing about the world and the people that inhabit it. Through social media, the world was bound as one by our feelings of mutual solitude. Today, however, as we sweep concerns regarding rising cases under the rug and attempt to reinstall “normal life” to a driver that is still riddled with viruses (quite literally), I find myself feeling extra lonely despite rarely actually spending time alone. 

When I first began writing this commentary, I planned to end the article on an optimistic note, probably with some cliche about how I overcame all odds. The truth is, I didn’t. My mental health suffered as I faced isolation and financial insecurity. My social life will likely never return to the highs of pre-pandemic life. I celebrated coming-of-age milestones at home and turned down once-in-a-lifetime opportunities in fear of getting sick or spreading the virus to my loved ones. I had grown discouraged and unmotivated as I dueled my ADHD in the realm of online learning, which I’ve found will never provide me with adequate mental stimulation. I felt forgotten, and instinctively linked the poor outcomes with my own efforts and intelligence. I assumed that I just wasn’t smart anymore and wouldn’t ever be the student I once was. Over time, however, I learned to treat my brain gently and with respect, acknowledging that it is a muscle like any other that can adapt, overcome and grow stronger. While I never quite cracked the code to online learning, I didn’t give up. This semester truly felt like it would never come, and although it was a difficult transition, returning to in-person learning has restored my faith in the student in me. I now see that I am smart and resilient, and I can conquer any dragons that cross my path. These qualities are a part of me, and they don’t simply disappear in the face of crisis. I think we all need to give ourselves a little more credit, considering we’ve more or less lived the last year in survival mode.

As we return to in-person classes this semester, please know that you aren’t alone. Try to allow your inner student to emerge at their own pace. I don’t think any of us know what “normal” really means anymore. Still, I hope that each of us can find the pieces we’ve lost to the pandemic and attempt to put ourselves back together again. We’ve done “normal” before and we can do it again; it might not look the same as it used to, but neither do we!