The memory sticks out in my mind like a sore thumb. Three months into my senior year, my mom and I decided to have dinner at my favorite restaurant to celebrate the submission of all my college applications.
“It’s all going to be different,” I proclaimed, jabbing my fork in her direction. “Once I’m in college, I’m going to start over. I’ll make time for everything I want to do.”
The following January, I received my acceptance to UNC-Chapel Hill. Everything was falling into place, just like I promised my mom.
Less than a week before my acceptance, the first case of the novel coronavirus was reported in the United States.
COVID-19 quickly changed my and countless other students’ plans. With case numbers spiking alongside the summer heat that was promised to bring them down, I made the difficult decision to stay home. But the choice came with its own new set of challenges. How do I start over? How could I possibly start a new chapter of my life in the same bedroom I have lived in for over 18 years? The fresh start I was so confident about months prior now seemed further away than ever before.
Classes started. Instead of finding my way to my lecture hall through winding brick buildings, I found myself disheveled in bed, desperately trying to figure out how to log into Zoom. The time that would have been spent studying in the library or exploring Franklin Street is now spent hunched over my desk with only the artificial light from my laptop to keep me company. The only time I speak to other students is in breakout rooms. The only time I am even able to leave my house is on walks through my neighborhood with my mom.
Before I knew it, the weeks were blending together, and my first semester was hurtling toward its conclusion. I feel like I have accomplished nothing. It was not until I sat down to take my finals that I realized something had to change.
The pandemic rewrote how all of us define expectation. It has taught us that nothing in life is guaranteed. The same person who sat in that restaurant lecturing her mom about how she was going to turn everything around to fulfill a picture-perfect college life was now taking her final exams with noise-canceling headphones–hoping they would drown out the barks of her dogs whenever they saw a passerby outside. This is my freshman experience, whether I wanted it to be or not. So I started finding new ways to enjoy my strange college life. I took up learning how to cook so I can do it for myself once I am on campus, and I have spent a lot more time with my dogs because I cannot imagine how much I will miss them once I leave. I found nature trails and have hiked through parts of my native Raleigh that I never knew existed. I began meeting other students through clubs and even sharing memes through GroupMe, and despite our physical distance, we have all managed to get to know one another.
I made the decision to stay home again for my second semester, meaning I have yet to step foot on my campus as a student living there. This choice was difficult for me to wrestle with at first, but not anymore. If there is anything being an at-home freshman has taught me, it is that my growth as a person will not come from being on campus, and it definitely is not going to come all at once. Rather, my growth will stem from how much I am able to make out of my college experience, no matter the circumstances.
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