Editor's note: What follows is 12 images (24 book pages) of a mixed-media collage journal. The text below each image corresponds to the same hand-written text on each open book page.
Since I was a little kid, I had always dreamed of going away to school. I remember spending hours and hours after school researching college programs, watching “Day in My Life” videos, and daydreaming about what the future may hold outside of my hometown of Snohomish, Washington. For many of us, the experience as explored in the media or in movies appears that the college experience is said to be, “the best years of your life”; almost every person claims that they met their best friends, and truly found themselves at school but I question: how are my peers and I supposed to do so when our only interaction with one another has been behind either a mask or a screen?
Like many of us, I spent the final months of high school dressed head to toe in my future school's merchandise and daydreaming about starting a new life elsewhere, one that I, alone, would have control over. I had distant hopes of Friday night lights with new friends and glassy eyes, and late nights spent in the dorms making random combinations of my favorite childhood foods. Many of us have dreamed of being able to find ourselves and others through the experience of surviving college together. After starting college in the fall of 2019 I am now mere weeks from graduation. I have come to understand now that the bonds that have lasted through school in the pandemic have revealed that love and friendship grown here is able to withstand almost anything and for that, I am forever grateful.
Two years ago, after our first semester of college, my peers and I were met with the opposite of our ideal college experience as new friends quickly faded into mere ghosts of a time once present and others have manifested into reflections of their inner battles. Suddenly, the family that we had all created together out-of-state became a long distance relationship and the notion of spending quality tiem with one another was experienced through a screen. I remember having "zoom parties" in which my friend group would all get togehter on zoom to play games, crack some claws, and reminisce on the days when we could be within six feet of one another. Friends became strangers and communication became incresingly rare. Each individuals spirit seemed to dwindle day after day.
To feel alive, the most romantic thing one could do was make a playlist, and to be able to feel and share the experience of the pandemic with one another. And Before we get into the ~serious stuff~ I wanted to share with you some of the songs that have personally gotten me through this time (to add an additional sentimental note, these songs were shared with me by some of my best friends, I owe them my survival through the last two years)
I first learned of COVID in January of my freshman year in college in the dining hall just 6 and a half minutes from my dorm room. I remember distinctly the day one of my old roommates sent us an article warning the public on the potential dangers of COVID-19; we, like the rest of the world, had no idea what was in store. It's funny how when big events happen you can almost always remember every single detail. I remember Rachel was wearing a maroon hoodie with white strings, Katie was in her gray BSU sweatshirt, and Lena was in my fuzzy north face zip up that she always borrowed when it got too cold out and I was in a fruit printed sweatshirt from one of my childhood best friends. To our knowledge, our university had informed us that we would be able to stay on campus, and that this health concern was simply not a problem where we were located; we accepted this fact, even though we felt unsure about the future.
Three days later we were told we needed to leave campus as soon as possible. With trash bags in hand, my roommates and I began to rip the pictures from the wall, pack up the blue and orange fabric that had accumulated within our closets, and say goodbye to our inflated swan named Karen, our dorm mascot. We all decided to go to the dining hall for one last time, take a final stroll on our typical campus route, and say goodbye to all the lovely people that we now referred to as our family. There was talk of the borders crossing between states, inhabiting many of our abilities to drive home, and thus my parents encouraged me to drive back with one of my friends to Spokane, Washington and that my brother would be able to get me from there. On our last night on campus people that are no longer in my life gathered around to commemorate our time together, our ability to find a home within one another, and the love that had fostered in one small apartment off of Christway Drive.
After a night of sorrow and cleaning out everyone's mini fridge and pantry, we all knew that it was time to go our separate ways, unaware of what may change and who would be back at school in the fall, if there would be school in the fall. I spent most of spring semester and the following summer on facetime or zoom, catching up with and supporting my peers as we all attempted to navigate this strange, and frightful time in the world. I did not hug anyone outside of my family for the remainder of 2020 which was a loss that I did not know would have such an impact. I met many of my college peers' parents through a screen, even though I have never met them in person. I learned the names of all my friends' animals, and was able to see the childhood room that helped shape each individual. I have never had a friend group that said “I love you” to one another more than the individuals who stayed by my side throughout the pandemic.
I think that the hardest part of this pandemic has been the hopelessness. The uncertainty of society and the overall loss of both life and connection. I have never seen so many “Rest in Peace” posts on social media, nor have I had so many friends simultaneously dealing with depression and suicidal ideation. Disheartened, tired eyes populated the space above one’s mask and the whole world was hurting, and suffering together. And there was really nothing that we, as a society, could do about it but persevere and try to support one another. My friends and I often spent our Zoom or Facetime “hangout” crying or attempting to reconcile the feelings that we were experiencing as a result of the pandemic. Many of my peers lost a loved one, experienced health complications both physical and mental, and felt ultimately hopeless about what was in front of us. We did not dwell. We learned to survive. Needless to say, as a generation, our outlook on life became rather grim, and it remains difficult to become excited about the future even in 2022 as it still feels as though the world can stop at any minute. The implications of COVID go beyond the obvious health and fiscal concerns and has had a large impact on what is supposed to be “The best years of life” for college aged individuals, and many of us feel as though we have “missed out” on the college experience.
There are some professors I have had for three years that would still not recognize my face in public. I could not describe to you the smile of any one of my classmates. I could, however, tell you most of their eye colors, and the way that the light hits their eyes when they begin to speak on something they are passionate about. I can’t remember the last time that I was in a crowd of more than 100 people. I am scared to go into class most days, and I find myself missing the days of zoom where I could interact from the comfort of my own space. I am now, for the first time in my life, extremely scared to talk to people. I hate the thought of others perceiving me. I am now unable to pick up on social cues in the same way I was able to. Most days, I feel more comfortable with my mask on. Most days, I don’t want to get out of bed. On days I do, it takes a pep talk to convince myself that I am, in fact, capable of being a human.
I have dealt with depression and anxiety for most of my life. Being a child that cries every time it rains in Seattle, Washington is for sure not an easy way for one to become the “popular kid”. I often struggled as a young person with my body and I have struggled my whole life with an eating disorder, and these issues became more prominent within the pandemic. So many of my peers have voiced similar struggles, and have identified that being inside and disconnected from our community ultimately paved the way for insecurities to flourish after so much prolonged time with oneself.
It is struggles like this that I believe have worked to bond my generation to one another, as most of our lives have been spent in social turmoil. Many of us were born before or right after the 9/11 attacks, we spent our young lives being told that our favorite animals would be extinct by the time that we had children, many of our parents lost their jobs in 2008, there have been environmental feats such as the condition of the Great Barrier Reef and now the pollution that is a residual of the pandemic. there has been immense political and social turmoil in the two most recent elections, and a plethora of other events that I truly do not have the time to list. There is a quote from Richard Kadrey’s novel, Aloha from Hell which reads, “When you’re born in a burning house, you think the whole world is on fire. But it’s not”. I think it accurately represents what growing up as a member of Gen Z has been like, thus the pandemic was simply more fuel to the fire and many individuals' only way to cope was to feel internally, and for some, to deconstruct the world around them.
For myself at least, I found myself succumbing to my self-destructive tendencies the most during the pandemic as it almost felt that the world was ending, so what was the point in playing nice? It was often easier to laugh off and treat this experience as if it were a sitcom, as if nothing that happened was tangible or real; however, that only works for a short period of time. Once the novelty of COVID comedy wore off, I was left with a deep sadness and anger at the state of the world. Like many of us, I wanted so badly to be able to change the way that things went, and to be able to save those who died both inwardly and outwardly and to be able to rewrite the narrative of society during this time. I guess one of the hard things about being a young person during a large historical event is that seldom are you able to participate in the larger discourse of society, and our opinions and feelings are often pushed aside or chalked up to being simply a young person’s trifles. In the pandemic, my peers and I were forced to learn how to advocate for both oneself and others, and in a way I think that we, as a generation, have become extremely strong and resilient as a result.
My peers and I are able to break the cycles carried out by our parents and for the first time, we are able to share a narrative that is ours alone, and articulates the loss of one’s younger years and experience at university through our own lens, and nobody can take that away from us.
I have never felt such immense love for the people around me, and for the peers that I have in my courses. I think the most beautiful part of this whole thing is the vulnerability and the authenticity of the human experience that has been felt universally, call me a hopeless romantic. Whilst I have never experienced such societal turmoil I have also never seen so many people stepping forward to help one another, to listen and to feel with each other; to try and find a place of unity and love amidst the chaos.
In a strange way, not being able to physically see and interact with one another made space to connect on a deeper level, conversations remaining below surface level. Whilst I do not know what many of my peers look like behind their masks, I do know what makes them love the art of language, and I know the names of the important people in their lives. I may not be able to describe to you their smiles but I could give you a long list of all the ways in which they are beautiful, and have inspired me to be a better person. I may not know who does or does not have braces or a mustache but I do know the pieces of literature that first made them feel human; the writers that grabbed their hand and said, “you don’t have to do this alone”. I may have been away from my friends for a year, and unable to occupy the same space as them but I have never for one moment doubted the love that we have for one another. I may have lost most of my college experience due to the pandemic but I also gained a group of friends that I know will stick through my side through anything (and yes, I do mean EVERYTHING).
Despite our inability to see and interact with one another, my community and peers have truly touched my life in so many ways that they are not even aware of and I can never thank them enough for helping me survive the last three years. If COVID has taught me anything, it is that when you love someone, you must always always voice it, because you don’t know when the opportunity may come again and in mere moments the outcome of the future may change drastically. And also, that everyone has a story, all you have to do is ask. With that sentiment in mind I wanted to say, I love you. Thank you for taking the time to listen to my narrative on my own college experience in the midst of the pandemic. Here is to actually loving each other this year, and for all times to come. Here is to asking those in our lives “How are you, really?”, and supporting them with an open heart.
Abby is a recent graduate in English Literature from Boise State University. After experiencingtwo of her three years of college during the global pandemic, she was inspired to create a narrative journal that detailed these experiences. Instagram: @abbyelizabethprice