In March 2021, I reported on what a post-pandemic life would look like at Quinnipiac University. What I found was a myriad of ideas, but what has stuck with me since was something a psychology professor told me about learning virtually during the pandemic.
“I think many people may have gotten comfortable with a smaller life,” said Clorinda Velez, associate professor of psychology, earlier this year.
Now, as we resume in-person classes on campus, I’m learning exactly what shedding that “smaller life” means and how difficult that can be.
I’m only in my second year at Quinnipiac. Which, if you do the math, means I’ve only ever been in college during a pandemic. Before a few weeks ago, I didn’t even know what a full college classroom felt like.
Whenever people ask me about being part of the generation who lost the best part of their youth — senior year of high school — I always tell them I’m one of the lucky ones. I got to move into college and have a relatively normal experience, when I know people who got none of that. But I would be lying if I pretended that relatively normal was just as good as regular normal.
Relatively normal meant I got to get involved on campus. I got to join the school newspaper and meet awesome people because of it. But relatively normal also meant I never got to actually see those people in person.
The smaller life I have led for the past year isn’t holding up anymore. We have in-person meetings for The Chronicle now, which is still super weird to me. While I know everyone on the editorial board, there are people I have only just met in person after knowing them from behind a screen for a year — which is extremely disorienting.
As someone who lives with social anxiety disorder, it would have been a lot easier to go on living a smaller life. A smaller life made transitioning to college a year ago a lot easier, but having to shed everything I came to know about that smaller life isn’t easy.
On the first day of classes, I woke up not feeling even the slightest bit nervous. I’ve done this before, I thought to myself. But then, as soon as I entered the quad, I realized this was nothing like anything before.
I had never seen so many people on campus. I was overwhelmed. Suddenly, it felt like the campus I had grown so accustomed to was not at all what I knew it as. It still feels that way weeks later — parking is scarcer, lines are longer and crowds are larger.
I often think about pandemic trauma. I think we all have it in some way, shape or form, and I think this is mine. I opened a whole new chapter of life that will permanently have an asterisk attached to it. That’s hard to grapple with sometimes. Should I have taken a gap year? Should I have stayed closer to home and commuted? There’s a lot that goes through my mind about this period of life. I don’t regret my choice to come to school mid-pandemic, but sometimes it’s difficult to process.
Whenever I think about the preceding year and its challenges, I feel guilty. I don’t have it bad by any stretch. There are families who have had to bury their loved ones because of COVID-19, and workers who have had to see that loss firsthand.
Though, the reality is that we’ve all lived through this pandemic. We all have pandemic trauma, whatever that looks like. Going off to college and starting a fragmented new chapter is mine. I try to remind myself that it’s OK to recognize that. It’s OK to recognize that your own pandemic trauma is just as valid as anyone else’s.
Moreover, we need to continue to remember that everyone has their own COVID-19 anguish. We need to remember to be compassionate about it. Everyone on this campus has had their own experience of this pandemic. There are freshmen with little memory of what it’s like to be maskless in a classroom. There are upperclassmen who long for what it once was. There are sophomores like me who are somewhere in the middle.
The more we move forward, the more we hopefully move closer to normal. But that doesn’t mean we should move away from what we’ve come up against. Whatever your pandemic trauma looks like, I hope you show yourself compassion for it. Your experiences are just as valid as everyone’s around you.