The Life of a University Student During the 2020 Pandemic

As I unwrapped the Christmas gift from my father, a looming sense of dread came over me. I knew what this “gift” was. I lifted up the blue crewneck sweater and absorbed the words in huge white lettering: ZOOM UNIVERSITY CLASS OF 2020.

“Wow, thank you!” I said with a painfully fake smile.”

“You’re welcome honey, I thought it was funny and you can use it to always remember this crazy year!”

I don’t need a sweater to remember. The effects of the Coronavirus pandemic will be etched in my mind forever, like a permanent tattoo I was promised was temporary.

In March of 2020, I was sent home from university. As I made the 16 hour drive home alone, I began to panic – what did this mean for my future? Would my school friends and I still talk while thousands of miles away?

Was I going to lose the me I had spent the last three years building?

The answer, I’ve come to learn, is that I’m living in a gray area. An unmarked landscape without a guidebook. Nobody had the answers I so desperately needed and they still don’t. I suppose that’s what growing up means: realizing everyone is just kind of winging it all the time.

Except this time we’re all winging it during a pandemic, so the stakes are a little higher. But what’s unique about this emotional matrix is that hundreds of thousands of other college students are doing it with me. There’s a unique sense of community and camaraderie in the fact that all of our plans have been put on hold indefinitely. And with that, it feels as if our identities have been put on hold too.

It took me many months to realize that we’re all experiencing collective grieving. We’re mourning the lives we had and looked forward to having. It is so rare that a communal grief occurs on this scale, the last I can remember being 9/11 (I was 1), and it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is the tragedy that will unite my generation forever. With that comfort, knowing we’re all going through it together, is the awareness and guilt that we’re not all experiencing the pandemic the same way.

So many of my peers have lost family members and friends due to this virus; their grieving is not symbolic. There are thousands of students with unsafe home environments or food scarcity, and their life is filled with much more hardship than mine. That duality of comfort and guilt is the hardest for me to process during this time.

Being in your early 20’s is already filled with so many cycles of growth and regression, but being 20 in the 2020’s has been a crash course in life.

This unifying experience has brought me and my best friends even closer, even if all I get is their faces in little boxes on my screen. I treasure my time with them so much more than I ever did. Those real, honest, layered friendships have made me feel less alone in isolation. I even feel that my friends and I have been even more honest with each other about mental health than we ever have before. Feelings of depression, fear, grief, anger, pity, worry, and unexpected bouts of joy unite us on a level we hadn’t previously experienced.

With that, I’ve found that my social media has been flooded with resources and posts about mental health during this time. While I’m sad it took a global pandemic to destigmatize mental health care, I’m so grateful my 20’s will be filled with a community of care and respect.

All that said, 2020 has been filled with confusion and cognitive dissonance. In an attempt to comfort me, every adult over the age of 25 has said the same thing:

“I feel so bad for you, you’re missing out on the best years of your life!”

For a while, I believed them. I yearned for the days where I’d dance on tables and do shotskis with my friends again. The reality is, I’d never done those things. Not even close. But I could have! And now those years are gone! Mourning a life I never even lived proved to be detrimental to my mental health and my friendships. Feeling nostalgia for memories that weren’t mine led to a pretty large identity crisis.

2020 friends
Illustration by Natascha Baumgärtner

I ended up pulling away from my friends. It was my attempt to memorialize what we had pre-pandemic and will never have again.

The truth is, I think, that we will all be inevitably and wholly changed by this experience. We have spent all 2020 mourning and grieving and cycling through various phases of existence.

But I have to believe that this intense period of self-realization at the age of 20 will only lead to a following decade of deeply meaningful relationships, beautifully emotional experiences, and even more personal growth.

And you know what… I will wear the Zoom University 2020 sweater! Ironically, of course.

Alexandra Miller