Losing my College Experience to a Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has caused high school and college students to miss out on some of the best times of their lives.

When I first sat down to start working on this article, I tried thinking of the lessons that I’ve learned from a year in a pandemic and what pearls of wisdom I might be able to share to fellow students on how to make the most of their current situation. But the reality is, the past 12 months have been devastating, and the last thing that any of us students want to read is another article trying to give advice on how to navigate these circumstances.

Seniors missed out on graduation, incoming freshmen missed out on getting their typical dorm experience, and everyone else in between missed out on opportunities to make the most of their fleeting high school/college years. Many are struggling with mental health for the first time, as the relentless demands of academics worsen feelings of anxiety brought on by our isolation and lack of interactions.

Some of us have dealt with the loss of family members and didn’t even have the chance to say good-byes because of the ever-present threat of COVID. Our experiences during the pandemic may vary from person-to-person, but one thing is certain: this has been a season marred by pain and loss, and though we may be inching closer to exiting the pandemic, there isn’t anything that can make up for what we’ve gone through.

As I tried to identify the most difficult part of the pandemic for me, I thought back to one Saturday morning during my freshman year of high school where my frosh basketball team had a sluggish loss against Glendale High School. After most losses, we’d get an earful from our coaches, but this time, our assistant coach calmly addressed us and gave us a reminder that has stuck with me to this day. Beyond the game of basketball, she warned us not to take anything for granted because the four years of high school were going to go by before we knew it.

Five years later, as I approach the end of my second year of college, I’m reminded once again how short our time at college is. I remember moving into my dorm back in August 2019 and saying goodbye to my parents as if it were yesterday. I have vivid memories of all the times during freshman year when my roommates would leave our ice trays empty, or when I would go line dancing or stargazing with my friends until 2 in the morning. I’d like to think that I made the most of my two quarters at college, but this is where the pandemic has brought me the most pain; it has robbed me, and all other students, of the opportunity to live these frighteningly short four years to the fullest.

This year was supposed to be the start of my Nikkei Student Union at my school, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. After an exhausting year of planning last year and not being able to start officially meeting as a club, we were excited to launch this year and see all of our hard work come to fruition. It’s still been one of the highlights of my year seeing our chapter grow, but a large part of me mourns the idea of what this year could’ve been had we been together in person.

My Nikkei Student Union board for the 2019-2020 school year.

There were so many other things that I was looking forward to for this year. I was going to be leading a small group in my Christian fellowship, my intramural basketball team was set to avenge our second-place defeat from last year and win a championship, and I was ready for all of the spontaneous adventures and memories to come. 

I couldn’t stop complaining when the pandemic first began, and it’s still easy to fixate on how much I’ve missed out on because of the circumstances. However, my sister, who missed out on her high school graduation and freshman dorm experience, has always been quick to remind me that there are others who have it worse. Many have lost much more than their college or high school experience, including the loss of loved ones, jobs, and more. I remember this isn’t just a problem I’m enduring alone; we are all struggling and trying to find ways to cope with these difficult times.

In a way, there can almost be a loose parallel drawn between the pandemic and the camp experience for our grandparents and great-grandparents during WWII. In drawing this comparison, I acknowledge that I can’t do so without recognizing our privilege and how fortunate we are to still have our lives largely intact. The complete upheaval of their lives and the utter discrimination that they faced brought so much more pain and suffering than we could even begin to imagine. However, both have been generation-defining events that have disrupted our lives.

I’m not one to tell others to try and emulate the perseverance our ancestors showed because personally, the pandemic has been a repeated cycle of self-defeating behaviors. It’s so easy to lose motivation to stay in touch with others or to stay on top of our academics when we’re isolated and it feels like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.

Photo Credit: Discover Nikkei, War Relocation Authority

However, there is some comfort in knowing that our ancestors were able to make it through their circumstances. When people reflect on their time in camp, you can always sense the resilience that Japanese Americans had in being able to push through their circumstances. They made life tolerable, and to some extent, enjoyable. Many of my grandparents’ memories in camp include times of them ice skating during wintertime at Heart Mountain, doing the jitterbug at school dances, and playing cards for hours. They had every reason to lose hope and dwell in their circumstances, but they chose to gaman and make the best of their situation.

The comfort is in knowing we bear the same spirit of resilience as them. We might not be enclosed within barbed wire fences, but we are facing hardships of our own. This has been a season of unparalleled difficulties for many of us, but we aren’t alone in our struggles. Everyone is trying to fight their way through the pandemic, and we will get through these times one way or another. It’s simply up to us to dictate how the remainder of this season will be.

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February 2021

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