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My So-Called College Years

As COVID restrictions recede, a UCLA senior begins to comprehend what she has lost. By Sydney Lester.

At the beginning of March 2020, I was finishing up a phone interview for a university program that sends college students to other countries to teach English.

“Have you heard of coronavirus? Is this something that might make you hesitate to travel?”

Not at all, I said confidently. Crises were for faraway places. The business of morning newscasters and doomsday preppers.

By the end of that month, I was not so confident—at least not about travel. Lockdown had commenced, and there loomed some dread of catching COVID. But I remained naively optimistic. An extended Spring break? Can’t complain about that.

The realization that the pandemic would not just impact but define this era of most people’s lives did not truly hit me until I was back home in the suburbs of Los Angeles, sitting in my childhood bedroom the night before Fall quarter was set to begin—online. A part of me had clung to the hope that newscasters had exaggerated the severity of the crisis for fear of COVID actually taking a turn for the worst. Since long before the pandemic, they’d been telling us that civil war was nigh, California was overdue for the big one, and to look out for nukes from North Korea—but so far, so good.

But COVID, as it turned out, was more tangible—and imminent. Now was time to abandon expectations and adjust to a new normal. A normal that includes death counts, chronic loneliness, and a lot of takeout.

Almost three years later, I am a rising senior in college. I never did participate in that program I had interviewed for, and I have attended exactly one fully in-person class since March of 2020. Several professors for hybrid-style classes that I’ve taken recently stopped offering in-person lectures because so few students would show up. I’ll admit I have woken up, joined a Zoom class to get participation credit, turned my camera off, and immediately fallen back asleep—more than once. Later I would listen to the recording.

The majority of the memories I have from the second half of my freshman year, the entirety of my sophomore year, and much of my junior year are pixelated and nondescript, largely consisting of me staring at screens until my vision went blurry, losing my mind a little because two years deep into this people still forget to mute themselves, and checking the news for updates on COVID, climate change, the ever-volatile state of American politics, and/or the end of the world.

Looking back at my college experiences, I feel a sense of loss that I did not experience at the time. It was impossible to follow The New York Times daily COVID tracker without feeling fortunate. An awareness of my good fortune was also reinforced by my employment during the pandemic at a teen residential treatment facility, a temporary home to adolescents whose fragile senses of security were often shattered by the increase of stress and isolation. Here, it became clear to me that even without exposure to the virus, the impacts of COVID had the potential to be life-threatening, and that the indirect loss of life to the pandemic is likely beyond quantification. One of the most frightening symptoms of the pandemic is our growing numbness to the still-rising number of lives COVID has taken prematurely.

During those gray years, my academics actually improved (thanks, I suppose, to all my newfound free time). I was never furloughed from my job. And nobody close to me died. Nevertheless, a part of me is saddened, and I often wonder what might have been had the world not been reduced to my hometown and a cast of two-dimensional characters during what was supposed to be my triumphant coming-of-age arc.

I worry the experience altered the way I connect with others, and that it must have been apparent during my recent debut in the professional world that masks and computer screens have become a social safety net for me. At times, in-person interaction feels incredibly vulnerable, and I almost miss being able to disappear by turning my camera off.

I fear my sense of optimism has been tempered by the feeling that I should be preparing for worst-case scenarios, that life will always be marked with instability. I never lived in a fantasy world. From high school English class, I knew all about the chronic disillusionment that plagues America (thank you, Death of a Salesman). But this feels different. The society-wide wave of exhaustion and pessimism has left me, in some ways, divorced, 45-years old, and working a dead-end job at the age of 21.

Still, being a college student during COVID was not a tragedy. Nor was it a hardship that will define my life. It was a tough time to transition into adulthood—both scary and boring—but it also presented unexpected opportunities for connection and growth. The impact is also lessening with the passage of time. My most recent quarter at UCLA reminded me that the new normal was preceded by an old one.

COVID will undoubtably leave a lasting impression, for better or for worse. Yet, if anything was accomplished during the pandemic, my peers and I have proven our capacity to adapt and persevere through uncertain and frightening circumstances. And while hard earned, these traits will serve us well.

Other Summer ’22 Brunswick Interns on COVID and College

Elise Luoma, Graduate of the University of Alabama & Intern in Brunswick’s Dallas office:
COVID resulted in both a social and an academic loss for me. My freshman and senior year were the only times I attended school fully in person, so sometimes, four years feels like two. During other moments, it felt like 12, because of the loneliness and sudden changes caused by the pandemic. Even after returning to campus, I felt a continuous impact on the remainder of my college years. College truly became “Zoom University,” as my days consisted of entering and exiting online meetings and spending time with my roommate 24/7 (good thing we got along). Meeting new people and going to football games took a long pause, and it became normal for my Friday nights to be spent participating in virtual events. Engaging in my courses and comprehending the material well was a challenge, especially during my junior year.

Paige Pedrero, Student at Brown University & Intern in Brunswick’s San Francisco office:
During my freshman year, classes were conducted synchronously on Zoom as well as asynchronously through recorded lectures. I felt that the quality of my learning suffered greatly. It was very difficult to pay attention in classes, I was not able to connect with my professors, it was more difficult to understand the material because it was harder to ask questions, and I did not get to meet my peers in person, which made collaboration on assignments difficult. When in-person classes resumed my sophomore year, it made a world of difference.

Mark Schueler, Graduate of Purdue University & Intern in Brunswick’s Chicago office:
The loss was almost entirely academic. I found that I had more time for social activities because the academic aspect of college became redundant and less intrusive into my life. I was taking a handful of asynchronous courses and they didn’t feel like normal classes to me. I also went to school in a state that returned fairly quickly to pre-pandemic norms, so I only felt the effects of “COVID school” for my junior year. I think the biggest emotional toll the pandemic took on me was that I was worried that my college experience wouldn’t be what I expected because I watched friends in the year above me have nothing close to what it should have been. That said, my senior year (2021-2022) was as close to “normal” college as I thought it would be with in-person classes, sporting events and general campus life.

Isabelle Wood, Graduate of Williams College & Intern in Brunswick’s San Francisco office:
The detrimental impact that COVID had on my college experience was multidimensional. I was supposed to study abroad my junior year, but government restrictions meant I spent much of the year at home in the States. It was difficult to make new friends when social interactions were often fraught with fears of infection or were downright prohibited. Several rites of passage during sophomore, junior and senior years were lost due to the pandemic, excluding my generation of students from several traditions which had, in some cases, been around for centuries. Further, I prioritized classes based on factors—such as whether it would be taught in person—rather than based on academic or personal interest, which I think is a loss. That being said, the unique stressors of being a college student in the midst of a pandemic brought about friendships I could not imagine my life without, and forced me to reevaluate my priorities.

Over the course of this last year, my senior year, I felt at times as if my college was overly cautious and not keeping what was best for students at the top of the agenda. I grew increasingly frustrated with the ways in which I felt like my social interactions were being micromanaged by school administration.

The Acceleration Issue_ college years_Sydney Lester

Sydney Lester is a former intern for Brunswick Group and currently a senior at UCLA.