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Credit: Liliann Zou

In the winter of my senior year of high school, every checkbox on the Common Application felt like the be-all and end-all of my entire life. I was obsessed with crafting the perfect college experience. At the end of my four years, I wanted to be able to fondly look back and remember my first foray into independence: navigating through a journey of self discovery, partying on lively and laughter-filled weekends, and meeting new friends from around the world.

But just a few months later, that all seemed inconsequential. I waved goodbye to my friends one day, took the bus home from school, and never returned. The next months were clouded in a horrible, surreal haze. I watched as the nation grappled with the grim realities of COVID-19: lockdowns, personal protective equipment and treatment shortages, economic collapse, terror, loss. Life felt static — I received my diploma in the mail one day, creased in a flimsy FedEx envelope. It took me a week to even process that I had graduated.

By June, I had begrudgingly accepted that I had lost the end of my senior year, but I had never quite grappled with the possibility of losing my first year of college as well. So Penn’s announcement of an online fall semester, just days before our move-in, shocked me into reality. Waking up every day in my childhood bedroom and attending lectures on my phone was perhaps the furthest thing from the college experience I had always imagined. The best parts of college that I had eagerly anticipated were gone, yet the worst parts remained: I received unbearable amounts of work, struggled to meet deadlines, and could barely pay attention to lectures. Staring at my computer for upwards of 12 hours a day was both mentally and physically exhausting. Just a few weeks into the start of my first semester, I was ready to give up.

In the spring, many students moved back on campus, but little changed — in many ways, being on campus has been even more isolating. Countless tour guides will tell you how to prepare for college, but no one tells you how to prepare for college in the middle of a pandemic — and Penn certainly didn’t help. Already notorious for neglecting students’ mental health, Penn took away fall break and most of spring break, our only solace in a stress-filled year (but, thank goodness, we received pillowcases). In the absence of New Student Orientation and other first-year events, we were largely left to fend for ourselves with barely any campus activities — and those that we did have were either online or socially distant in person. However, those willing to risk others’ lives to attain that quintessential “first-year experience” carelessly partied, seemingly causing positivity rates to soar — with, at one point, over 1,000 students in quarantine or isolation. Other first years, unable to handle the crushing isolation, moved back home.

In the midst of the isolation and monotony, I found the excitement I had over attending college — and my love for Penn — quickly dissipating. We were promised support and community, but all we got were red PennOpen Passes and S.I.Q. meals. Watching my vision of a perfect college experience melt away into something unrecognizable was dejecting — how was I to justify the four years worth of hard work and sleepless nights that I had invested into my future when college felt like a glorified $70,000 FaceTime call? As a first year, I don’t even know what college could be like — my touchstone for higher education was mainly defined by a computer screen.

It’s hard to give justice in one column to all that our class went through this past year. We all lost — some more than others. But more than a year after our lives came to a halt, the future is still in limbo. The country is rolling out vaccination programs, and cases seem to be going down, but it’s clear that the world is going to be very different and will be defined by a post-pandemic reality

So, Class of 2024, where do we go from here? How do we orient ourselves in a constantly changing world, and how do we work towards a future when we have no idea what the future will look like? COVID-19 has reshaped and redefined us, and it’s clear that the past year will stay with us forever. So, yes, maybe we won’t ever know what that coveted college experience really is — but we can create our own. Moving forward, we can work to craft a stronger community — one where Penn puts our well-being first (pandemic or not), and one where we are not divided by competition, but bolstered by our shared experiences. The future is uncertain, and undoubtedly imperfect, but it’s ours to shape.

TAJA MAZAJ is a College first year from King of Prussia, Pa. Her email is tajam@sas.upenn.edu.

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