Reassessing College Expectations Amid COVID-19

COVID-19 restricts what we can do, the number of people we can see, and places we can go. During my first few weeks at Oberlin College, these restrictions felt suffocating. It took me quite some time to release my expectations of college — club activities, school events, the freedom to roam the campus mask- and distance-free. But as soon as I let those ideas go, experiences opened up in ways I never imagined. If my freshman year of college — pandemic edition — taught me one thing, it is that expectations dictate how we experience situations. 

Taking classes using a strange app, Zoom (a word I seldom used until March 2020 and now say it every day), having access to a limited number of campus buildings, and eating meals cross-legged on the grass through late November obliterated all of the fantasies of college that I had spent the past year crafting. 

Weirdly, my initial disappointments blossomed into appreciation. Reflecting now, I’m realizing that my appreciation stems from the fact that life took on a much slower pace. With no events on the weekends, my friends and I would spend Saturday mornings ambling to Blue Rooster Bakehouse for apple fritters and then over to Slow Train for steaming lattes. Wandering past Tappan Square, someone would suggest that we sit under the fiery fall trees to eat our breakfast, and everyone would respond, “Sure!” We had nothing else to do. Without so many things to rush off to, our days invented themselves in real-time. At first, I would wake up apprehensive of the looming empty calendar ahead, but eventually I became excited. It was like each day contained a little surprise embedded in it that would reveal itself at some unexpected hour. 

There were hard parts too. 

In the beginning, I felt the clock tick as I tried to make friends, especially since it seemed like once people found a small group they stuck together. Formal “pods” were not a thing per ObieSafe, but informal ones formed naturally. I feel for introverts because this semester did not cater to them. The restrictions for events, activities, and in-person classes meant there were practically no structured social engagements. Instead, social engagements had to be self-initiated, and that can be hard to do.

Then there was Zoom. It takes tremendous self-restraint and concentration to not get distracted by email or something in the room during online school. And I now know that attending class in bed is a bad idea — I learned that the hard way after falling asleep one time. I’ve learned I am a better student in the presence of other students. Personally, I focus much better in my in-person classes, physically surrounded by my peers and professors, without a bed in sight. 

While mask-wearing was a hassle, it also got me thinking about how appearance affects our conceptions of other people. I only saw others’ full faces while eating with them. Each time I’m shocked by how different their faces look in reality compared to how my mind had recreated them. The first time I saw the faces of my ExCo classmates, only a couple weeks remained before we went home. Someone brought a snack to share one day and everyone lowered their masks to eat. It was jarring — I felt like I knew these people, but I found that I had no idea what they looked like. Later, this thought comforted me, for it proved that appearance is the tiniest aspect of our identities. It made me think how attached we humans are to appearance, and how images have a powerful hold on our minds. Wearing masks was kind of a test in connecting to people on a spiritual and emotional level first and foremost. 

When imagining college life last year, I saw images, but I didn’t feel emotions or envision experiences. I’m grateful for the slower pace of life this semester. It forced me to readjust my expectations and appreciate the simple things that often gave me surprising satisfaction.