“So what are you going to do, man?”
It was July. I was standing in a neighbor’s garden, talking on the phone to my friend Ryan through my headphones. We had both recently graduated from Friends’ Central, a Quaker private school outside Philadelphia. Two weeks prior, I had received my graduation cap and gown in the mail. I was sweating hard; it was hot out, and I was squatting in a sunbaked flower bed, pulling up a creeping vetch.
“I think I’m gonna go,” I said, standing up and tossing a handful of wilting weeds into the yard waste bin beside me. “No matter what happens, it’ll be nice to get out of here, right?”
“Well, it’ll be a lot of fun to be there together,” Ryan said.
I could hear the hopefulness in his voice. I felt it too. I had felt it for the past four months, since that sunny Monday morning in mid-March, the first really nice day of the year, when our high school announced that we would be moving to virtual learning until April 9. I remember being appalled at this date, and later watched it slide by without incident as the school decided to extend virtual learning to the end of the year. By this time, Ryan and I had both matriculated into Wesleyan. I had applied Early Decision in November and learned that I had been accepted in early December. My eagerness to go had been escalating ever since. My brother, who is six years my elder, graduated from Vassar College in 2018. Ever since I visited him for the first time, I’d been longing to have my own college experience.
However, with the threat of coronavirus at an all-time high, case numbers setting records in almost every state, and hospitalizations and deaths increasing at an alarming rate, a question persisted in the back of my mind as colleges prepared to reopen: How on earth was this going to work? I felt overwhelmed as I learned about Wesleyan’s official plan for returning in the fall. Students would be required to wear masks in all facilities, except while in their dorm room or with their assigned cohort. Most first-year classes that I would be interested in taking were either entirely online or were lab-based courses, which were planned to meet in a hybrid setting. There would be no intramural or intercollegiate sports. There was no official word on the possibility of student theater productions taking place. Every single plan was subject to change as the state of the pandemic in the U.S. continued to fluctuate.
With this information, I, along with many other students, was forced to make an incredibly difficult decision. For me, there were only two options. The first would be to attend school as “normal,” with the knowledge that the carefully constructed plan of the University could change completely upon arrival. This level of uncertainty terrified me. It was possible that within the first few weeks of school opening, a COVID-19 outbreak would force the University to send every student home and continue the semester remotely. It was possible that, upon arrival, I would test positive for COVID-19 and be forced to isolate for two weeks or more, in a completely new place, 200 miles from home. It was possible that I would be terribly sickened by the virus and potentially even hospitalized.
The other option would be to defer my admission, either until the spring semester or for an entire year. Keep in mind that for me and for most other high school graduates around the country, this option was not at the top of our lists. We had just spent nearly five months in our parents’ houses without socializing, attending parties, spending time with our friends, or doing any of the things that an average 18-year-old would do during their senior summer. Our proms were canceled, our senior weeks endlessly postponed, our athletic seasons cut short, and our graduations held virtually. Staying at home for another six months and continuing this routine as the days got shorter and the weather colder was pretty much the last thing anyone wanted to do. In all my conversations with friends during those few crucial weeks in July, the general feeling was the same among everyone I spoke to: “I’ve got to get out of here.”
On the other end of the phone, I heard Ryan sigh.
“I should probably go,” I told him, tossing another handful of weeds into the bin. “Talk later?”
“Sounds good man. Let me know what you decide,” he said, and a few seconds later, I heard my music turn back on in my headphones.
Almost eight months after this conversation, I am sitting in my dorm room and working on this essay for The Argus. I deferred admission for the fall semester, but am fully in the swing of college life and am thrilled to be on campus for the spring semester. For most people, attending college is not about going to wild frat parties, or about going to classes and studying intently for hours on end. While those two things are undoubtedly important to some, the true magic of college to me is living in a world where I am accountable to no one but myself. The thing that appeals to me most about college is falling into a new routine that is entirely my own, making relationships, and exploring a new home for the first time in 18 years. And though I will miss the more traditional aspects of a college experience made impossible by COVID-19, at least we all get a good story to tell. At the end of the day, isn’t that what college is all about?
Thad Bashaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org