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Graduating College and Starting my Life in the Pandemic

Fiona Waters

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First things first, I won't pretend that I am suffering in this pandemic. I have a house, I am never hungry, and I don't personally know anyone who's caught COVID-19. I'm not immunocompromised, though I do have a few health conditions that would not mix well with coronavirus if I did catch it. My only living grandparent spends the majority of his time safe at his partner's house. My student loans are delayed (for now) and I even have enough free time to surf the Internet or read a book every once in a while. The changes -- really, the minor inconveniences -- that I have to face to social isolate are worth it if they save someone's life.

"Starting my life" was simply delayed. To me, this year is like another year of teenagerdom - living in the house I've lived in my whole life, sleeping in my bedroom that's still covered with Adventure Time posters from before college, having no reason to leave the house, and not being able to get a job. That doesn't mean I can't be angry, though, or talk about how I'm one of the significant number of people experiencing depressive symptoms during this time.

I made it through the most frantic part of quarantine. By now, most places have figured out how to go virtual or keep crowds down. I am fortunate enough to have a laptop, a stable Internet connection, and a desk, making me eligible for many new opportunities, but many jobs are still in-person. I'm worried I'll have to take one.

One of the worst parts of this situation is the feeling of powerlessness. I can't make money to donate to groups that will do the work I'm unable to, and I can't take time away from looking for a job to make any big changes (in society, or even around me). It helps to keep in mind that this situation will end one day. There will be a widespread vaccine, though it will likely be many months into the future. Until then, all anyone can do is get their opinion to the people in charge and do their best to keep others safe with masks, frequent hand washing, and social distancing.

The Months of March and April

Panic. The last day I was at school was March 13th, when I took a plane home for spring break. I had Amtrak tickets, but my friend was visiting. He offered to drive me to the airport instead. The days leading up to that were quiet. Professors said, "take your school materials home with you... just in case, super precautionary, only as a last resort." I was lucky to have arrived at the airport early, because my bag was 20 pounds over the limit, filled with thick textbooks and my entire wardrobe. It gave me time to take out half of what I had packed so that I could carry it around in my arms. Props to the cashier at the Good 2 Go in the airport, who saw that I needed a gigantic bag when I had only bought a pack of Skittles. I will never forget the weekend before that, when I was visiting a friend at her house in Delaware. I joked that I didn't want to go back to school.

We were told the day before spring break that it had been extended by a week. Two weeks into spring break, my school informed me we were not returning to in-person classes. One of my jobs directly relied on me interacting with technology provided by the school, including the sewing machine, VR headsets, laser cutter, and 3D printers. We wouldn't have Commencement, had our housing ripped away from us, and we somehow had to continue lab courses over Zoom. As an out-of-state student, the campus community was my only community, and two months ahead of schedule, I was cut off from it. Then, I was informed in April that the summer internships I applied to had been canceled.

Julia Kopala, undergraduate class of 2020, brought up an excellent point: some students didn't even have a place to return home to. Travel from the U.S. was blocked for a number of countries, stranding international students. They were at least allowed to stay until early May; my dorm was packed up by a professional service so that international students could live in my residence hall. (The service threw out my plant and a large amount of brand new food which I would have kept, but at least I didn't have to pack up my own room.) Some students, however, lived on campus because living at home was not an option. It was either unsafe or simply didn't exist. I went back to my home in the suburbs of Chicago while a number of students who couldn't go home stayed on campus -- until they were kicked out with just two day's notice, with no assistance in finding housing.

Finishing your undergraduate degree from your living room couch is actually pretty normal for some people. The issue I had was that I was paying for a semester where I could use my school's library, dining areas, and research facilities. I was paying for events, club meetings, and interactions with the community. Some of the cost of my housing was refunded, which was the least they could do, but I and many others were charged for a full semester that only lasted from January 21st to March 13th. The other issue I had was that I had taken the previous semester off.

From late July of 2019 to January 21st, I was doing one thing: sitting at home, recovering from surgery. I can count on my fingers the things I did. In October, I presented at an academic conference in Louisville and in November, I spent two days in the city so that I could attend two shows at the Chicago Theater. I also worked for 10 hours a week by taking a bus and then walking to a nearby university. Outside of those events, I was sitting at home, doing a lot of what I'm doing now. That time was better, actually, because I had a job and could take vacations. In January, I finally returned to school, and in March, I went home again.

May - September

In May, the summer job I had lined up (as a camp counselor for STEM curriculum) was eliminated when the organization shut down its programs. I'm not eligible for the stimulus check, because I still count as a dependent. I have been unable to get a job, despite applying to a few positions every week. I have nowhere to drive to or walk to. My entire existence is sitting in my bed, working on cover letters and graduate school essays all day, and not finishing them.

These months are clumped together because they are all the same. Nothing was different from when I finished classes April 30th to September. In my search for remote internships, I did come across WITI and was happy to join the team in late May. That, and my cat being diagnosed with diabetes in August, are the only notable events in this time. I'll just tell you what my week looks like, because they have all been so similar.

Sundays are for doing nothing productive. I microwave leftovers, I keep a water bottle by my bed, and I only get up to eat and use the bathroom. The rest of the day is streaming shows on my laptop, playing video games, and listening to podcasts.

Monday through Friday are when I pretend I'm going to get back on track with my life. I wake up to my 9 am alarm, turn it right back off, and go to sleep. When I wake up again, I usually have about 5 or 6 hours of daylight left in which I am capable of functioning. If you've ever watched The Legend of Korra, I identify with Varrick who says "I'm really only productive for about 15 minutes a day, usually in the afternoon, around 3:45." In a normal world, this wouldn't be #quirky #relatable. It's a real problem that's preventing me from getting things done when I want to. The only reason I am able to continue behaving this way is because so many other people are (and must), too.

Even when I schedule tasks out on my calendar, I am incapable of sticking to it. In these 5 or 6 hours, I have a list of tasks I should complete, organized by priority. They are typically in the categories of Job Hunt: checking Linked-In and Indeed, working on cover letters, WITI: writing an article, uploading YouTube videos, or writing copy, and Social: video chatting with a friend who is also sad and lonely.

It gets dark at about 6 pm now that we're almost in winter. I have decided this is Late and The Night Time, and so I can't do anymore work. I have never been so jealous of those with full-time jobs or who are doing virtual classes for school, not because of their income, but because of the consistent schedule that forces them to manage their time.

Saturdays are my "everything" days. I like to be productive for a little while on Saturdays (because I wasted so much time during the week), but also because it feels good to choose to work on that day when I don't really have to be. Yes, my threshold for exhilarating is extremely low. If I don't want to work, I clean my room, reorganize the junk drawer in the kitchen, or go withdraw $10 from the bank. Sometimes my mom and I visit a forest preserve, pick up take-out, or watch a movie. The past few Saturday evenings have been party game nights, where my friends and I will all join a voice call and play the Jackbox Party Pack or another online game together.

The Month of October

I feel like I didn't do a single thing. I'm in the process of applying to graduate school and thought it would be easier this year than any other year before -- I have so much freetime! And I do, but it keeps me from being motivated. I wanted to be done with applications by October. It looks like I'll be working on them straight up until their deadlines. I am told that I don't need to be worried about submitting them early, but I definitely am.

What happens is, I wake up every day, dead set on completing an essay or submitting an application. By the time I've eased myself out of bed by watching a YouTube video, watched something else while I'm eating breakfast, taken a post-breakfast break to do my Animal Crossing chores, and then run my real life errands, it's 2 pm. (Someone who is good at the economy please help me budget this.) So, I open my statement, write a sentence or two, and then decide I deserve another break. I work on some things for my WITI internship, grab a snack, go on my Twitter, and then it's 6 pm, which, as you know, is The Night Time. I'm done for the day.

I do try all of the advice: only doing work at my desk, spending the day in another room, using the Pomodoro study method, sticking to a consistent bedtime... They work for me for a little while, which I think makes them worth trying out. People who aren't me might have more success keeping up with them. The biggest problem I have is, if I ignore my alarm or eat a sandwich in front of my computer, it doesn't hurt anyone. If I'm bad at managing my time, there are essentially zero consequences. By December 1st, the deadline for my applications, we'll find out if that method worked for me or not.

Future

Eight months into this, I have settled on something I would call my routine, but it's not something I'm happy with. It's what I'm capable of right now, maybe physically because I can't go anywhere, but mostly mentally. It's hard to gauge one day to the next if I'm not doing enough or if I'm doing too much. (For those of you saying, "it's impossible to do too much," I see you have never forgotten to eat because you were working, or have never had an emotional breakdown because you were so busy.)

Halloween happened without my friends, without parties, and without costumes. That, I can get over easily. My friends and I played Halloween-themed online games and bought candy for ourselves. What's going to hurt is having Thanksgiving without my family. "It just means there's no pressure," my mom says. There will be no pressure to cook something everyone will like, no pressure to get all the food ready on time, and also, no family.

Thanksgiving is the holiday when I see family who I only see on Thanksgiving. At best, I can hope for a Zoom call with everyone. More than likely, I'll just miss out on spending time with them for another year. I guess that isn't a huge deal, right? Except that's also the case for Christmas and New Year's. It better not be the case for Easter, but it's looking that way.

At the beginning of this, introverts rejoiced. Heck, we were used to and even energized by not being around large crowds. Studies are showing, though, that introverts are having a harder time than extraverts with social isolation. The simple reason for this, I believe, is that the rare moments introverts are social, it must be with others we are close to. Extraverts can operate without being surrounded by their best friends. They have lived their entire lives going out to bars, playing basketball with strangers at the park, and exploring cities they have never traveled to before. They're used to the novel. They're used to being in unfamiliar situations. Us introverts, on the other hand, might only venture out in public if we're surrounded by a couple of close friends. Our social network is our source of confidence.

To be fair, this is a gross generalization; we're all hurting in this pandemic. I don't like to play the Oppression Olympics, which is why, even though I am writing from a place of privilege and of safety, I still have things to say.

What Do I Do?

Unfortunately, if you came here for advice, I have none to offer. I know, I literally just said I have things to say. Right now, I set schedules and don't stick to them. I make plans and end up abandoning them. Even just trying to spend the day in my living room, I normally end up spending it at my desk in my bedroom. Forget leaving the house. I take a 30 minute drive Tuesday and Thursday to my 45 minute speech therapy session (related to the surgery I was recovering from), and that's it.

My only advice is the advice I got when I took a semester off of school to recover. First, do your best. A poetry class I took in college, taught by Professor Meg Day, was founded on the imagery of The Creation of Adam. The idea in your head is represented by God and Adam's fingers touching, but they never touch. Written poetry, and reality, are that space in between. It's splitting the difference between the ideal you imagine and reality. I set my schedule starting at 9 am like God and Adam's fingers touching, and wake up at 11 am in between them.

Second, use this time to plan your next move. Figure out what you want and lay out the steps you need to take to get there. Many people don't have this time. They need to find a job immediately or they won't be able to pay rent. They have to attend classes that they agreed to take in summer before realizing they would still be virtual.

In a year marred by racial, environmental, political, and health catastrophes, just living is an accomplishment. For me, social isolation, business closures, and working from home are only temporary. When a vaccine becomes widespread, I'll be able to get a job, move, and own a cat farm like I've always dreamed. For a number of people, though, the effects of our leaders mismanaging this crisis are permanent -- in many cases, lethal. Hopefully, we won't just view this year as a blip. This moment you (and myself) might be privileged enough to forget is someone else's healthcare crisis, someone's fight for racial justice, or someone's house on fire. Don't view this as "wasted time." View it as a catalyst. Whatever you do after this, consider how you can use it to help others.

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